Leadership and Echolocation

How to lead when regular systems to signal others aren’t working

by Kimberly Smith

[4 minute read]


In the movie Finding Dory, the genius of Disney Pixar introduces us to the character of Bailey. Bailey is a Baluga Whale. He is in the Marine Life Institute for treatment and rehabilitation because he thinks his echo-locator is broken. (It turns out that his sonar skills are actually working fine – he just has some personal trauma to overcome and some emotions to process to allow him to be the best version of himself.)

Echolocation or bio sonar is where an animal sends out a call and listens for the echoes. The animal then measures the pitch and timing of the returning noise to locate and identify the objects around them. In this way they are able to forage, hunt and navigate their way through space. Incredibly, visually impaired humans have also been known to develop the skill.

Essentially, we all use a form of bio sonar to make our way through life. We are constantly sending out and receiving signals as a way to locate ourselves – in our families, workplaces and communities. We ‘ping’ out to the people around us and measure the sound they send back to help us to measure our effectiveness and understand how we are being experienced by other people.

Feedback and review are classic examples of this in a more formal sense but ultimately, we are constantly measuring, assessing, recalibrating, and orienting ourselves by what is ‘pinging’ back.

The reality of this Covid season – marked by various stages of remote working, isolation and restricted gatherings – is that many of our mechanisms for echolocation have been removed or limited.

Recently, I was asked to preach for a church in our network. It’s one of the things I love most about my job – the opportunity to bring God’s message to encourage individuals and churches to flourish and connecting with new groups of people. In this current season, “preaching at a church” looks more like preaching to a camera in my lounge room, uploading the video and sending a link. Having never attended this church, I literally had no idea who I was preaching to and then had no interactions with them afterwards. The Senior Pastor informed me the sermon was well-received and connected with other activities and messages the church had been recently engaged in. I am trusting that God’s Word accomplished what it was sent out to do, but all the usual mechanisms for understanding and appreciating the nature of that were removed. In many ways it took more work to deliver the message but I didn’t get the energising buzz of connecting with those it was crafted for or participating in real-time in the activity of God in the people who heard it.

In ways and to degrees that vary with each person and circumstance, everyone is operating in an altered environment that, if not addressed, could easily see them landing in the Marine Life Institute feeling ‘broken’ (think job dissatisfaction, burnout, physical and mental health deterioration…). As leaders, this current climate requires more of us to ensure those we are responsible for aren’t left in the void of feedback and indicators to encourage them onward in their life and work.


As many of the surfaces for echo return have disappeared or moved further away, the Leadership role is to move closer. To ‘ping back’ louder, more frequently, and more specifically. Soft skills (such as communication, empathy, encouragement, conflict resolution, listening and affirmation) are needed more in hard times.

Our people need more feedback than ever. They need to hear from us regularly. Where you might have smiled at them across the board table in response to their contribution, you might need to send them a message congratulating them. Intentionally forwarding positive reports you’ve heard from other team members, giving more frequent updates on project outcomes, reducing the time between submission and response, creatively celebrating wins and life moments, holding space for story sharing, checking in … these are all intentional actions that close feedback loops for people and keep them empowered for their contribution and aware of their impact.  


Andy Stanley says what people most want from Leadership is certainty but when that isn’t possible ‘clarity is the second-best thing”. Clarity of vision, well-articulated short-term goals, accurate position descriptions and clear team roles, all serve as objects to ‘ping off’ and help people locate themselves and know the path to navigate.

Patrick Lencioni exhorts leaders to check in often, noting “no one has ever left a company because the leader over-communicated or communicated too often.” The leadership temptation in crisis is to not want to burden others with expectations, additional meetings to attend or emails to read. But the reality is that our people need to hear from us MORE not less.


We are in changed and changing times. Leadership is needed more than ever to bring calm and confidence in uncertainty and to be the echo that helps others successfully navigate these times. To ping back the affirmation that they are on track, supported and able.