In audio signal processing and acoustics, an echo is a reflection of sound that is heard by the listener with a delay after the original sound. The delay is directly proportional to the distance of the reflecting surface from the source and the listener. Well-known echo examples include those produced by the bottom of a well, by caves or cliffs, or by the walls of an enclosed room and an empty room.

A human ear cannot distinguish an echo from the original direct source if the delay is less than 1/10th of a second. The velocity of sound in dry air is 343m/s at a temperature of 25C. Therefore, the reflecting object must be more than 17.2m from the original sound source for any echo to be heard by a person located at the source. We have all had some fun with the echo phenomenon when younger – shouting at the tops of our respective voices to create multiple echoes.

In business, however, employees don’t want to be hearing “echoes” of relevant information – they want to hear information from the original source. They want to dialogue the issues and ask questions to achieve clarity. This employee need has huge significance for those in leadership positions. Inter alia, it has relevance with respect to the following:

  1. Integrity – leadership authenticity and honesty. In ancient Greek mythology, Echo was an Oread who resided on Mount Cithaeron. Zeus loved consorting with beautiful nymphs and often visited them on Earth. Eventually, Zeus’s wife, Hera, became suspicious and came from Mount Olympus in an attempt to catch Zeus with the nymphs. Echo, by trying to protect Zeus (as he had ordered her to do), endured Hera’s wrath and Hera made her only able to speak the last words spoken to her. So when Echo met Narcissus and fell in love with him, she was unable to tell him how she felt and was forced to watch him as he fell in love with himself. Employees need to be able to perceive the leader’s integrity – “my manager is authentic and I can trust what is being said”.
  2. Presence – emotional and physical nearness. When leaders are distant, perhaps even self-absorbed, confusion is created amongst employees. The subsequent suspicion becomes like a cancer, eating away at employee confidence. Leaders that are “on the floor” with staff create opportunities for dialogue and moments to hear ideas and improvement suggestions.
  3. Vision – clarity around “the big picture” and the ability to articulate it well. Communication with regard to direction should be inspiring, giving employees hope. It should also include and give clarity on the part that each employee has to play to enable the company to reach its dreams or targets.
  4. Principled – a demonstrated adherence to personal and company values. Decision-making should flow from the context of values and leadership behaviour should reflect their essence. Values alignment is essential to build a company culture of which employees can be proud.
  5. Humility – the ability to acknowledge mistakes, apologise appropriately and solicit the ideas of others. Leadership is more about servanthood than issuing commands.

Leaders need to be a voice, not an echo. In an age of insecurity and anxiety, a strong “voice” garners the strength in others, thus assisting them find their own value and sense of place.

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