The Pothole Principle
Successful leaders regularly visit frontline operations to spot problems before they become crises, build trust, stay grounded, and earn employee respect.
WRITTEN BY: ADAM DANYAL
As leaders rise through the ranks, it’s easy to lose touch with ground-level operations. Like a highway paved over with new blacktop, the cracks below become invisible. But drive that road long enough, and potholes inevitably emerge.
What leaders can’t see can definitely hurt them.
Imagine you’re the CEO of a shipping company. You review financial reports in your corner office, touting record profits. But had you joined drivers on their routes, you’d have seen poor road conditions rattling trucks and damaging shipments. Talking with crews loading freight, you’d have learned they cut corners to meet unrealistic quotas. Had you ridden shotgun with a dispatcher, their frustrating technology failures would have been obvious.
But you didn’t do those things. So you missed the potholes.
Great leaders visit the frontlines consistently, despite their packed calendars. They chat with call center reps, observe factory workers, go on sales calls, and more. Why? Because they understand the “Pothole Principle.”
Seeing operations firsthand allows leaders to spot problems before they become sinkholes. It builds trust, showing you want boots-on-the-ground intel, not just sanitized reports. Visiting frontlines keeps you grounded, reminding you that real people–not metrics–get work done. And it earns respect, proving that even busy executives make time to understand how their teams experience things.
So block off time each month for an immersive frontline visit. Ask insightful questions, take notes, and most importantly, listen. Don’t criticize. Simply say thank you. Then act quickly to address concerns.
Following the Pothole Principle keeps leaders in touch and organizations on track. Let it steer you away from hazards lurking beneath the surface. Face the bumps in the road head on, before your team hits them hard. After all, you want the smoothest ride possible. And sometimes, the best view comes from the front seat.
From our Leadership Bookshelf:
WRITTEN BY: JULIA DANYAL
Chris Van Gorder's book “The Front-Line Leader: Building a High-Performance Organization from the Ground Up” provides a helpful perspective on staying connected to your team as a leader.
Leaders can lose touch with ground-level operations as they rise through the ranks. Visiting frontlines helps spot problems before they become crises.
Frontline visits build trust and show leaders want direct insights, not just reports. Employees feel heard and respected.
Immersing in frontlines keeps leaders grounded. Seeing real people, not just metrics, reminds what gets work done.
Asking questions, listening, and not criticizing during visits earns respect. Follow up quickly on concerns raised.
Visiting frontlines regularly helps leaders stay connected to challenges facing the organization. The "Pothole Principle" steers leaders away from unseen hazards before teams hit them hard. Though busy, great leaders prioritize frontline check-ins. The best view comes from the front seat.