The Heart of It All


What do you believe is the most important aspect of leadership?

It is an interesting question, isn’t it? In fact, do you believe there is an answer to it? Is there really one component of leadership that outweighs all the others, which you must absolutely master in order to be your best as a leader? What do you think?

This question is raised quite a bit, especially from people who are beginning their leadership development journey. Like everyone else, they are virtually overwhelmed with regular work and have little time to invest in their own development. Hoping to minimize the time it takes to become better at leading, they seek the one big factor, the Holy Grail of leadership so to speak, that will enable them to grow as a leader, while not robbing them of the time they need to fulfill their current objectives.

I have given this question a good deal of thought and my reflections keep pointing me toward the same conclusion. There is nothing more important for leaders than the relationships they develop with those they are aspiring to lead.

Now I know this is not the first time you have heard about the value of relationships, but the question is, do you believe it? In your mind, does relationship building measure up to some of the other acknowledged leadership essentials, such as the capacity to think in a strategic or visionary manner, the ability to inspire or motivate others, or the willingness to make bold and courageous decisions? Or is the notion of relationships to you, just a fancier name for the proverbial soft side of leadership, the so-called “warm and fuzzy, touchy—feely” side?

Over the years, I have noticed that the people who are most likely to talk about relationships as the “soft stuff” are the ones who are not very good at developing them. Rather than accept their current inability to form strong relationships, they choose to downplay their importance or even make light of the subject. Sometimes, it is just easier to ignore or deny the legitimacy of a weakness than acknowledge it for the world to see.

You may want to think twice if you are one who immediately discounts the importance of relationships, since poor relationships are at the heart of many (if not most) seemingly irresolvable business issues. Think about a couple of pertinent, real world examples. One case in point is the number of people who are becoming less engaged in their work and in some fashion are checking out. This occurs because they feel neither valued nor needed. Sometimes they choose to leave, contributing to all the negatives associated with unhealthy turnover. Even worse, they may choose to remain working for you (more accurately, going through the motions for you), but without heart or emotional commitment.

Another example is the fact that people inside of companies sometimes compete with each other in extreme or unhealthy ways. In this kind of situation, the focus shifts from defeating marketplace competitors to securing the top spot on the internal stacked rankings, or even setting someone else up to fail. Think about how this behavior completely destroys the ability to leverage breakthroughs or best practices throughout an organization.

Forget about organizational implications for a moment and think about yourself. When do you do your best work – when you have relationships with others, including your boss, which are based on trust, respect, support and so forth or when you don’t? And what about the people you are responsible for leading. Do they need environments filled with, or void of, productive relationships in order to do their best work?

As you might expect, there are people who have voiced their opposition to the importance of relationships. One of my favorites is, “My people don’t need to like me; they just need to respect me. I am not here to be their friend; I am here to be their boss.”

The research regarding this issue is clear: people will work harder for those they like, vs. those they don’t. But research aside, how often do you hear people make a comment like, “I really don’t like anything about her, but I do respect her!” I concur that respecting and liking someone are different things. Practically speaking, I just wonder how frequently people truly respect someone they don’t like. We may give others due credit for their level of expertise in a given arena, but that doesn’t mean we want to have anything to do with them, let alone be led by them.

Here is another favorite. A manager was once telling me about a person in his group who wrote computer code. He said something to the effect that the best thing for this fellow was to lock him in a dark room with a bunch of computer equipment, throw him a piece of meat once a month and everyone is happy. The manager was of course saying this in a joking fashion, but his belief was that some individual contributors may not need caring relationships with a boss or team members in order to produce good results. They thrive on and do their best when they are not distracted (especially by that touchy-feely stuff). Part of that belief is true. However, what will happen over time if this cracker-jack code writer is never acknowledged for his contributions or told he is doing great work? What if he comes to believe his boss is a jerk and the rest of the company doesn’t care at all about him? Is this the individual you most want developing vital programs for you?

There is a simple, yet profound lesson I have learned about leadership, which is certainly worth repeating here. People want to add value and they want to be valued. Hiding them in a dark vault surrounded by high-tech electronics might be a great way to help them add value. But never forget they also want—and need—to be valued. And no matter how you slice it, that is a relationship issue.

People will never do their best work if their hearts are not engaged, and matters of the heart are always relationship issues. A person’s commitment to and effort for a leader is directly related to how the leader makes the individual feel. Yet there are managers who believe that feelings of any kind in a professional work setting are mostly irrelevant, if not a sign of weakness. They cite the need to establish a strictly professional relationship, which from what I gather, must mean there is no need to consider how people feel.

True leaders are concerned about establishing effective, productive relationships. It does not mean they aspire to be a parent, psychiatrist or best friend with their people. But it does mean that they are genuinely interested in and care about them. Leaders are clearly concerned about how their people are performing relative to goals. And they also deeply care about their people’s growth, confidence levels, feelings of inclusion or acceptance, and many other more emotional factors. They care about their people as people, not just as compensation-based assets, and they develop relationships that allow not only business results to be addressed, but needs, aspirations and yes, even feelings as well.

Not too long ago, a self proclaimed steely-eyed, bean-counting bank VP was reminiscing about the best leader he had ever worked for. It occurred at a time years ago when he had just taken a new job, in a new city and was dealing with all the pains of getting his life re-settled after moving across the country. He was living in temporary housing with his family still behind, trying to remain a good parent, and struggling with everything from where to park his car to securing a contract on a home with which they would all be happy. Everything in his life was pretty much chaos. And at the same time, he was in a new job with a new company, coping with the all too common confusion and uncertainly that frequently accompanies a job change of this magnitude.

The banker went on to relate how his new boss stopped by his office one day and asked how he was doing. Being the good banker, he began reviewing current results, and was planning to continue on with an overview of some of the new business he was already pursuing. But shortly after he began talking about the numbers, his boss interrupted him and mentioned that was not what he was asking about. The boss then said, “How are you doing,” (with the emphasis on you).

It seemed the boss had great empathy for what his new VP was going through and was genuinely interested in how he and his family were holding up through all the change and turmoil. The banker went on to say that moment, that simple human moment, changed everything for him. It was the first time a boss had ever cared much about his personal well being.

He spoke a bit more about the wonderful relationship he and his boss developed, and acknowledged that was the best work experience in his career. He concluded by saying today he would still jump through burning hoops for that leader.

My guess is the VP would not continue to jump through hoops because of his former manager’s great business savvy or intellectual brilliance, but because of the relationship they developed between each other.

There is a tangible drag on effectiveness and results in organizations where relationships are poor or ignored. A few of the frustrations people in these situations experience on a daily basis include:

  • Meaty conversations being handled poorly or totally avoided. (Think about feedback concerning unsatisfactory performance.)
  • The inability to get needed resources or support from peers or other groups.
  • People spending time “making stuff up” about what others might be thinking instead of seeking the truth (which often results in acting on invalid assumptions).
  • Redundant work because there is little or no collaboration.
  • Excessive in-fighting over internal overhead or budget allocations.
  • Increased feelings of stress and weariness, especially when one’s work is never validated.
  • An increasing amount of self interest and blame.
  • The tendency for people to start spending a little more time each day investigating more fulfilling opportunities elsewhere.

Do any of these appear familiar to you? As a leader, you must ensure these are not running wild in your organization.

Let me close by offering three points to keep in mind about relationships. First, relationships are a business issue, not a human resources issue. Second, great relationships are a tremendous asset. You have no doubt heard the expression, “people are our most important asset.” That is hardly true of people who have proven to be untrustworthy, or who do not care about, support, or collaborate with others. Finally, there may be nothing more difficult than building solid, mutually beneficial relationships. Perhaps that is the reason many choose to sidestep them and rely more on the comforts of technology, detailed spreadsheets, PowerPoint decks or management by email.

If you are to lead others, you must be willing and able to invest the time and effort needed to build strong, trusting, caring relationships. If you do not, your effectiveness and success as a leader will be impaired. You may still be able to manage people by giving them orders, or even coercing them into doing what needs to be done. Just don’t expect them to ever jump through hoops or do the best work of their lives for you.

Copyright © 2007 International Leadership Associates, Steve C. Coats