Relationships: The Core of RIPPLE Leadership
The core of real estate is referred to as location, location, and location. The core of leadership is relationship, relationship, and relationship. When studying for my Doctorate, I was fortunate to have the likes of Joe Rost and James Belasco as my professors. Both were relentless in emphasizing that leadership was a relationship behavior. Too many people see leadership as power and authority. The true leader understands that she is most powerful when she has established positive and respectful relationships with her followers. My definition of leadership is: “a relationship behaviour that brings about positive intended change in an organization by creating leaders out of followers and bringing out the best in both”. To be a leader one must have followers and an organization that wishes to grow must try and develop its followers into leaders. Moreover, a true leader looks to create change that takes the organization in a positive direction. In order to accomplish such change one must have the support of those followers and the most effective way to gain their support is by establishing sound relationships within the organization as well as beyond the organization.
When you think about how you define yourself, it is typically a result of a relationship. You may think of yourself as a parent, as a son or a daughter or as a colleague or a boss. Perhaps you define yourself as a coach or a mentor, perhaps as friend or an employee. If it is any of these, then you define yourself by your relationships. This is how leadership is also defined which is why Meg Wheatley said “Leadership is relationship”. More recently, in his book Like A Virgin, Richard Branson refers to any organization as people, people, people. He notes that leadership requires good relationships with the people within the organization as well as with both the customers and the suppliers. In fact, much of Branson’s success can be attributed to focusing on establishing better relationships, particularly with his customers.
Leadership that focuses on relationships requires a particular skill set. First and foremost, the leader must be a good listener. We all know we were given one mouth and two ears for a reason. Quite simply that marks the ratio of one to the other. Good leaders listen at least twice as much as they talk. More important than the listening itself is how the leaders listen. The late Stephen Covey might refer to this as empathic listening but I prefer my friend Jim Skinner’s nomenclature when he calls it “deep listening”. Too often as we listen we are already formulating a response to the speaker’s concern. If this is so, then we will not be giving our full attention or full listening power to the speaker. Sometimes rather than listening we are already formulating an answer or we might be thinking that we have another meeting in the next few minutes all of which distracts from how well we are listening. We owe our full and complete attention to whomever is addressing us be it in one on one or in a group or on a communication device! Moreover, if we are in the presence of the speaker, a leader does his best to maintain eye contact with the speaker. This improves our listening ability and gives the appropriate respect that is due to the person addressing the listener.
Deep listening also respects silence. For some reason we have become a species that thinks periods of silence are problematic. Good leaders know that holding back on any immediate response tells the speaker we are not in a hurry and that that the individual has the time to be mindful of his choice of words and time to give due consideration to ‘how’ he says what he wants, to ensure he gets his points across. By allowing silence, the leader demonstrates greater respect for the individual speaking. A pause enables the listener to be sure the speaker has completed his presentation. It also supports the listener by giving him time to give a considered response once he knows the speaker is done. It turns out that silence truly is golden when it comes to communication. The wise leader pays more attention to listening than she does to speaking. She always practices “deep listening”!
The purpose of good listening practices is to involve oneself in more dialogue than discussion. When members of our organization would call for more discussion, I always suggested that we did not want more discussion but rather we wanted deeper dialogue. I believe organizations waste far too much time in discussion and far too little in dialogue. Discussion by its very nature implies two or more points of view that are in conflict and that those involved are looking to defend their particular point of view. Dialogue is very different. Dialogue implies that the parties involved are in a process of building on each other's ideas rather than defending a particular position. Dialogue leads to improved ideas because the participants are using deep listening techniques to better understand points being made with a view to building something better by incorporating the best ideas from each participant. There is no need or intention to defend a specific position. Dialogue is only successful if the parties involved are as good at listening as they are at talking and the leader must set the example for others to follow.
Relationships are defined by many experts in the field as collaborative because they believe the leader must “empower” his followers in part through the communication skills above. I see things quite differently. In fact, when I taught leadership at SDSU for ten years, I required that my students not use the terms collaborative or empowerment because I believe they do not define appropriately the true work of the leader. In the case of the term collaborate, the original definition was: “to give help to an enemy who has invaded your country during a war”. It was what the Vichy French did with the Nazis. That is not what I would see as a positive approach to leadership. Even under current thinking collaboration can be undertaken without expectation of responsibility. An individual could collaborate with others by providing input or advice without any expectation of being accountable for the veracity or applicability of said advice. To me there is a much more appropriate term for participatory leadership and that term is ‘teamwork’. To work as a team is a much more positive approach than collaboration. Team implies there are roles and responsibilities as well as a leader. Teams can and should be held accountable for their work. One of the best examples I saw in the use of teams was when I visited the Microsoft Campus in Redmond Washington just after it was established. Bill Gates was brilliant in his management approach in that each project was being worked on by a team. Each member had been trained in the characteristics and skills that lead to successful teams and each member was held accountable for his/her contribution. Of course, the underlying key to any successful team is the ability to establish productive and positive relationships among its members. Apple’s creation of the wildly successful Macintosh computer is another excellent example of teamwork. And the recognition of having each member’s signature on the actual device was a stroke of genius by Steve Jobs in recognizing each members’ work. So, I always speak of a leader’s role not as one of being collaborative but rather as an expert in team leadership.
The second term that receives so much play and which I banned from class was ‘empower”. First, I do not believe anyone can empower anyone else. Each individual can, however, empower themselves. The role of the leader is to create the conditions through which an individual undertakes a particular role or task successfully. Creating those conditions requires all the characteristics of good relationships such as trust, support, encouragement and sound communication. By creating the conditions by which an individual feels they have the power or ability to work independently, then the leader is also creating the opportunity for creative thought and innovation within the organization.
There is one other reason that empower does not work for me in a leadership context. The root word of empower is “power” and while leaders do hold significant power if they lead only through ‘power’ they will not be successful over the long term. Leadership is far more about relationship than it is about power so the less we use such terminology the more likely we are to understand the true basis of good leadership. Hence, a good leader creates the conditions whereby each individual and every team feels they are in control of their own work and their own outcomes.
Leaders who understand the importance of relationships are constantly working towards building a stronger community within their organization. Communities that are successful have common goals that result in a common purpose. More importantly, developing a sense of community requires sound and positive relationships. Communities build their foundation on supportive behaviors while establishing a sense of safety and security for their members. If there is a sense of safety within an organization, then members will be willing to take risks because they know that that risk taking will be viewed as a positive rather than a negative. This will lead to more creativity and innovation in an organization. Establishing this sense of community requires specific behaviors of the leader.
The leader needs to know each member including their hopes and aspirations so that the leader can assist the team member in achieving these dreams. The role of the leader in the organization, after all, is to make each member of the community feel significant. If I feel significant and valued, I am going to contribute much more than if I am just feeling like a cog in a larger wheel. Thus, the leader must take the time to get to know each member on both a personal and professional level. In a larger organization this role must be emphasized among the leaders of the individual sections or departments as the CEO will not be able to do it with each member. However, the CEO must do this with his direct reports, his Board and a significant number of his customers. The CEO must set the example of investing his time in relationship building. It is only through strong relationships that a leader will be able to gather the critical human data that affects the health of the community that defines the organization.
To maintain these relationships requires constant communication. This communication has been made easier with the advent of e-mail, social media and tele-conferencing but these technological means of communications offer their own perils. Many examples exist of leaders’ insensitive tweets of postings resulting in their job losses. One must carefully consider anything put on social media and the consequences that may result. Nevertheless, the use of these technological mediums allows a leader to stay in continuous touch with team members and the larger community and a leader must be adept in the use of their platforms. The ultimate peril of technology is that the leader may see it as very efficient and come to rely upon it too much. Nothing beats the personal touch! Whenever possible the leader needs to sit with his team members personally, both collectively and individually. As much as the leader wants to know her members personally, so too does the team member want to get to know their leader. Nothing, absolutely nothing beats the personal touch.
An effective way to get to know people when a leader takes over a new organization or section or team is to sit down with each member and ask three questions:
What are the strengths of the organization?
What are the weaknesses of the organization?
If you were in my shoes, what is the first thing you would do?
This methodology proved invaluable to me as a leader starting in several new organizations as I met with the individual members prior to occupying the leadership office. First, I got to know something about each individual before I even started the position. The initial informal chat let me know a little about who each person was and they got to know personally a bit about me. Secondly, I learned a great deal about the current state of the organization from an insider’s perspective. Congruence and non-congruence of the opinions was equally important information. Thirdly, the answers to the third question were valuable in helping me to formulate the initial steps in my leadership approach. Finally, every member felt immediately that their opinions counted and each member felt significant! Remember, every team member’s opinion is important, so in my case, I met with every member of the team from the custodian to the executives. Doing this before I even took over the organization meant I had begun to establish relationships on a personal and positive note.
Another critical way of building relationships is embodied in the title of a book the late Larry Fraise wrote entitled: Management By Wandering Around. In other words, a leader needs to get out of her office and visit the floor, other sites, or customers. The wandering needs to be purposeful and meaningful for both the visited and the leader. Management by wandering around enables a leader to continue the personal connections, to gather valuable operational data and to themselves learn new information and ideas from those who are most closely connected at the actual operational level. The leader can give and receive constructive feedback which is essential to establishing strong relationships. The employees can do the same making them feel more valued and significant. In these visits deep listening is a critical role for the leader. Nuances in communication are important and must be recognized. This is also a time for story telling by the leader. Story telling can reinforce the cultural norms of the community while spreading the word of the many good things that happen within. The reality TV show Undercover Boss shows the effectiveness of being in the field.
The leader must understand that she needs to build relationships in multiple ways. Relationships within the organization are the obvious first priority but she must build relationships beyond that single community. Relationships with the customers are critical as are those with the suppliers. A leader must also build what I call the ‘beyond’ relationships. She needs to cultivate relationships beyond her area of expertise. In our connected world, this is the only way to gain new perspectives and understand how outer forces may affect our business. The video rental business did not see their demise coming in part because they were locked into their own little world of expertise. The best leaders establish relationships with leaders in other fields, so they continuously study the interconnectedness of society and institutions. Other ‘beyond’ relationships are those beyond the current conception of reality. Being conscious of this need enables the leader to think more creatively and enables the leader to keep the organization at the forefront in its own field. I would suggest that a leader needs to build relationships beyond their current social, political, fiscal, and educational relationships on a global scale. Only by doing so will the leader be able to effectively implement all six essentials of RIPPLE Leadership.
Relationship behavior of the effective leader is all about giving support, communicating, active listening, facilitating interactions, and providing feedback. It is about making your followers feel significant. It is about establishing a sense of community centered around a common purpose while demonstrating an ethic of caring for each member of the community. Relationships require personal contact as well as using current technology for continuous communication. But most of all relationships require a commitment of every bit of time that is required to create and enrich each relationship that is built. Relationships are the CORE of RIPPLE Leadership and should be treated as the most critical aspect of a leader’s role. The critical question each leader needs to address is: how do you spend most of your time?
Copywrite: Doug Player June 2020 [DP1]