Leadership can mean many different things to different people. And throughout our lifetimes, we'll have many different people whom we'll deem leaders in our own eyes. In the workplace, naturally the executive team, managers and founders step into that role, however, it's not authority that defines a good, effective leader.
In fact, there's one core skill that goes far beyond defining strategy, making decisions, hiring top talent, and ensuring the business is meeting or exceeding revenue goals. The one thing that enables a person to become a truly effective, and well-respected, leader has more to do with relationship skills than anything else.
The difference between success and failure often is a direct result of a leader's ability to connect with, engage, and motivate their team. Look at some the most revered leaders throughout history and you see the common trait each shared was an aptitude for building deep relationships --even among those who didn't know them personally.
The lost leadership skills
Truth be told, most of us are great at maintaining 'good' relationships, but if conversations in the workplace never go beyond small talk, it might be time to take a hard look under the hood to see if they are truly deep and meaningful. How do you go about fostering deeper relationships and becoming a more effective leader?
According to business coach, Jim Mitchell, "Most leaders have been so busy building empires, they forgot to build relationships. Most think their job is to fix everything that is presented to them as a conundrum. But that's not the job."
Jim said one of the most important things he works with business leaders on understanding is that their job is really about creating safety in depth and meaning. To do that effectively, there are two things that must be done: listening and talking.
This can feel a bit unnatural to many successful business people, as we're taught to focus on strategy, profitability and scaling. It has been demonstrated, however, that fostering strong relationships and making others feel safe are the hallmarks of remarkable leaders. Just ask Simon Sinek.
Practice 'big' listening
Building relationships with your team has a profound effect on their attitude and level of dedication to you, as well as your organization's vision and purpose. But this means relationships need to extend beyond say the level of relationship you have with the barista at Starbucks -- in other words, surface level. To do that, you need to practice 'big' listening or listening with empathy.
How often do you ask how someone is doing, but fail to listen to what's on the other side of that question? You might hear the response, but with big listening, you're not just listening to their words, you're paying attention to other subtle cues such as tone, the eyes, shifts in body language, facial expressions --all the context around the words.
Did their response bring them joy or did you sense another emotion behind the words? These cues can help guide your next questions, and this is important for several reasons. You'll ask more meaningful questions, demonstrate you're truly listening, and discover something new about that person or get to the root of something they may have been struggling with.
By listening with compassion, understanding and genuine curiosity, you'll begin to build a foundation of trust and create an environment in which your team feels safe being more vulnerable. And there's powerful innovation, creativity and collaboration on the other side of vulnerability.
As part of the listening job, Jim also suggests avoiding sarcasm and the urge to interrupt during conversation, as well as watching your language so as not to trivialize your employee's concerns. This will prevent your team from opening up and being vulnerable.
Now, there is a second job important to building relationships and that is the talking job. This is where you get to lead by example.
You can't expect your team to open up if you don't. While talking, be thinking about ways you can become more vulnerable.
Pay attention to how you're showing up in conversation. Are your responses to conversational questions rote or well considered?
For instance, when asked how you're doing do you answer with the usual, "Good. Busy, but good."? Never going beyond the surface. Challenge yourself to pause for a moment and really explore how you're doing.
It may feel odd at first, particularly if you're not in the habit of doing it, but it's essential to building trust among the team and creating an environment that allows for vulnerability. It also has an ancillary benefit--you'll begin to notice how you're showing up in your personal relationships as well.
Building a culture of trust
Of course, there are a few other pieces to the puzzle beyond listening and talking. Transparency, autonomy and empowerment will also gain buy-in from your team.
Be as transparent as possible about where the organization is and what's on the horizon. Be very clear about your vision and purpose and what is needed to fulfill those. Empower employees at all levels to help contribute to achieving overall business goals and the vision.
There is a shared sense of purpose when employees have autonomy to bring ideas to the table and help guide the future of the company. It also creates a culture of inclusion, encourages collaboration and supports a fast-moving company by eliminating bottlenecks.
Inevitably, there will be missteps along the way, but use these as learning opportunities, not for discipline. Nothing will crush a culture faster than reprimanding for honest mistakes.
Leaders have the power to invigorate or deplete their employees with every action they take. Think carefully about the actions you choose and the effects they will have on your team and your efforts to build deep, meaningful relationships.