What has Relationships got to do with Leadership?
Let me start with the assumption that there is no relationship between the two. Leaders in every arena, be it the professional (organisational), family or social, can function successfully without worrying about having to build on relationships with people they work with, live or interact with. It would also mean that people would interact or work with each other for what they have to either give or take from each other. Transactions based upon demand and supply, need and gratification would make life so simple, efficient and linear.
If I do not need anything from another person, I would have no reason to interact or work with that person. When my needs are gratified for the moment or the day, I can simply snooze off like a tiger in the shade or burrow into a hole like a mouse depending upon my position in the hierarchy of strength in the ecosystem I have to survive in. I wake up when I feel hungry and then start prowling or sniffing around for fulfilling my needs. The intensity of my unfulfilled needs or hunger and my comparative power – competitive advantage – will determine whether I hunt out my prey or sneak into someone’s kitchen or negotiate the best possible barter with another who possesses what I need to satiate my hunger.
I do not have to worry about right, wrong, values, morals, ethics, equality, fairness, duty, social responsibility, and all those woozy goosy grey terms that the human society has invented to describe phenomena that do not exist in this world of mine. I can lead my life based on my blessings of power, transactions or negotiations.
As I write the above lines conscious that I am painting a parody of the world we live in, a doubt starts sneaking into my mind. Is it really a satire on the society we live in or that on the wish that we believe the society should be like? Don’t we actually see a lot of good educated people thinking and acting bordering on the parody painted above? Is it not true that most of us subconsciously make great efforts to reach an individual utopia where we wish to be the king of the little worlds we dwell in? Call it competitive advantage for the individual or comparative supremacy; most of us are very much in that game. The prize is labelled as better quality of life, buying power, social recognition or being a star in the league we play in. Yes, it is quite natural to want to win the race when we see us in a race. Nobody should or does wish to be a loser.
But a race is always about one individual breasting the tape. Bigger the distance from the others (losers), more gratifying is the victory and more thunderous is the applause. It is an exhilarating sensation to be the winner by a mile and be the cynosure of the crowd. But, distances do not augur well for relationships. In the organisational world where we spend more than two thirds of our waking and active life, the race is on to be the winner and be heralded as the leader. It is said that it is lonely at the top. This is true even when someone becomes a Team Leader of a small team and not only when after many years, has one amongst thousands become a CEO.
The archetype of a leader we look up to has competitive advantage over others and leads from the front with bravado. We do not normally see or ignore that part of the life of a leader when he is not performing his leadership functions in public. How does he feel when he wakes up, brushes his teeth, wishes good morning to his family members? We do not see a leader in a disheveled condition? What does he do when he is not analyzing numbers, selling or explaining his strategy or driving a meeting towards a desired end? What does a leader do, when he fails or accepts at least in private that he was wrong about something? We do not see a leader in pain or when hurt by someone or something.
We do not consciously expect a leader to have vulnerabilities!
Our leader never falls sick, never feels helpless or frustrated and hence does not need any relationships other than transactional ones. Our leader never needs anyone if only to bounce his opinions, dilemmas, choices or apprehensions. Our leader is invincible, immune to all weaknesses. He stands tall amongst un-equals like a shining blade of steel, absolutely flawless!
The followership is so strong in its expectations that most occupiers of leadership positions find it hard to show their human side. In the organisational world, this leads to atrophy of the Human side of Enterprise. The leader gets forced to live a life of sartorial excellence. He panders to the expectations of his audience and dresses up everything to live up to his customer’s demands. Reiteration of the process on a daily basis in his thinking, planning, deciding and acting as per expectations builds up so many layers of constructed selves that after sometime the leader loses the connect to his real self. His life becomes more like that of a mannequin who has to be dressed up and paraded as per the latest fashion and demand determined by the buyers of his wares. Since he is also the designer of how the mannequin has to be presented, he becomes a master of catering to his market needs. His needs become subservient to the mountain of expectations from his buyers. He treats everyone as a customer and strives hard to achieve customer delight. He becomes a fine exponent of transactional relationships!
Is such an exponent a leader or a great performer?
Are the words Leader and Performer the same or considered to be similar?
Did such an exponent lead others to something or performed excellently as per the expectations of the audience?
I would definitely applaud such a performer profusely, walk out of the tent and go back to my life where my relationships are waiting to give me staying company, support, affection, advice and inspiration. I have to live on beyond few performances. I have to lead myself towards a purposeful life that gives me happiness. I have to lead my life with other happy people as unhappy people around makes me unhappy too. I have to scratch my head consistently and continuously – innovate – to come up with ideas and purposes so that I can create happiness around me and thereby be happy.
Does that qualify as the life of a leader? I don’t care!
I know that living up to the expectations of those around me could be a great performance. But, even the expectations keep changing so fast nowadays. How could I be sure to live up to changing expectations unless I have an idea about what factors or changes are gathering up in the horizon to create tomorrow’s expectations. Hence, I need to keep my ears close to the ground, gaze as far as I can make out and sense what could be a future that I could lead towards. A sense of what needs to be faced or done after some distance is necessary to build a vision towards which one can lead. But, future belongs to the realm of uncertainty. Yet, I have to have an idea what the future should be like. So what If I may have to change my vision continuously as I discover new milestones or as I steer the ship amidst strong winds or waves of change. I need to be as resourceful as I could be to face the unknown. I know that this is not possible merely as an individual. I need many more than just me with their strengths, ideas and contributions. I need many individuals with their varied opinions, different competencies and approaches to handle what may challenge my status quo.
Why should they contribute if it is all about My vision, My goals, My achievement or My performance?
They probably would, if it was about Our vision, Our goals, Our achievement and Our Celebrations!
That is why I need relationships particularly with such individuals who are different to me. People with whom I disagree could only add value when I am faced with the unknown, unforeseen as my habits of thinking and action would not know what exactly to do in such contexts. But, isn’t it normal that birds of a feather flock together? Isn’t it natural that I enjoy more when I am with people who agree with me, adore me and accept my views and ideas? It is stressful to spend time with people who disagree with you. In time they even become more disagreeable and any conversation comes to an impasse. How does one build a relationship with such people?
I am sure even they find me as disagreeable and as difficult to have a relationship with. But when I pause a bit and think about such people, it is also true that they do not disagree on everything with me. It seems we find each other disagreeable as we normally interact only about those topics where we have different views. We do not interact outside our zone of disagreement. Isn’t it because we interact only when a transaction is necessary between us and I am only looking for a competitive advantage over the other to make him agree to my perceived needs?
Relationships cannot happen when we interact only to close a transaction!
Obviously, I need to work with such individuals too as my purpose cannot be fulfilled otherwise. One of the reasons I have this situation is also because I am pressed for time with my chosen priorities. I am accountable for my performance and have my hands full. I am a professional, a busy manager. I do not see any reason to change my priorities that may give me more time to relate to these individuals who have become unreasonable in my eyes. But, if I cannot fulfil my purposes, my responsibilities, my objectives where I need the participation and contribution of such people, don’t I have to change my priorities and create time? Well, it is not the most savored experience I could look forward to but it seems I need to do it.
I wrote the above lines in first person as a verbalization of my thoughts while reflecting upon my own experiences over the years when I had to work with people who were outside my team, my family or my circle of influence. The result of such experiences has been great relationships with people who I would have never met otherwise. Today, a lot of them are just friends as we discovered so many agreeable parts to each other beyond those initial disagreeable touch points. The milestones I had to cross are given below in a chronological manner:
- I had responsibilities that I could not fulfil with what I knew and possessed myself. My core competencies were inadequate for the purpose(s) I wanted to fulfil.
- I was passionate about such purposes as they were important constituents of my vision!
- My passion, responsibility and inadequacy made me identify people normally outside my domain who had the resources including knowledge that I needed to fructify the purposes.
- Such people also were part of the overall purpose of the organisation or social circle.
- Instead of being stuck with the disagreements between us, I started with getting their buy-in in to the larger purpose. Yes, I had to create quality time for these investments.
- I expressed my vulnerability. I sought their support, their ideas to fulfil our common purpose. At times, we had to redefine or reshape the purpose itself.
- Our disagreeable touch points underwent an evolution when we discovered unknown or not considered information on either side. We developed empathy for the other side as we understood the factual reasons for the different touch points.
- My opinions, my views or theirs became subservient to our common objectives.
- Our common purpose made us identify many agreeable areas between us. Disagreeable touch points gradually became just constituents to the overall (Our) strategy that needed to be agreed upon to achieve our common purpose.
- Value created in collaboration multiplied in significance and those initial disagreements paled in insignificance.
- We started believing in what we could relate to as Our objectives, Our Achievements, Our success.
- We looked forward to Our Celebrations!
Performance in one’s own domain with your own resources is mandatory. It is the fundamental accountability of a professional once he or she has mastered their professional competence. Managers who have to work beyond their own domains or outside their silos are faced with management challenges of a different order. Objectives and results are a bit hazy, difficult to achieve, mined with risks and not possible with what one individual has grown up. This is when our leadership abilities are put to test in full rigor. The haze and risk requires a Manager to conjure up a vision about what future he or she has to lead towards. Leadership begins with our own vision or sense of purpose. That is the only beacon that can guide us forward. The purpose is not in the past but belongs to the future that leadership is responsible for. Our competencies or knowledge of today is bound to be inadequate for the demands of tomorrow. Our thesis was good enough to reach where we are. We will need some anti-thesis to steer into the future. Thesis needs humility to talk to an anti-thesis, a sense that I do not know enough. That is when relationships bound by purpose and future become more important than the transactional ones that runs the today.
Core competencies and practice of the same is essential to meet today’s expectations and be the Performer of the day. Leadership is about going beyond expectations as future expectations are unknown. And that is possible by investing beyond transactions and building Relationships!
 Recommend reading the Annotated edition of ‘The Human side of Enterprise’ by Douglas McGregor, Tata McGraw-Hill, (2006)
 ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ by Stephen Covey, Free Press, New York, (1989, 2004)
© Amit Chatterjee