There’s a profound quote that made me think of the difference between the leadership dynamics and relationships of the past and those of the future. It reads:
“The leader of the past was a person who knew how to tell. The leader of the future will be a person who knows how to ask.”Peter F. Drucker, management consultant
There’s another way I interpret this. The leader of the past was a person who had a hierarchical relationship with their team. The leader of the future will be a person who has a warm and meaningful relationship with their team.
Let me give you an example. Have you ever worked with a leader and had a lot of work-related conversations, but after thinking about it, you realized that you knew little about them as a person? Sure, you knew their marital status, their kids’ ages, where they lived and what schools they graduated from. But did you know what led them to their career choices? Did you know much about their life experiences? Did you know much about their successes (maybe) and failures (probably not) in life? And in the midst of crises, whether work-related (a disappointing outcome) or of a public nature (mass killings, outbreak of war, pandemic, etc.) did you know how it really impacted them?
Because the leader of the past was good at “telling”, they assumed a higher-level posture of knowing more, directing others and not listening to or seeking input from stakeholders. For some, this was the accepted style of leadership of their era. Your position in the hierarchy was valued over most other things, and relationships with peers were far more important than relationships with direct reports.
But times evolve, employees develop different needs and leaders who are adaptable learn new capabilities. The simple art of “asking”—what someone thinks, how someone feels—creates a powerful learning moment. It demonstrates that you value them. It builds relationships and opens doors of communication.
Engagement, relationships and connections in leadership
Many leaders today are trying to figure out how to retain staff in a world where employees are rethinking where and how they want to work. And one of the most impactful ways to retain staff is to build strong connections with them, engage more deeply with them and, frankly, be more vulnerable and authentic.
For most of us, the very thought of being vulnerable is scary. By definition, it means letting down your defenses and becoming more open to emotional and verbal attack. It means sharing information more personally and deeply, all while wondering if anyone cares or if you’ll make a fool out of yourself—or why it should even matter to your team. Thus, some leaders shy away from vulnerable moments, fearing they may appear weak.
A personal example
A number of years ago, I, unfortunately, had to fire a team member. I didn’t want to, but because of certain behaviors, there was no other option. Immediately afterward, I met with the rest of the team to inform them, but before I could get my carefully crafted words out, I burst into tears. I was frankly mad at him for getting himself in this position, and I was heartbroken that I had to take that step. I was concerned for his family. My team looked at me in horror because they’d never even seen a teardrop from my eyes.
It was an unplanned yet powerful moment. The team saw more deeply into the things that I cared about. They saw that I identified with the emotions that they shared. They were able to get their emotions on the table as well, as we all mourned his departure. It brought us closer together.
In a similar way, over the past two years, leaders who have talked openly about the personal impact of the pandemic on their own family’s lives, who have admitted to their own insecurities, who have shared their adjustments and listened to stories from their team members, have developed closer relationships.
Gary Burnison, CEO of Korn Ferry, is a prime example of this. Each week in my inbox, I receive his blog reflecting on learnings from the previous week, business challenges, national events and interactions with other leaders in his organization. I’ve never met Gary, but I feel like I know and trust his approach to leadership. Someone might say that his most important role should be more about making strategic decisions for the company. I would argue instead that his most important role is building trusting relationships with team members and clients. And in so doing, he’s creating a culture aligned to specific values and behaviors that he wants to promote across a global organization.
You now have the opportunity to decide if you want to be a leader who asks; if you want to be a leader who builds warm and meaningful relationships with their team. Here are a few ways to make progress on your journey.
- Engage in daily self-reflection on your own emotions. This includes the ability to self-regulate them (not dumping them on others) and recognize what you’re feeling and why.
- Practice communicating in the moment with your team to acknowledge situations that everyone may be experiencing (whether the stress of a deadline or the horror and sadness over national or international events).
- Consider your life experiences that have shaped the person you’ve become today: your most important values, your motivations and how you make decisions. Which of those experiences are appropriate to share with the team? You don’t have to share all the details, just enough to help them understand more about who you are.
- Ask them deep, but not invasive, questions to understand what motivates them. For example, you might ask them what makes them passionate about their work, what makes them laugh and what makes them cry.
This is just the beginning. And it’s not a self-serving act to manipulate people. It’s showing that you really care about them enough to share parts of your life with them, and you want to know more about their life. It’s doing your part to help them reach their goals once you understand more about those goals.
This is part of the leadership journey.
For advice on building effective teams, read The Art of Hiring: When to Start and How to Begin.