As a leader, one of the biggest errors you can make is to believe that you can be self-sufficient. In a world where it seems that the highest virtue is to be independant, this can appear as a paradox. Nevertheless, if a great leader is often someone with a strong personal vision, she or he is also a master in relating to others.
A leader is a high-quality relationships gardener
Why would people follow you ? This is the key question that needs to be answered by any leader. So, if you do not have a high-quality relationship with your followers, how can you lead ? Great leadership author Jagdish Parikh reminds us that we have to manage our relationships with “detached involvement“. This means that we always incur the risk of being too attached to people (or to objects, to events, and of course to ourselves). At the same time, no leadership is possible if it is felt as distant or superior.
You may be an exceptional achiever, a great visionary or the most respected expert in your field, it makes no difference : to get results, you will need to rely on the motivation and performance of many others – especially in the highly complex environment we are living in today. In his recent book, Humble Inquiry, The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling, MIT Profesor Edgar Schein is making a neat and… humble point about the tendancy we have to believe that a leader is the one who has answers. One common characteristic of large-scale failures (such as the disaster of Space Shuttle Discovery) is the absence of a climate for subordinates to surface big issues as they show up. Creating such a climate is one of the roles of the leader, which implies a very deep consciousness of his dependency on others for the success of any endeavour. Asking authentic questions that surface his own ignorance is a key habit to develop such a climate, since it indicates clearly that there is no problem in NOT having all the answers.
A leader takes the risk of the other
One of the biggest problems of our times is the fragmentation of people in society or in organizations. It is often very strange to hear some executives complain about the silos or the lack of collaboration that exist in their companies, when all the systems they have put in place (from budgeting to compensation) are mainly constructed on individual (or fragmented) contributions. It is as if the large bureaucratic organization was trying through its processes to reunify separate and independant units.
The origins of this tendancy come from very far, and probably from the economic theory linked to the Enlightment views that promoted the advent of the individual, emancipated from holistic societies. I think that our challenge is to develop again a shared commitment (of employees, of citizens,…) towards what belongs to us – and not to me, or to any individual. Italian economist Luigino Bruni wrote a beautiful book, The Wound and the Blessing, around the proposal that we can only meet that challenge through the acceptance of the Other – as a potential blessing, but also as a potential wound. This means that we must not dream of a society that has eliminated all the frictions inherent to the fact of living together (the wounds). An authentic leader risks to be wounded by the world around her, by the people she meets. This is the fundamental condition for receiving the blessings that people can bring to the cause or the enterprise she his fighting for.
For you – leader or follower (and you know that we cannot be good leaders if we are not able to be good followers) – three questions can help you improve your capacity to relate to others :
- Do the persons who follow you feel that you are with them even if you are not totally melted with them ?
- Do you practice often the gentle art of asking instead of just telling ?
- Are you willing to let others bless you or are you just preventing yourself from the wounds that you can get from them ?