A few weeks ago I wrote an article about how high quality relationships might contribute to leadership effectiveness. I’d like to share several additional ideas about the precise ways in which relationships could increase leadership impact.
The first idea is that the relationships around a leader act like the ‘nuts and bolts’ that keep the surrounding social structure intact in times of extreme stress and tension. One way to think about this is using an athletic analogy. Imagine a weightlifter approaching a bar at the Olympics. Their goal is to move that bar from the floor to above their head. If the weight is light, they mostly use their 'prime mover' muscles (e.g., the legs, upper back) to do the job. However, when the weight on the bar nears the lifter’s maximum capacity, they need other minor but still important ‘stability’ muscles (e.g., in their shoulders, lower back, knees) to coordinate and balance themselves. In leadership, I view assertiveness and task-orientation as the 'prime movers.' Without those qualities, leadership doesn't exist. You need some measure of them in most situations (i.e., leaders can be passive for a period, but not as a general pattern). However, to perform under maximum load, you need something more. That ‘something more’ is relationship connectedness, which I equate to the 'stability’ muscles. When conditions become intense for leaders and their teams, they need strong relationships around them to ‘stabilize’ the social structure within the team. Assertion and task-orientation are necessary for leadership, but not sufficient to maintain the cohesion and coordination required to address the highest stress situations.
In addition to maintaining social cohesion in a crisis, relationships may also facilitate leaders pushing for higher performance. This could happen through two pathways: reciprocity and meaning making. In the reciprocity pathway the leader views relationships like a bank account. If you invest in them, you build up a positive balance. This pathway also assumes that it’s taxing every time leaders place demands on their teams, which can draw down the account balance. The hope is that by making more investments than drawdowns, and by keeping a positive balance, leaders will continue to enjoy some grace when they push their people. The second facilitative pathway involves meaning making. When a leader creates a strong relationship with a team member, and then challenges them to do more/better, the follower uses the relationship context to interpret that signal in a benign (not threatening) way. At first, they might say to themselves 'why is the leader coming at me in such a forceful manner?' But after considering their existing relationship, they'll likely think 'oh I know John, I trust him, he always supports me and acts in good faith, and if he's challenging me, I’m sure he has a good reason.' So, relationships can buffer pushing through perceptions of reciprocity, and through creating an interpretative context.
Tim Jackson Ph.D. is the President of Jackson Leadership, Inc. and a leadership assessment and coaching expert with 17 years of experience. He has worked with and advised leaders across a variety of sectors including agriculture, chemicals, consumer products, finance, logistics, manufacturing, media, not-for-profit, pharmaceuticals, healthcare, and utilities and power generation, including multiple private-equity-owned businesses. He’s also partnered with leaders across numerous functional areas, including sales, marketing, supply chain, finance, information technology, operations, sustainability, charitable, general management, health and safety, quality control, and across hierarchical levels from individual contributors to CEOs. In addition Tim has worked with leaders across several geographical regions, including Canada, the US, Western Europe, and China. He has published his ideas on leadership in both popular media, and peer-reviewed journals. Tim has a Ph.D. in organizational psychology, and is based in Toronto.