leadership and the practice of relationships

By Jo Chaffer 7 years agoNo Comments
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Reflecting on a recent leadership development program delivered in Peru that brought university leaders and Ministry of Education agencies together at this critical change point for Peruvian HE, I’m struck once more about the relationship-leadership nexus. How important it is to value and to create more value from our relationships in order to know and then achieve our aims, to have a presence and create impact.

Is the glue of leadership the practice of relationships?

It could be said that leadership is itself held by a practice of relationships. We’re familiar with descriptors of the roles of, the power held by, the actions taken by those comprising leadership: followers, leaders, peers, stakeholders; we articulate the power dynamics and the concomitant practices (resistance, passivity, silence, adulation etc) of the role-players, can we now shift attention to the stuff that holds this intricate web of players and practices together? This leadership ecosystem with its pushes-pulls; activity supernovas and black-holes is bounded by; is completed by; is intra-connected by relationships.

First, why is the practice of relationships important? Some examples:

  • Awareness & Intelligence – knowing what’s going on internally and externally – our relationships with our own people and with those outside of our group / organisation keep us clued in to innovation, to glitches, to creative bursts, to environmental and cultural shifts, to trends, to what people think of us, to many things that help inform our decision making, that prompt us to action
  • Creating cultures that work – how people get along with each other and to what extent, contributes significantly to the culture of the places we work, to what ‘our place’ feels like. Relationships and values might be a little chicken and egg – both at cause and affected by the other – even more reason to pay attention to establishing a space where people feel good about connecting. The impacts of culture, of internal relationships on people’s morale, on performance, on turnover, innovation and more besides are well documented.
  • Risk management: well managed relationships with political, social, legal actors; with competitors; with our wider communities enable to be pro-active, to change and influence the world we work in and to reduce our exposure to risk
  • Conversely being mindful of which relationships are going bad, who is becoming toxic, who is breaking with us and why can save us from a lot of pain

Even knowing all this, it can be so easy to forget to pay attention to our relationships, even our key ones once time, money, resource constraints and other pressures increase. Why? Simply – relationships require work and resources – and often the type of work that is antithetical to our often stressed, intense day-to-day busy-ness.

Physiologically when the pressure is on we switch into parasympathetic nervous system – we step it up a notch or five; rapid thinking; a state of high alert – fight and flight become first choices. Not ideal for mindfulness, noticing, critiquing, reflection or even strategizing.  Not ideal also for the pro-active, slow-build but agile communication effort for the steady build-up of a web of helpful connections within, across and around our organisations.

So what processes are involved in the complex business of relationship creation and care? Some initial thoughts:

  • Deep thinking – stepping out of the frame to see the whole picture
  • Noticing – what is rich and strong, what’s damaging, what’s weak in the relationships that already exist; understanding where they came from and why
  • Self-calibrating – noticing what you value and why, reflect on your own biases and filters, the working models at play in making judgements and decisions
  • Paying attention to the state of your people’s ways of being with each other,
  • Critically enquiring into what’s going on (in the sense of critiquing ‘for betterment’) – on what levels are the relationships we have ‘working’ for us and against us; what is the influence – interest position; how could some be better and why
  • Decision making – where to build, where to loosen the strings, where to invest, where to divest, how to approach, when to wait
  • Action – making it happen: tasking people, recognising and rewarding, modelling excellence, adding resource

Are these both leadership practices and the practice of relationships? I would say so.

Some essentials to have in place:

Context, environment, physiological state

Never underestimate the importance of the environment we sit in, our state of health, wealth and comfort when we’re working out who and what are important how they influence us and each other. I know my analysis of the political landscape, of competitor-collaborator transformation potential etc is hugely influenced by my health – ask me about these things when I’m marathon fit and I’ll glow with enthusiasm and optimism. Ask me when I’m tired and cold and just seen my credit card bill and the assessment is very different. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs can still provide a useful language frame to notice and voice these filters.

And finally

Honesty is critical.  Honesty requires a ‘safe space’ in which to work.

Establishment and holding of a ‘safe and creative space’ is, I’d argue, an essential leadership practice and one of the foundations of relationship building.

More on this in ‘Containment’… coming soon




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 Jo Chaffer

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