In a recent post, I talked about the importance of relationship and stated, “I believe that effective leadership, leadership that results in personal and organizational change, happens best within the context of relationship.” (April, 2014) I don’t think I can emphasize enough the role that relationship plays in effective leadership, but that then naturally leads to the question of how relational connections can be established and maintained. Leadership research has indicated that this ability is important to leadership, and the good news is that there is a simple and basic practice that can be learned and implemented that will help you develop this ability, and it is this: build connection by finding common ground.
I have often found myself doing this unconsciously when I meet people. I will ask questions about who they are, their experiences, and their background, and will identify something that we have in common and engage in conversation around that topic. We may find a similar personal experience, a place that we have both seen or know, comparable work experiences, shared tastes in food, or any number of other things, but any of those topics becomes a connection through which we can begin to relax and build relationship. As I have thought about my tendency to do this, I have realized that I was influenced to exhibit this behavior by reading Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936) many years ago. Specifically, I remember simple principles that included: smile; become genuinely interested in others; encourage others to talk about themselves; and, talk in terms in terms of the other person’s interests. Because I genuinely care about people, these are principles that I have incorporated into practice long enough that they have become natural for me. (Please remember, these must be genuine – not artificial – behaviors!)
Daniel Goleman (he of the “Emotional Intelligence” fame) spoke about this when he originally described the characteristics of emotional intelligence in connection with leadership. In explaining the attribute of empathy, he said that “socially skilled people tend to have . . . a knack for finding common ground with people of all kinds – a knack for building rapport. That doesn’t mean they socialize continually; it means they work according to the assumption that nothing important gets done alone.” (“What Makes a Leader?,” in HBR’s Ten Must Reads on Leadership, 2011) Additionally, the theory of Authentic Leadership espouses the value of this practice, affirming the idea that “authentic leaders have the capacity to open themselves up and establish a connection with others. They are willing to share their own story with others and listen to others’ stories.” (Northouse, 2013, p. 260) The basic concept is that leadership is more effective when you can listen to others, learn something about them, find common ground, and thereby establish a connection.
So when I say that it is important for a leader to “build connection,” understand that I am not talking about “networking.” Rather, I am valuing the importance of finding common ground with everyone you meet, a connection that enables you to establish a positive relationship. Relational skills are essential to leadership, and learning to build connection is a simple practice which develops that skill and facilitates a relational environment. Be sure that it is genuine, out of a care for people (people can tell fairly quickly if it’s not), and you will find yourself becoming a more effective leader.
Carnegie, D. (1936). How to Win Friends and Influence People. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.
HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership. (2011). Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.
Northouse, P. G. (2013). Leadership: Theory and practice (6th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.
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