The Difference Between a Good Leader and a Great Leader: Relationships

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Guest blog by Jeff Buchanan, Lieutenant General, U.S. Army (Ret.) and Worldmaker International board member.

I frequently teach classes on leadership in MBA programs. One technique that I like to use to get things started when I do so is to ask the class, “What do you think is the difference between leadership and management?” The main purpose of asking the question is to get the students thinking and engaged. I explain that I’m not looking for a specific answer, and frankly, I am not even sure if we could agree on definitions. After I get five or ten answers, I tell them what I think. In its simplest terms, management is just making stuff happen, while leadership is influencing people to make stuff happen.

Here’s the key insight: people are part of most management equations, but they are the critical component of any leadership equation. Leadership is all about influence, and influence is a function of relationships. Those relationships are obviously between the leader and the led, but also include relationships with peers, constituents, etc. If you want to reach your potential as a leader, you have to prioritize relationships. I am not suggesting that you should be motivated to prioritize relationships because of what you will “get” in return, such as a promotion, a repeat customer, or even more influence. Instead, I argue that you should prioritize relationships for the value of the experience and what you will learn from others.

"If you want to reach your potential as a leader, you have to prioritize relationships."

I once had a great mentor who shared that one of my key weaknesses was poor listening skills. He told me that it seemed like I had no problem listening to those I respected, but that I did not focus on and pay attention to those who had caused me to doubt them in the past. In my case, my uneven listening skills were a result of an incredible lack of patience. I worked hard to improve my listening skills and started with an assumption that every single person may hold the key to solving a complex problem. I fought to treat everybody with dignity and respect and focused on what they wanted to tell me. Sometimes, I learned something important, and many times I did not. I did, however, become a better listener, and I would argue, a better leader because I focused on the relationship rather than just the outcome.  

The next time you get a bad review on social media, reach out to that person and listen to what they have to say. The next time you’re extraordinarily busy and somebody pokes their head into your office and asks, “Have you got a minute?”, give it to them. The next time you notice that something seems to be troubling somebody you care for, find out what is going on. In all of these cases, you may learn something that you needed to hear. Just as importantly, you will be learning to become a better leader.

"Start with an assumption that every single person may hold the key to solving a complex problem."

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