Leadership Is The Relationship Itself

mona lisa smile
Image of the movie, Mona Lisa Smile, with Julia Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, and Marcia Gay Harden.

My friend Marcia, an experienced PR professional with a background in journalism and foreign affairs, started to work for a foreign company that’d come to New York to host an ambitious global event. 

Marcia got on board thinking she’d be working on the PR team, but her task was to cold-call names on a list to try and sell tickets, priced at $2,500 each. The folks on her list were not billionaires, C-suite executives, or small-business owners. So, out of 100 calls a day, she’d get 100 “No, thanks.”

She decided to act (read this Seth Godin’s post about the difference between knowing and acting). “Listen,” she told the boss, “this is not working. We need to do something different,” and she shared her ideas. The boss admired her initiative and made her the manager of the sales team. A few weeks later, she met with the in-house PR executive and noticed he and the agency he’d hired had just been milking the foreign cow.

She spoke her mind honestly and unequivocally to the foreign executives, dispassionately and with objectivity. She didn’t point fingers or say someone was doing a lousy job. She didn’t complain. She merely laid out her analysis, devoid of all emotion, and explained why and how her plan would lead to a better outcome.

She became a strategic partner who truly cared about the success of the project. It was not about her, her personal career goals, or being acknowledged.

What Marcia demonstrated was an unwavering resolve to make the project succeed. She dared to disagree and named the problems she saw, putting her own position in jeopardy. She showed, as Jim Collins finds great leaders do, a “fierce ambition for the project,” not for herself. And she exhibited mental readiness, what Helio Fred Garcia describes in his new book, The Agony of Decision, as the critical trait that allows leaders to handle crises successfully.

Marcia’s story tells that the relationship she established with others, herself, and the project she was working on, was leadership.

You’re responsible to define your relationship with others, with yourself and with the work you do. When you put yourself in charge, even when your business card or your LinkedIn profile don’t say so, you are a leader.

1. Relationship with your work

You do what you have to do, even if you think it’s fruitless. Only by executing your task relentlessly, will you understand why it works or why it doesn’t, and how you can improve the outcome. You ask other people’s opinion because you understand you’re not an expert in every aspect of the company. But you know how to assess the solutions by asking the right questions.

2. Relationship with yourself

You show others your understanding of the project and the company, but you keep your personal preferences to yourself. When you take the risk to expose what you think, you open yourself up to criticism because you know only good ideas can stand it–if they don’t, they’re not that good. And you share your ideas because you believe the project will advance more or in a better way as a result.

3. Relationship with others

You accept that other ways of doing things might as well be effective and that different points of view will make the project stronger. You show your goal is to make the project succeed, not to safeguard your position as a leader. You don’t need the credit, but when you succeed, you own your success–you don’t say, ‘I got lucky.’

And of course, you acknowledge everyone’s contribution and mentor the members of the team so that they become leaders too.

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