by John Baldoni

Great Leaders Build Off Great Relationships

Nov 07, 20076 mins
IT Leadership

How to improve your leadership abilities by using relationship building and collaboration

“If you want to get along, go along!” That was legendary Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn’s advice to a young Lyndon Johnson when LBJ was an upwardly aspiring congressman from Rayburn’s home state of Texas. If Rayburn, for whom the Rayburn Building, which houses Congressional offices, were alive today, he could make a good living on the business lecture circuit.

Connect to others

“Building relationships is one of the strongest skills sets related to leadership effectiveness,” says Jean Leslie, a researcher at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL). “Managers with experience building relationships are seen as more effective.” That statement emerges from a comprehensive research study undertaken by CCL involving more than 438,000 respondents. Two thirds of respondents said that “building and maintaining relationships is a critical competency.”

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Coupled with relationship building is collaboration. In another CCL study, nearly every one of 250 executives surveyed said that “collaboration is critical to success.” Given the complexity of today’s business challenges, compounded by 24/7 schedules and global competitiveness, working with another person to create, develop and sustain projects, processes, or products requires true melding of talents and skills.

The trouble is that today’s senior leaders are not adept at either relationship building or collaboration, according to CCL. Relationship building ranked tenth out of sixteen leadership competencies; meanwhile, only 47 percent of managers believed that “leaders in their organization were highly skilled in collaboration.”

These results are not surprising given the state of American management. Our companies crave strong leaders; we tend to value the man who stands up and takes charge. But that model is in flux. One reason for this is the rising influence of women in the workplace; women tend to be more collaborative than men. Another is that it is collaboration that enables innovation, which plays a key role in a company’s ability to stay competitive. And strong relationships are the underpinning of any collaborative effort. So how can you nurture both these skills?

Learn to read people. The pace of management today is so hurried that lunches sometimes become a luxury. That’s too bad. Getting to know someone can occur more swiftly and genuinely over a shared meal, even in the corporate cafeteria. When you sit across from someone you can listen as you munch; you can observe the person and make mental notes about what he says, or likely does not say. In time, you can determine motivation and aspiration as well as commitment. Call this reading people.

Lyndon Johnson was a master at sizing up others; he could read people as quickly as he could skim a newspaper. And in doing so he could divine their hopes and desires. This skill came in handy when Johnson needed to do some arm-twisting of his fellow congressmen. Sometimes leaders need to twist a few arms. But rather than start off that way, a savvy leader begins with the quiet read and then strives to achieve his aims by working with another to come up with joint solutions.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Yup, it’s the Golden Rule and believe it or not, it works in business, too. Relationships emerge from trust; you establish trust by personal example. That is, you follow through on your commitments. You also reach out to help others achieve their goals. You demonstrate teamwork. And you stand up for what you believe and hold yourself accountable. Leaders who do that build relationships with their employees but they also build coalitions with their peers. Management demands cross-functional collaboration but that can only occur when people know and trust each other.

Put yourself out there. If you want to collaborate, you need to put yourself into it. Genuine collaboration calls for the blending of ideas, a synthesis that creates a better whole. Sometimes the genesis will derive from a single person, with a few suggestions from others. Most often, however, collaboration is so thorough that the end result is totally original, that is, no one recalls or can determine who had what idea. That kind of collaboration is selfless. It cannot be mandated; it must come from people trusting one another because they understand each other. That takes time as well as genuine leadership. The most collaborative leaders are those who stir the pot, those who get people focused on the task but then drift back to see what happens. More and more that’s what today’s leaders need to do.

Strong leaders, too

Relationships and collaboration are essential but neither negates the need for strong leadership. Organizations cannot rule by consensus; the term “analysis/paralysis” no doubt arose from observations of corporate boardrooms that dallied and dithered over responses to business challenges. After all, it was Sears which ignored Wal-Mart, General Motors overlooked Toyota, and IBM never gave a thought to Apple. Arrogance breeds complacency.

Strong leadership did rescue IBM and General Motors. In 1993, Lou Gerstner took over a dying IBM and shook it to its core; he and his team revamped management policies and freed the company from decades of hidebound management practices. Six years later, Rick Wagoner did something similar for General Motors. He brought in fresh talent and gave the newcomers free reign to develop new products. GM’s comeback has had its ups and down but seems on the upswing today. Gerstner was more of a top-down manager; Wagoner is by nature collaborative. He shares the spotlight but, more importantly, he lets decision-makers decide.

Strong leadership does not negate the need for relationships or collaboration; it embraces them. Leaders by themselves achieve very little; the measure of effective leadership lies in the results a leader achieves by inspiring others. In a corporate setting those results come by working with people, either as individuals or as teams.

Relationships are critical to leadership success and must be nurtured. And one way to nurture them is to get in line once in awhile and let others lead. Old Mr. Sam, as LBJ called Rayburn, also knew this. “You cannot be a leader, and ask other people to follow you,” he said, “unless you know how to follow, too.”

John Baldoni is a leadership communications consultant who works with Fortune 500 companies as well as nonprofits, including the University of Michigan. He is a frequent keynote and workshop speaker and author of six books on leadership, the most recent being How Great Leaders Get Great Results. Visit his leadership resource website at