Posted on October 16, 2019 at 2:33 pm

The Keystone of Humble Leadership: Why You Must Invest in Strong Relationships

The Keystone of Humble Leadership: Why You Must Invest in Strong Relationships

Personal Note: In 2017, 22 years after my last day of service, I re-joined the military to become a peacekeeping commander in Kosovo, in former Yugoslavia. You can read more about it here and watch a speech here.

After three months of intense peacekeeping training during which we really got to know each other well, my team and I deployed to Kosovo at the end of March 2017. 

We were short two key team members: My deputy commander (#2) and our Warrant Officer were assigned to us at the last minute. It goes without saying that the role of my deputy was a key role for me. 

Also, and maybe even more importantly, the Warrant Officer is absolutely key for the well-being of the team as a whole. We were stationed as a totally independent unit in Team base many miles away from the closest military camp. 

For all intents and purposes, were on our own, and the Warrant Officer is responsible for everything from food shopping, to cooking to making sure the house is kept clean, and has heat, electricity, and running water. 

I arrived in Kosovo never having met two of my mission-critical team members, and I needed to establish trust, engagement, and open and transparent communication quickly. 

The first thing I did is take them for lunch and learn as much as I could about them personally: their families, professional experiences, hobbies, passions, and plans after the mission. I also inquired about their hopes and fears about our upcoming mission together and their expectations of me as their boss. 

I followed this up with regular, one-on-one meetings during the whole mission. 

By showing genuine interest in each of them as a whole person and not just the roles they were fulfilling for me, I was able to establish trust and open and transparent communication quickly. That’s what humble leadership is at its core: It is a relational view of the world. 

Edgar and Peter Schein, the fathers of Organizational Development, distinguish three level of relationships:

Level 1: Professional relationships (e.g. MD and patient or executive coach and client)

Level 2: Trusting relationships (e.g. friendships, highly functioning teams) 

Level 3: Intimate, deeply committed relationships (e.g. romantic relationships, Special Forces Teams)

As humble leaders, our goal is to move our relationships from Level 1 to Level 2, maybe even to Level 3. The skilled humble leader finds the right balance between too formal (Level 1) and maybe too intimate (Level 3). This is why leadership is a thinking person’s sport!

The most obvious place to start moving our relationships up to Level 2 and maybe Level 3 is with the people who work for us. However, the more senior we become, the more important it is for us to build and foster relationship sideways and up, as well, with our peers, our bosses and other important stakeholders. 

I would argue that one of the biggest services you can do for your team is having strong relationships with your bosses. Building deep and meaningful relationships isn’t initially efficient because of the time it requires, but it sure proved highly effective when I needed help and support for my team!

A study of cardiac surgical teams performing open heart surgery showed that teams who – check this out – sat together at the same table in the cafeteria instead of sitting with their professional peers performed measurably better at this complicated surgery. 

By the simple act of eating together, they made everybody aware of how much they each relied on each other, they moved their relationship up to at least Level 2, and had measurably better outcomes for their patients. 

Schein and Schein share a simple but powerful story of how relationships and trust can be built quickly and under time pressure in a highly rigid environment:

David is a senior spine surgeon at a children’s hospital. His complex operations require a team on which he is dependent during most of the operation. When asked how he developed a level of trust and openness with his team, he said he first selected people by their level of competence and then … he took them to lunch. 

Why? He realized that the quickest way to reduce hierarchical distance in the team was to do something very human and nonhierarchical together.

Unfortunately, hospital policy changed, and he could no longer have a dedicated team. Nevertheless, he still needed to build trust and openness as quickly as possible, now with rotating strangers. 

So, he evolved the required pre-op checklist into a cooperative process. Instead of hurrying through it, he asked his chief OR nurse to go through each item slowly and looked at each team member directly, using body language that showed interest and readiness to hear questions or concern about each item from each person. 

Going through the checklist in a respectful, collaborative way created better team cohesion, which benefitted the team and, most importantly, the patient. Things individuals might have missed were caught by the collective, and the most important outcome, the patient’s well-being, improved.

I want to stress that we don’t build relationships because we want to be nice or liked. Humble leadership doesn’t mean you have to be buddies with your direct reports and invite their families over for barbeques. 

We are building and growing relationships so our organization can get the job done in today’s fast-moving and complex world. We build relationships in order to avoid tribalism, silo building, indifference or worse, manipulation. 

If you hear these stories and think to yourself, Who has the time? I ask you to calculate the cost of distrust and disengagement to your organization. 

Here is what I know to be true from my own experience and research: You either build strong collaborative relationships with your people — which means attending to the feelings and fears of your people — or you can waste time and energy battling unproductive behavior and drama. 

Building relationships is therefore a pre-emptive move. It’s often not efficient in the short run, but it always proves effective. 

By building and strengthening relationships, we foster engagement. And remember: You cannot actually engage with a role. You can only engage with a person, a person with whom you’ve developed a strong, collaborative relationship!

Your take-away:

  • Map your relationships at work and identify them as Level 1/2/3
  • Pick one crucial relationship and commit to moving it the next level
  • Have your team do the same