Relationships with individuals are the key to leading groups

Relationships with individuals are the key to leading groups

lights_Jirka MatousekAfter last week’s post, I received a number of requests—from both readers and clients—asking my advice about how managers should go about cultivating deep relationships with their individual team members.

As such, I began thinking that it would be a good idea to discuss some other examples in the coming weeks, illustrations of how leaders and managers in a variety of fields—the arts, sports, and business, and perhaps even others—rely on deep connections with individuals to elicit extraordinary group performance.

In addition, I went back to my notes on Abrashoff’s book, It’s Your Ship, and re-read some of the passages I found particularly pertinent to this question. And, the more I reflected on Captain Abrashoff’s story, the more I found things to like about the way he approached his crew.

So, for today, let’s take a closer look at the case of Abrashoff and his views on relating to his people. One thing I should mention here: While I am obviously the one writing this piece, much of what follows is a paraphrase of the captain’s words, drawn from passages in his book, or from the Fast Company article I referenced last time.

For the captain of a vessel such as the Benfold, one obvious truth is that it is first and foremost a warship. In the US Navy, the bottom line is always combat readiness, in terms of equipment, training and organization. However, Abrashoff felt, for a variety of reasons, that the best path to combat readiness was not the traditional “command and control” approach. As he states: “You cannot order people to become cohesive. You cannot order great performance. You have to create the culture and climate that make it possible. You have to build the bonds of trust.”

Abrashoff understood that the military is an organization of young people. Often, their motivation for enlisting is not a longing for the soldierly life but rather a desire to distance themselves from a bad situation at home. A significant number of these men and women have been involved with drugs and street gangs. Although they knew what they did not want, they rarely had clear ideas about what they did want.

Getting them to contribute in material ways to life-or-death missions isn’t merely a matter of training and discipline. According to Abrashoff, one of a commander’s most critical roles is learning about who these sailors are and where they’re coming from—and linking that knowledge to the group’s purpose.

Of course, it is one thing to be aware of the types of backgrounds the enlisted people come from and yet another to truly know each team member as a person. When Abrashoff took over as leader of the Benfold, he did something unusual in the world of by-the-book command: He sat down with each man and woman, individually, in his quarters.

His goal was to learn something about each of them: Why did they join the navy? What was their family situation like? What were their goals while in the navy—and beyond? How could he help them chart a course through life?

Thus, the ship’s captain got to know each individual, what their strengths and weaknesses were, and why they had joined the navy. By establishing this type of genuine relationship with each of his sailors, Abrashoff made himself more approachable, and he began to win the entire ship’s confidence.

Before Abrashoff took over the Benfold, most of these sailors had never been in a commanding officer’s cabin. As time went on, he continued to bridge the distance between himself and the enlisted people, meeting periodically with each member of the crew, and often asking three simple questions: What do you like most about the Benfold? What do you like least? What would you change if you could?

Little by little, the crew came to realize that their leader was different than other captains—singularly focused on engaging each of them in his goal of making the Benfold better, and willing to put aside any concept of his own personal glory or desire for advancement. Once they saw that the commander’s invitation to propose change was sincere, the men and women gave suggestions for improvement that made life better for the entire crew. 

As each member’s involvement in the project grew, the ship’s combat-readiness ratings began to soar.

Image: Flickr-user Jirka Matousek

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