The most important of all soft skills: cultivating and maintaining individual relationships

The most important of all soft skills: cultivating and maintaining individual relationships

This week, I have been preparing an article for the British website, who have asked me to write something about “soft skills”. So, I decided to write about how effective leaders rely on their relationships with the individuals they manage.

We often cling to the mistaken notion that the key role of the leader is to be inspirational at the group level. In reality, leaders don’t lead teams per se; they lead a set of individuals that make up a team. This distinction is a subtle but important one. Whether in a high-tech business, an orchestra, a military platoon, or a sports team, the best leaders seem to have mastered the most critical of all soft skills: cultivating deep relationships with the members of their teams.

Here are three examples from the world outside of business, examples that demonstrate the power of forging deep individual relationship with one’s subordinates.

Phil Jackson and the Chicago Bulls: Coach Jackson is simply one of the masters of slow management and individual relationships. When he took over as coach of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in 1988, Jackson inherited a team with some of the league’s most talented and spectacular players, but which had not won a title. When he reflects on the Bull’s six championship seasons in the 1990s, Jackson writes that one of the keys was the individual connection he was able to foster with Michael Jordan.

In 1989, when Jordan was already the best player in basketball, an athlete of supreme confidence who had to be cajoled into making sacrifices for the team, it was Jackson who was able to convince the Bull’s star to share the spotlight with his teammates so the group could grow and flourish. In the end, Jordan was able to put aside his ego to help unleash the energy of others, and the series of championships began.

Jackson considers getting to know his players and helping them grow as human beings to be one of his most important roles as a coach. On each player’s birthday, he goes out of his way to choose a special personal gift, a book that will contribute to the individual’s personal development. It is his way of saying to each member of the group, “I think I know who you are, I respect who you are, and I think I know what interests you, and what can help you grow.”

Soft skills and hard combat: In 1997, Michael Abrashoff took over as commander of the USS Benfold, a guided-missile destroyer armed with $1 billion worth of sophisticated weapons and manned by a crew of 310 men and women. At the time, morale on the battleship was exceptionally low and turnover unacceptably high. Few in the Navy thought the ship could improve, but within months Commander Abrashoff was able to achieve breakthrough results. Personnel turnover decreased to an unprecedented one percent, while the rate of military promotions tripled. The Benfold became regarded as the finest ship in the Pacific Fleet, winning the prestigious Spokane Trophy for having the highest degree of combat readiness.

To achieve these results, Abrashoff replaced command and control with commitment and cohesion. As he described in an article he wrote in May 2003 for Fast Company, “You cannot order people to become cohesive. You cannot order great performance. You have to create the culture and climate that makes it possible. You have to build the bonds of trust. In my time on the Benfold, I found that the only way to do that was one crew member at a time. When I took over command, I did something that was unusual in by-the-book command: I sat down with each man and woman, individually, in my quarters. As the ship’s leader, I wanted to get to know each of them as a person.”

As did Phil Jackson, Abrashoff founded his leadership of his team less on his ability to inspire them collectively, and more on his relationships with the individual members.

World-class musicians and individual inspiration: It would seem that one of the ultimate “command and control” jobs is orchestra conductor. The traditional view of the conductor is that he must learn to impose order and attention to detail on his “troops”, since even split-second lapses of discipline can have unfortunate consequences.

Benjamin Zander, the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra who has also become a motivational speaker for business audiences, has come to see the role of the orchestra leader differently. In a 2003 interview with CNN, Zander speaks of his “revelation” at age 45. His great discovery was that the conductor makes no sound; his success or failure is completely determined by others.

In fact, the most effective conductor is the one who learns to continuously awaken a fresh sense of possibility in his musicians. So, Zander stopped trying to manipulate and dominate others, and instead focused on helping each artist discover new heights of potential and possibility. Today, his message for business audiences is straightforward: Managers should learn to awaken possibility in their subordinates, and the only way to do that is to cultivate close individual relationships.


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