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Building Relationships with Leaders

In the final analysis, a follower’s potential for influencing a leader will depend on the quality of relationship that has been developed between them. There is a certain paradox in building such relationships. On the one hand, taking care to build a relationship with the leader is a strategic move. On the other hand, relationships are not the result of strategic maneuvering; they are born and grow through genuine concern for others and through cumulative experience that develops mutual appreciation and trust.

Relationships cannot be forced or willed into being. But they can be tended to and thoughtfully developed. Relationships cannot be manufactured by morphing ourselves into what we think the other wantsthe ploy is always transparent and backfires. We become someone whom the leader instinctively cannot fully trust. We must be ourselves, even if that requires discovering who we are and what we stand for. We must be ourselves in relation to another human being and in relation to the common purpose that we serve.

These exhortations can sound vague and muddled because there are no pat formulas for being authentic and relating authentically to another. Often, we simply do this naturally and are both personally effective and able to enhance a leader’s effectiveness.

But sometimes, followers who have a lot to offer fail to form a relationship with a leader that permits them to contribute all that they can. This may be traced to biases on the leader’s part over which the follower has little control. But, just as often, the reason lies in some aspect of the follower’s own character and way of relating to the leader. The follower is too anxious to please, too long-winded in explanations, too mired in details, too combative with politically important colleagues, too defensive—the possibilities are endless. Soliciting feedback and being open to self- reflection as discussed earlier can help. But it is still difficult to see ourselves as others do and what it is about our style that works against developing the foundations of trust and confidence with a leader.

Another approach to this challenge is to pay careful attention to others who appear to have successfully won a leader’s trust. This may appear contradictory to the advice to be more our “true” self. But sometimes we need comparisons with others to learn about ourselves. When we travel to another culture, for example, we find ourselves becoming conscious of aspects of our own culture that we only begin to see in contrast to the other.

Here are some things we can pay attention to about ourselves and others that may help us, over time, to become one of a leader’s trusted partners:

Who seems to serve both the leader and the common purpose in ways that the leader readily accepts?

What do they do that contributes to the leader being so receptive to their input?

How does this contrast with our own approach?

Is there something we can learn that will allow us to improve the quality of our own approach to the leader?

Is there a way to adapt what we observe to the reality of who we are?

What will it take for us to integrate this change so it is natural and sustainable?

If our own efforts to support a leader are generally or occasionally well received, what contributes to our success and how can we reinforce this?

Service to a leader requires the intention to give service. But intention alone is insufficient. As Baldesar Castiglione counseled some five hundred years ago, it is only through a relationship of service to the leader, rendered in ways the leader can appreciate and value, that a follower builds the platform from which to meaningfully influence the tone and performance of the leader’s tenure.

Castiglione knew that service is an art. Art is developed through commitment and discipline. If you choose to be a courageous follower, don’t be careless about how you serve a leader. Take pride in this aspect of your role, and perform it with as much care and consistency as possible. People who serve others well in any capacity are highly attentive to the needs of those they serve, whether large or small. Good leaders know they are there to serve their followers, and courageous followers take equally good care of their leaders. Both work artfully and authentically in the service of the common purpose.