Got to Be REL

This past week I had the privilege of speaking with a group of up-and-coming leaders who were participating in an institute for leadership development. When I was first asked to do this several months ago, I put it off because these kinds of requests always cause me some amount of anxiety.

I have to admit that I was surprised to see it pop up on my calendar this week because I thought that the roster of speakers would certainly fill all the spaces before they got around to asking me again. The planners had forethought and placed it on my calendar several months ago, so I had to do it.

It’s not that I did not want to participate, Unfortunately, I tend to think that people who talk as if they know what leadership is might be charlatans because who really knows what this fascinating concept is?

As I ruminated about why I didn’t want to speak on leadership, I found fault with the title the planners had given the talk: Building Relationships: A Leader’s Tool. Though I understood the point that was intended and the spirit of the title, the idea of relationships being a tool to be used seemed manipulative to me and insincere. Then I worried myself with the question, “What can I say about leadership that they have not already heard and that they don’t already know?”

To prove my thoughts in this question about what they already know, I asked them at the very beginning of my talk to share what they think leadership is, and sure enough, they all seemed to have some well-formed ideas about leadership.

After seeing the group and hearing their thoughts about leadership, I was truly happy to be with them. I told them that I had written articles, co-edited a book, served in several positions of leadership, and I had made numerous speeches on leadership. But, what I would share with them would not necessarily be based on anything I had done previously. I was going to talk with them about what I thought about leadership and relationships at this particular time on this day.

First, I told them what I think leadership is not:

  • Leadership is not a static condition or role.
  • Leadership is not something that you own and can put in your brief case or designer bag and take with you to the next place.

Leadership implies working with others, and together, you and the group form a tacit mutual agreement to work toward common goals.

When leadership occurs, there is an understanding among all in the group that each person in the group has a role that contributes to the attainment of something. The person who wants to be an effective leader must insure that everyone sees that the leader is also a worker bee whose responsibilities are often different and not better than or more important than any other workers. The group should easily see that all roles are important and all are valued for what they bring.

Sometimes the person who has the ultimate responsibility for goal attainment fears failure. Having the responsibility for the accomplishments of the entire group can make one who wants to be the leader anxious and afraid.

When I have felt this way, I behave in ways that I always regret, and wish I could take back those moments, but the moments are like feathers in the wind and gone forever. Unable to have a “do over,” I vow to do better and, for me, doing better proves the old tried and true adage that we have all heard. Everything will be all right, “Just be yourself.”

In other words, be authentic. I think that being authentic is the one way of being that one can control, count on, and take to every situation. Being authentic often allows one to hold the magic orb of being a leader. The orb is heavy. It is beautiful in its own way; it’s a painstaking fine work of art, and it’s extremely complex. The orb demands a lot from the one who holds it, and it does not promise that it will always work its magic in your favor. Because leadership depends on the cooperation of others and relationships, the orb of leadership can be finicky, fleeting, and short-lived.

So how do I retain authenticity and how does it help me build relationships that are invaluable in supporting my desire and efforts to be a leader? In thinking about my experiences and how I want to be everyday with the people with whom I work, I have created this mnemonic for ease in remembering. Being authentic is being REL (real):

  • R is for the respect I strive to demonstrate by appreciating what everyone brings to our efforts;
  • E is for empathy as I put myself in the place of others in our group and treat them as I would want to be treated; and
  • L is for love. Yes, leaders who want to be successful have to love the team and be there for each of them.

Being REL (real) builds relationships. Relationships can be the coin of the realm in effective leadership. Being REL with my groups has tended to result in relationships that allow me to hold the orb of leadership in a number of administrative jobs. I am grateful for those fleeting and short-lived moments.

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