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"What Makes a Great Leader?" Series: Connection

"What Makes a Great Leader?" Series: Connection

This is Week 4 of a four-week miniseries about leadership.  This week, I’m sharing stories and ideas about caring.

Whew, week four! As I was putting together the content for this week, I felt an odd sense of deja-vu. When I went through old posts, I realized I had written about connection before — it’s something that has been on my mind and important to me for awhile because I was so bad at it previously. As Robin Roberts says, “make your mess your message”. I’m trying to live up to that.

I went through the content and decided to re-share it since it lines up so well with this series about leadership. Thank you for sticking with me this month; it has been fun to reflect on these topics and the many things I learned in my twenties when I first started leading people.

Want to know one of my biggest faults? It’s being too task and accomplishment-focused. Before you think that I am trying to disguise a strength as a fault, please allow me to elaborate. This fault was probably my biggest asset as an individual contributor and became my Achilles’ heel as a leader. Changing my behavior has only occurred because I’ve received feedback from many people and put in years of intentional effort to redirect my behavior.

I am hardwired to value finishing things and checking off my to-do list; I can delay gratification and focus on the action items at hand before taking a break and doing something fun. As I’ve taken various personality tests over the years, they have all validated that I value accomplishment and work by nature. (As an aside, one of the most straightforward personality tests that I have used for years and have found valuable is the Enneagram. I am a Type 3 for reference). From a nurture standpoint, I grew up with parents who worked incredibly hard, long hours running their own business. I knew my dad often went to work at four or five in the morning, and after having dinner with us (except during Christmas, Easter, and Valentine’s Day holidays, when he didn’t take a break for dinner and worked late into the evening), he would work again. When my mom was not helping my dad at our candy store, she was running our home with grace and efficiency. So, my natural tendency to focus on accomplishment was reinforced by my environment and the example my parents set for me.

When I started my post-graduate career, I became encumbered with completing the growing list of “things” that I had to do. And, as I demonstrated an ability to finish things, I was rewarded with more things to do. As I had more work to do, my nature to prioritize finishing things rather than being present with people surfaced and I became more and more transactional with people, viewing work relationships as a means to an end rather than trying to build relationships with interesting, fun people for the sake of it. It wasn’t that I wanted to be transactional — I wanted to connect with people — but I always put it off. I’d think, I’ll do that tomorrow/next week/next month when I have free time. I’ll touch base with someone on Friday when I get home and have some extra time in the afternoon. Inevitably, this would not happen, because I would chose to shift my focus from people to a process or a project.

This trait came up during a 360 feedback session I participated in about seven years ago. For months, it was hard for me to come to terms with it. I resisted changing for a few reasons: it was uncomfortable, it was ambiguous, and it felt like a massive shift of who I was as a person. How could I shift who I was that dramatically? Where would I start? Would people notice? How long would it take? And, in true Enneagram 3 fashion, when could I check it off my list as complete?

For me, remembering to connect with people is never going to be marked as “complete” because it is a habit that I have to keep current and hold myself accountable to every day. I will always have the tendency to start with my list of things, and I have to use reminders to make sure that my behavior and time aligns with my heart and my desire of who I want to be — a person who values people and relationships and moments more than accomplishments and output. It has gotten easier, though. As I’ve developed stronger relationships with people in all areas of my life by taking time to connect, even if it’s brief in quantity but high in quality, I’ve experienced joy in the experience of connecting and in knowing people on a deeper level.

Over the past seven years, there have been four things that have made the biggest impact on my journey of connecting with people.

  1. Feedback and accountability. There are a handful of people (you know who you are, and you deserve a standing ovation for your persistence in coaching me) who provide continuous feedback and accountability to me on this. These are people who know me well, who I trust and can hear direct feedback from, and who see me in different settings and situations. I’ve appreciated hearing and applying their perspective and coaching over the years.

  2. Starting small. I operate best when I have routines and habits that guide my behavior, so I decided to make connecting with people something that was a routine habit. To start, I listed it as a task on my to-do list every day — I would pick one person that I needed to spend time connecting with that day. It needed to be authentic, and it needed to be high quality, regardless of the quantity of time. Sometimes, multiple opportunities would present themselves on a particular day. Other times, I would seek them out. Doing it this way forced me to make it a habit and be accountable to doing at least one thing every day. The interesting thing that happened was that once I started trying to spend time or connect with someone once a day, I found many opportunities to stop and spend time with people rather than rush to the next meeting or task at hand. It soon became a habit and was no longer on my daily checklist as something to complete.

  3. My kids. I have a 2.5 year old son and a 5 month old daughter, and they have given me more joy than I thought possible when it comes to connecting with people and being present. I’ve learned that a toddler’s sense of time runs counter to my fast pace, and that sometimes your checklist of action items will not get done (or at least done before 10 pm) because you were holding a baby for two hours during nap time. I’ve had to learn to be OK with lowering my expectations of what I can accomplish on a given day and soak in the giggles and wonder that children show us. To take it a step further, I’ve gained a different perspective on leading people through being a parent. I saw the parallels between parenting as the opportunity to steward a life or lives at home and leadership as the opportunity to steward lives at work. I realized that how I treat people at work was more than following the Golden Rule; treat others how you would want to be treated, it was treating others how you would want someone to treat your children. This dramatically changed my perspective.

  4. Patience. A few years ago, I developed piriformis syndrome from running. It was the result of too much running and training and not enough conditioning and strengthening of my piriformis and the surrounding muscles. My piriformis weakened to the point where it locked up during a run one snowy January morning and I could hardly walk home. I called my primary care provider and got the first appointment available, after which I immediately started taking muscle relaxers. I was convinced I just needed to medicate my injury, and in a few days I would be running again. My PCP tried to convince me to go to physical therapy, but I didn’t see the value in it. When the muscle relaxers did not work, I tried steroids, convinced that this would be the magic cure. While the pain dissipated a bit, I still was not able to run. After that, I decided to try physical therapy. To my surprise, the slow and steady strengthening exercises, stretching, and therapies from physical therapy not only delivered pain relief, but they also improved my overall running abilities. I ran faster and had more endurance than I ever had before because I was patient and strengthened the muscles that would deliver results. Changing behavior can be the same. Often, we look for a quick fix when patience and the slow and steady development of new habits, reminders, and small behavior changes are what will propel us to be better people.

As people continue to spend the majority of their time at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, connecting with people in an authentic way is more important than ever. I’m challenging myself to reach out to people in all aspects of my life to encourage them, check in on them, and create a greater sense of community during a time that can feel isolating and full of anxiety.

If you are interested in learning more about this topic and my experience, you can read about it here, in The Savvy Young Professional book. There are two chapters, “Relationships” and “Lifelong Learning” that I wrote as I was going through this experience.

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