Connection: Today’s most essential leadership skill

The events of the last two years have certainly challenged leaders to stay in relationship with members of their teams, many of whom continue to work remotely or in a hybrid fashion. But leaders will need to double down on their efforts to forge deep connection with employees because work-from-home preferences are not abating.

A December 2020 Pew Research Center analysis revealed that 54% of individuals working remotely preferred to continue to work from home when the pandemic threat ends. We have arrived at a “new normal” in leadership. The question is, are you ready?

To build and maintain high-performing teams now and after COVID-19, Loyola New Orleans professor and executive coach Michelle K. Johnston points to mastering connection as key to leading in a changing world. Her book, “The Seismic Shift in Leadership,” highlights three specific forms of connection critical to a leader’s success:

  • Connection with yourself
  • Connection with your team
  • Connection with your organization

Why connection with yourself matters

Among the three, mastering connection at a personal level is perhaps the most difficult because it demands real honesty and a willingness to examine your strengths and vulnerabilities. Connection with yourself also requires shining a bright light on your failures, not just your triumphs, when the natural human tendency is to minimize the former and project the latter.

None of this is comfortable, but it is essential if your intention is to lead with authenticity.

A few years ago, I worked with a senior leader who rarely provided useful feedback to his team, especially to those employees who appeared to be trying but were not delivering expected results. The root of Joe’s difficulty with feedback was his own lack of self-knowledge, which hampered his ability to appreciate what his struggling team was experiencing. He hadn’t fostered a deep connection to himself, so building a connection to his team was even more difficult.

Once I examined his rise to power, I discovered important gaps in Joe’s development of which he was unaware. As an intellectual powerhouse and the product of the best schools and universities in the country, Joe gained the respect of his managers and rose quickly within the organization. His boss described Joe as “pretty much the smartest guy in the room,” who outpaced his peers in his area of expertise.

What I learned as I dug deeper is that Joe had developed that reputation early in his life, and it followed him through school and into his career. Others expected Joe to be the smartest guy, and he expected that of himself. Consequently, Joe had avoided assignments in which his likelihood of excelling was a question. He had risen to a senior role never having learned how to overcome failure because he made every effort to avoid it.

So, when team members struggled to succeed, Joe was unable to relate well enough to talk them through challenges, offer suggestions and recognize and encourage their efforts. It was a leadership blind spot created by years of Joe carefully curating life opportunities and choosing only those in which his success was assured.

His Achilles’ heel was the risks he didn’t take, the failures he sidestepped and the learning he forfeited in pursuit of perceived perfection.

Look for growth, and share your learnings

Building a connection with yourself is a lifelong journey that is enhanced by taking advantage of opportunities for personal growth and learning. As a leader, your ability to help your team develop the self-knowledge required for future success often depends upon the degree to which you’ve already done your own work.

Have you sought out situations or roles that take you outside of your comfort zone? Have you taken on challenges that you were not certain you’d be successful in overcoming? In other words, have you been willing to risk failure in an effort to grow?

Self-understanding — and sharing those insights with your reports — encourages them to reflect and become more receptive to taking on growth roles. You can’t expect members of your team to embrace stretch assignments if your track record shows that you haven’t been willing to do the same.

Strong leadership capabilities are developed by more than just reaching for the next rung on the ladder. Great leaders know themselves well. They have learned how to be successful, but they also appreciate what it feels like to fail and grow. A leader’s new power lies in his or her ability to connect with others, and that work begins by connection with yourself.

This article was first published in SmartBrief on Leadership, February 2022.

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