In a previous post, I asserted that tasks conducted without relationships are dangerous. That got me thinking about what we mean when we say “relationship”. Are we talking about friendship, camaraderie, or something else? What defines a good relationship? When I reflected on this, I came up with the following elements.

1. Quality communication

A relationship cannot be strong without good communication. Communication is critical for learning about the other person and letting the other person learn about you. What good communication looks like could fill a book (or several) but in this context, we are talking about the ability to be open and to listen with the intent to understand rather than respond. Quality communication means being present for the other – shutting off the Blackberry, turning away from the computer, putting all the other things in your mind aside for a moment to be there for the person you are communicating with. Communication like this creates empathy and builds trust. When you feel understood, you trust the other person more.

2. Trust

According to Covey (2006), trust contains two main components: character and competence. Character means that in your relationships you model integrity and you have good intentions. Integrity means wholeness – you are who you are inside and out. Competence means that you are capable and that you show results. Demonstrating character and competence to others (and yourself) means you don’t make promises you can’t keep, you keep the ones that you do and when you break a promise, you make yourself fully accountable. Strong relationships depend on trust.

3. Empathy

Empathy is the extent to which one can understand another person’s reality. It is not the same as sympathy and it is important to separate the two. Empathy doesn’t mean you agree with the other. It simply means you understand what they are dealing with. Demonstrating empathy builds trust because when you understand someone, you model your intent by demonstrating that you care about the other.


Self-differentiation is the ability to know yourself first and maintain your objectivity in any relationship while continuing to  remain connected to the other person (Friedman,  2007). This is perhaps the most challenging part of establishing good relationships. Often, differentiation appears to be “standoffish”-ness because those practicing self-differentiation well will not allow themselves to be drawn into the other person’s anxiety.

Relationships are the building blocks of organizations (Short, 1998) . Through healthy relationships we learn and in the process of learning, we become resilient to change. It is through healthy relationships that we are able to discuss the difficult issues that we face rather than avoid them. As we tackle the difficult issues together, we can build a stronger, healthier organization.


Covey, Stephen M.R. (2006). The speed of trust. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Friedman, E. (2007). A failure of nerve: Leadership in the age of the quick fix.  New York: Seabury Books.

Short, R. (1998). Learning in relationship. Bellevue, WA: Learning in Action Technologies.


Kouzes and Posner posted this article today suggesting that  The Best Leaders are the Best Learners.

According to the pair, authors of The Leadership Challenge among other books, leaders engage in practicing continual learning activities. From the article:

  • they spend more time in learning activities. Literally, they engage in learning by reading, talking with others, experimenting with new ways of doing things or reflecting on their own leadership behaviors.
  • They ask more questions.
  • They don’t assume they know everything.
  • They aren’t afraid to admit mistakes.
  • They ask for feedback, and when they get it they say “thank you” and accept it as a gift by taking it seriously, whether the feedback is positive or negative.
  • They encourage others to experiment, take risks and accept failure by asking “What can we learn?”

I thought it was interesting because, now that I have been out of school for over a year, I have tried to keep my leadership edge by practicing most if not all of these things. I have committed to always having a book on the go – if not a new book, then re-reading one of the ones I had to read in school. This is a big change for me because I have not been an avid reader in the past. I ask a lot of questions. I probably annoy people that way! Admitting mistakes is always tough but I have had to face up to my behaviour in my organization. In terms of feedback, I have learned to accept it without immediate reaction, to reflect on it, and to appreciate it, positive or negative. I have walked a group of my colleagues through a study of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, encouraging them to learn and to experiment as well. I’m not sure that I can say I’ve spent the 2.7 hours per day practicing that they mention although perhaps on the whole and on average, I may have.

I am not posting this because I think I am a great leader. Rather, I post because I thought it was interesting that I have been practicing all these things already. Hopefully, this puts me in a position where I can be a better leader, wherever I sit in my organization, and ultimately, bring others along in their leadership practice too!

     Often I am asked why we spend so much time on “soft skills” like team building at staff conferences or other large group meetings. The complaint I hear frequently is that we never get to do any “real work” at these events. My response to that is that establishing relationships IS “real work” and that it is some of the hardest and yet most important work that we do. Rather than a polarity where we trade off relationship building with task accomplishment, I becoming more and more convinced that relationship and task form a hierarchy where task is subordinate to relationship – in other words, if you want to successfully accomplish a task, you have to work on the relationship first.

     Recently, I read “Young Men and Fire” by Norman Maclean, an account of a tragic forest fire in Montana in 1949. On the afternoon of August 5th of that year, 15 Smokejumpers met with a ground-based fire fighter to bring a 60 acre fire under control in an area known as Mann Gulch. Referring to it as a “10 o’clock” fire, the crew thought they were looking at a routine ground fire that they would have under control by 10 o’clock the next day. However, what appeared to be routine turned out to be anything but. In an instant, the bottom of the gulch was ablaze with what is known as a “blowup” – a sudden and rapid expansion of the fire. Realizing what was about to happen as the fire changed directions and approached the crew, the foreman, Wag Dodge, ordered his men to drop their tools and move away from the fire. Scrambling up a steep hillside, the men ran for their lives. Dodge, realizing that he could not outrun the pursuing blaze, stopped, pulled out a matchbook, and lit the surrounding grass creating an “escape fire” . He then shouted an order to his men to lie down in its hot ashes. None of the men, including Dodge, had ever seen this procedure before. According to Dodge, someone shouted back, “To hell with that, I’m getting out of here!” (p. 99). Dodge lay down in the remains of the escape fire and survived by letting the main fire pass around him. Tragically, none of his crew followed his instructions. Only Robert Sallee and Walter Rumsey managed to escape the fire by crawling through a crevasse in a rock outcropping at the top of a ridge. The rest, 13 in all, either perished instantly in the firestorm or succumbed to their burns by noon on the next day.

     Subsequent investigations and studies of the tragedy reveal many points of failure but I think the most poignant finding was that, for the most part, the crew did not have well established relationships with each other. Smokejumpers were by nature independent men – mostly college students and trying to earn some money before returning to school. On a typical fire, they would have a routine job to do and would need little instruction or supervision – “I’ll dig and scratch my fire line free of fuel, you do the same and our lines will link up to form a fire break”. Their role and their sense of self were based on their mental models about where they fit in the overall forest fire fighter hierarchy.  In the midst of the blowup, the crew chief ordered the men to drop their tools. Dropping their tools was like dropping their identity. As Maclean says,”when firefighters are told to throw away their tools, they don’t know what they are anymore, not even what gender” (p. 226). In this new and uncertain environment, mental models like hierarchy and roles disappeared. As firefighters, these men were trained to follow orders from superiors without question. Now, in the midst of the conflagration, their identities as firefighters were gone and with them the requirement to follow superiors’ orders. Because the relationship with foreman Dodge was defined by the firefighting task and little else, his potentially life-saving order to lie down in the escape fire area went unheeded. Who was Dodge at this point but someone with a crazy idea? Perhaps if these men had spent some time getting to know each other and building trust prior to being thrown together as a loosely coupled team, the crew would have followed Dodge into the ashes of the escape fire and survived.

     Organizational theorist Karl Weick (1993) explored the Mann Gulch disaster in much greater depth. He looked at the notion of “sense making” and what happens when our mental models are no longer valid. He uses the tragedy as a warning for those who think their organizations are stable. The recipe for failure is to “thrust people into unfamiliar roles, leave some key roles unfilled, make the task more ambiguous, discredit the role system, and make all of these changes in a context in which small events can combine into something monstrous” (p. 638). To provide some structure for resilience, Weick suggests that a focus on nonstop communication is crucial. Furthermore, “when meaning becomes problematic and decreases, this is a signal for people to pay more attention to their formal and informal social ties” (p. 646). These relationships help to bring a group back to a common sense of meaning. In other words, when disaster strikes, we must depend on our communications skills and our relationships for survival.

   If I assert that relationships are more important than task or at least that tasks should be subordinate to the relationships involved, one counterpoint I hear is that sometimes the task is so urgent there is no time to work on the relationships. To that I suggest that if the task is really that urgent,  then as a manager you have to ask yourself what happened to your resources (time, staff, and budget) that created this urgent situation?  Did you prepare for the future? Have you invested in the relationships? Margaret Wheatley (2002) states, “It is possible to prepare for the future without knowing what it will be. The primary way to prepare for the unknown is to attend to the quality of our relationships, to how well we know and trust one another” .

    With Wheatley’s admonition in mind, I know I will be continue to be focused on ensuring that the processes I am involved with have resources dedicated to building relationships as a fundamental component and not as a “nice-to-have” afterthought. If a few more conversations or discussion circles with flip charts before getting to the “real work” creates anxiety for the action-oriented people I work with, I hope I can beg their patience. When faced with the unknown, be it as dramatic as a fire disaster or as common these days as an organizational restructuring, if we have cared for our relationships, it will have been worth it. 


Maclean, Norman. (1992). Young men and fire. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Weick, Karl. (1993) The collapse of sense-making in organizations: The Mann Gulch Disaster. Administrative Science Quarterly, 38(4), 628-652.
Wheatley, Margaret. (2002). When change is out of our control. Retrieved from http://www.margaretwheatley.com/articles/whenchangeisoutofcontrol.html

I have been seeking inspiration for blogging from the Daily Post at WordPress and they suggest committing to a post a day or a post a week. I don’t know if I’m prepared to go that far but I’m trying to get some more posts on leadership up on my site for 2011.One suggestion is to write about your accomplishments from 2010. So in that vein, here it is.

With the exception of receiving my Master’s degree in Leadership at the Royal Roads June convocation,I found the year to be somewhat stagnant. On reflection, I think this is because 2010 was a year of searching and trying to find a place after two years of intense learning and study.

I attempted to maintain my leadership edge by making a point of reading and re-reading several books and articles. “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Victor Frankl was a classic that was on my “to read” list for a while.  I won “Switch” by Chip and Dan Heath as a door prize at our graduation banquet – not a bad book but how can you take something seriously from a guy named “Chip”? I started reading The 8th Habit by Stephen R. Covey but soon realized I needed to review “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” again. Did that, and then finished the 8th Habit. Both are excellent books – I wish I had read the 7 Habits years ago but I thought the title was cheesy and that “cookbook” steps to success are not realistic. Ironically, that’s not what the book is about at all!

I had a few opportunities to practice my learning organization practitioner tools but not as many as I would have liked. I was able to lead a coaching review seminar with some colleagues at work and I facilitated a learning session on communication and operating styles.

Career-wise, I investigated a few opportunities to see what interest I could garner with new letters behind my name. I definitely had a few bites but it is clear that I need to develop a bit more experience before those new opportunities would turn into something permanent. It seems odd that after 25 years of professional employment, I still need more experience!

So looking forward to 2011? I think I will continue to be proactive in developing my experience. I have made plans to teach Covey’s 7 Habits to some colleagues in January and February. I am leading a branch conference planning team that is intended to create corporate learning opportunities and improve engagement. I will continue to explore new career opportunities. I will take an active role in engaging our Coaching community of practice. I will seek out more opportunities to facilitate organizational learning.

Any other suggestions for maintaining my leadership edge?

Energetic thinking…

Haven’t blogged in a long time but I think I’m going to try again. Who knows… They say a habit takes three weeks to create and another three weeks to imprint. I’ll see if I can blog for three weeks. This guy thinks that the three week rule only applies to sawing off a limb. In any case, here I go again.

I have just finished reading The Power of Story by Jim Loehr of the Human Performance Institute. I picked it up at the Friends of the Okanagan Regional Library book sale for a buck. While I suspect that there are better resources out there for the art of storytelling,  the book was a good reminder of concepts from Steven Covey’s first three habits. You get to write your own story if you want to. Re-write your story. Live it.

I did think that the book’s message regarding energy management and the idea of a hierarchy of energy was interesting. Without physical energy, we are incapable of peak performance. The more physical energy you have, the more you are able to expend emotional, mental, and spiritual energy. The book talks about energy management as a combination of nutrition, physical exercise, and rest/recovery. So, with that in mind, I am going to pay more attention to my physical energy and put the book to the test!

Today, when I was at the gym, rather than focus on anything but the exercise (e.g. the TV on the machine), I did what the author suggested and actually focused on the exercise itself. If one day is any proof, I have to say it worked. I was able to concentrate on what I was doing (for the most part) and acknowledge the purpose of the exercise. I think I will look into some time with a trainer at the rec centre to see what I can do to get more from my workouts.

As far as nutrition goes, the author suggests eating small meals throughout the day – every two to four hours. I think I will bring in some low-calorie snacks like granola bars and consume them during the work day and see if I have more energy and less hunger when I get home from work.  I will keep you posted.

Finally, with rest and recovery another key component, I’ll sign off this post and go to bed a bit earlier tonight!

I was just going to post this as a link in Facebook but then it got me thinking enough to make it a blog post.

How Gen X Leads is an audiocast by Tammy Erickson. What she has to say really resonated with me.

I was born in 1961 (crap, that looks like a long time ago!) and depending on which demographer you believe I am considered either a baby boomer or Gen X.  I have always been a bit skeptical of generalizations like these and  I have always felt confused about which group I would be a part of – Boomer or Gen X?

 After listening to this, I could clearly relate to the challenges and opportunities she suggests that Gen X individuals are facing. Her description of the Gen X experience parallels mine. I have grown up in the shadow of the Boomers my entire career. When I graduated from university in the 80’s we were in the middle of a major recession. None of my graduating class had permanent job offers. The few jobs that were available were quickly scooped by Boomers with just that much more experience. I witnessed my father agonizing over the people he would have to lay off at a local car dealership. As Erickson says, I don’t necessarily expect things to be permanent and I don’t find the current economic meltdown particularly surprising – except perhaps the depth!.  Now that Boomers are retiring, I sense that I  face competition for these positions from the Gen Y crowd – the Boomer kids.

It is true that I have been forced to follow rules (especially in government, my chosen career path!) but that personally, I don’t think I’m particularly rule bound and I don’ t have reverence for institutions just for institutions’ sake (e.g. organized church, perhaps?).

I also could relate to being the person who considers multiple options and multiple points of view. I always thought this was a personality trait more than a generation trait but the comment rang true for me. Regardless, it explains a few conflicts I have had where I was accused of indecisiveness (by Boomers) when really I was simply looking for all perspectives.

I will take her advice to heart and make my thought processes clearer in future dealings with those that more generally fit the “Boomer” category.

Perhaps because I would be considered on the leading edge of Gen X or the tail end of the Boomers, I think the confusion I have felt comes from witnessing people my age who display Boomer characteristics more so than Gen X characteristics. Or perhaps I believe that these people put too much stock in this generational difference stuff. Or perhaps I have a personality type that has a hard time making a decision because there is always another perspective (classic Myers-Briggs ENFP type). Or, wait a minute, isn’t this just what Erickson said about multiple points of view?

I heard from the university on Monday.

My project was deemed fully approved with minor revisions. This means that I have completed the course and, consequently, the Masters Program. It almost seems anti-climactic at this point – I completed the work a month ago – but it is a relief to know that I am done except for a few bits and pieces of administrivia to take care of.

For the record, minor revisions included:

  1. the misplacement of a period on block quotes. The quote ends with a period and is then followed by the page number in brackets. I did this correctly in most places but missed it on two instances.
  2. I used the word “autoreply” instead of auto reply.
  3. I put quotation marks around the word “culture” in a dictionary definition which the reviewer said was not acceptable. I checked with my editor, she quoted the appropriate reference from the APA manual, and subsequently the university agreed that this  revision was not necessary.
  4. On my title page, I used the term “Faculty Project Supervisor” instead of “Faculty Supervisor”

Of all the revisions, the last one was the most annoying because it means that I will need a new signed title page! Given the trouble I had before, I’m not looking forward to tracking down that detail.

Now I just have to wait for convocation to receive my diploma!