Solving Problems vs. Building Relationships (A 60-second read about how I forgot Leadership 101.)

November 1, 2012
By

“Chef wants to talk to you,” read a recent email from a staff member in Uganda.  The executive chef at our newest restaurant had asked that I call him.  Knowing that he had worked more closely with my mom (since I left Uganda much earlier than she did after I hired him), I asked her to call him.

She did.  All was well.  He was just giving a report.  “He still wants to talk to you,” Mom told me after she spoke with him.  (I remember thinking to myself, “That’s strange.”)

Later, another staff member wrote, saying that he, too, wanted to talk to me.  Assuming that there was a problem to be addressed, I took a deep breath and called.  But he also just wanted to give me an update and to check in with me.

As someone who has been in executive leadership for my entire adult life, and (forgive the resume-review to follow, but I do so with humble purpose) as someone who was a Fellow at the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University, and as someone who is now a Fellow in Global Leadership and a PhD student in Leadership Studies, I should have known better!  I had forgotten the most basic, most fundamental fact in my field: So much of leadership is not about solving problems, it’s about building relationships. 

I had totally underestimated the importance of my role, and how the staff needed only to tell me their stories, and for me to listen and say, “Great job.  Thank you.”

It is a very positive sign when your staff seem to wake up in the morning thinking, “What can I do to achieve success today?” instead of “How can I avoid the boss today?”  The key is finding ways to nurture that desire to succeed, and to encourage the creation (and telling) of stories that foster delight, dignity and pride.

And then to not forget to listen.

7 Responses to Solving Problems vs. Building Relationships (A 60-second read about how I forgot Leadership 101.)

  1. Paula
    November 1, 2012 at 11:25 am

    Ah Nathaniel. Standing back and self-reflecting is so key to leadership and that’s what you just demonstrated in this story.

    • November 1, 2012 at 12:17 pm

      Thanks for this, Paula. Like I always say, “I want to make new mistakes.” That can only be achieved by reflecting on “old” mistakes. I appreciate the comment!

  2. SUZY
    November 1, 2012 at 12:02 pm

    Once again, sir, you have given me insight and wisdom. Reading your blog gave me a glimpse into the lives of your staff and your leadership skills. I felt the warmth of the deep feeling and compassion that radiates from your life. Your willingness to be
    vulnerable and share in this way is refreshing and imparts strength to your readers.
    THANK YOU!!!

  3. November 1, 2012 at 3:11 pm

    Listening. An important part of leadership and parenting. Thanks for reminding me to have an ear for another person’s story.

    • November 1, 2012 at 9:00 pm

      And thanks for commenting, Lynne. I value your insights and thoughts. Bless you.

  4. CBH, M.Ed.
    November 2, 2012 at 1:18 pm

    Yes, crisis is around but not around every corner. This life lesson should underscore that connections are around the corner too! I am so glad you called your chef. Now you both feel connected as never before. Thanks for sharing so when I think there is a crisis calling, maybe it will be a connection instead!

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Nathaniel is CEO of AidChild.org. He holds a Master's Degree in Human Development and Psychology from Harvard University where he was a Reynolds Fellow in Social Entrepreneurship, and winner of the 2010 Harvard HDP Marshal Award. He also holds a PhD in Leadership Studies from the University of San Diego where he was the Dammeyer Fellow in Global Education Leadership, and a Cordes Fellow at Opportunity Collaboration. Nathaniel is author of "We Are Not Mahogany: Three stories about the male African life." Prior to his move to Uganda in 2000, Nathaniel was Deputy Director of the Office of the Governor of Arizona, and Director of Education at Leadership, Inc.

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