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

“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.

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