The Art of Pursuing Relationships

In the category of leaders who have chosen to continue trusting and building relationships after being burned, one man comes to mind.

I first met Dennis Okoth almost twenty years ago when he came to speak at a graduation ceremony in Africa. His full story is not mine to tell, but suffice it to say that many years ago, he was violently betrayed and almost killed by people close to him—people who should have protected him.

I had the great honor of working with Dennis for several years as he served as the Principal for a training institute and then as the first Vice President of Academic Affairs at the university in Uganda. What struck me about him as a leader was his incredible ability to listen.

On several occasions, I quietly observed Dennis counseling or mentoring a staff member or student. He would patiently draw out their concerns, even in difficult conversations around conflict.

When their words became heated or accusatory, Dennis would gently respond with a simple, “Ok,” and invite them to continue speaking. His calm and sincere demeanor would crack their shell, and he always ended up reconciling differences and building trust.

I saw how effective Dennis was as a leader through the simple act of listening well, and I decided to become more like him.

Crisis Attacks Relationships

As I’ve written in this space before, there are two behaviors that consistently build trust: vulnerability and genuine concern for others. Both of those behaviors get much harder after a leader experiences crisis, failure, or betrayal.

Crisis attacks relationships and turns us inward with two isolating beliefs. The first isolating belief is that no one can understand what I'm going through. The second is that no one would respect me if they knew what happened.

Crisis amplifies the voices of embarrassment, blame, and guilt. These voices reinforce isolation and make us wary of close relationships.

If your experience is anything like mine, you have experienced a failure that led you to withdraw from people or trust less. In my own crisis of leaving Africa, I lost my bearings on trusting others. For a long time, I was afraid to tell my story. I came up with various true but partial versions to protect myself from the possibility of being judged or rejected.

“God did not put you on earth to be liked.”

But my work is very personal, and I found that when leaders learned of the failures I had gone through, they trusted me more, not less. My respect for them grew, too, as I saw them lead through crisis and setbacks.

A good friend told me, "God did not put you on the earth to be liked." So, I've been letting go of the need to be liked and instead making the choice to live in vulnerability, openness, and forgiveness. That choice has led me to teach a different approach to conflict in teams that lowers walls and builds trust. It has also become the third pillar supporting my bridge to excellence.

The Third Pillar: Pursuing Relationships

The pillar of Pursuing Relationships is one of our company’s core values (the other two are embracing risk and expecting results). How do I define this value?

Pursuing relationships means we listen before talking. We act and speak with humility. And we ask questions to understand before judging. Pursuing relationships means we are quick to forgive and we stay open to others.

I cannot overemphasize the importance of listening as a core leadership skill. As David Augsburger has said, “Being heard is so close to being loved, that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.”

Leaders who want to build trust and respect will intentionally pursue relationships. Even after they have been wounded, they stay open to others and model the way of humble leadership.


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