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Managing relationships a key skill of the best leaders

John Engels

John Engels

A couple of years ago, a hospital administrator I worked with told me that his institution faced legal action because a sponge was mistakenly sewn into a patient during surgery. A thorough investigation revealed that the in-charge operating room nurse had a long-standing problem with the surgeon’s dismissive attitude and didn’t want to question him about the sponges.

In this situation, the problem was not surgical technique, but lack of maturity on the part of both the nurse and the surgeon.

That’s unfortunate, yet predictable. When hospitals hire surgeons and operating room nurses, they focus their search on technical expertise and years of experience, not on emotional maturity.

Businesses who seek to attract future leaders can make this same mistake.

Too often, they hire first-rate technicians and subject matter experts who turn out to be poor leaders. Their hires might be best-in-class at completing projects, but they arrive on the scene ill-prepared to lead others. Without background, training, or skill in building teams and coaching direct reports, how are they supposed to make the jump from technical expert to leader?

While most surgeons are unlikely to give up lucrative paydays to study human behavior, company leaders enjoy more options. They can purposefully build leadership capacity in their companies.

They can start by training their high potential leaders in relationship management and giving them opportunities that will help them practice those skills, building a foundation of competence and confidence over time.

What gets taught?

Companies can offer leadership development using internal staff or outside professionals. The big question is, “What gets taught?”

Leadership development has become notoriously superficial, mostly because those who peddle it believe they possess one-size-fits-all formulas and “fun” gimmicks that ultimately can’t deliver. These programs usually lack substance and don’t challenge potential leaders.

Much of what passes for leadership development belongs in the bucket of “project management.” Topics such as preparing performance reviews, time management, goal-setting and meeting facilitation are important foundational management skills, but lack the intensive focus on people that is crucial to solid leadership.

Why is a focus on relationships so important?

Because most leadership challenges are people problems: Resistance to change, defensiveness, avoidance, over-functioning, lack of political astuteness, poor listening, emotional reactivity, unclear messaging, bad attitude, inaccurate perceptions, etc.

Quick-fix programs and hallway conversations do not effectively address these kinds of complex challenges. What is required is a leadership development approach with depth and substance, a process that helps would-be leaders become better thinkers and decision-makers and develop the wisdom needed to help others grow.

In my experience, five key competencies should be included in the design of a rigorous leadership development program:

Systems thinking

Effective leaders see how the system — any group or organization — functions as a whole, how all parts impact all other parts and how successes and failures depend on many factors. This understanding helps a leader to find root problems and make more accurate observations. Part of systems thinking is an orientation to seeing one’s own part in any problem that occurs in the system.

Emotional maturity

Individuals gain maturity when they begin to see themselves as authors of their own lives. The basic maturity mindset is both simple and difficult: “I am responsible for how my life turns out.”

There’s a contagious element to both immaturity and maturity. Immaturity can be seen in blaming and resenting others, reacting automatically, and shunning responsibility. Left unchecked, it causes a breakdown in a healthy system.

Maturity is inconsistent with blame. Leaders who take full responsibility for their own decisions, feelings, thoughts, expectations, and actions naturally inspire maturity in those around them. They have a genuine interest in looking at themselves with an aim to improve. Mature leaders take clear positions and are not afraid to reveal their own imperfections.

Anxiety management

People pay closer attention to a poised leader. Listening to better understand, reflecting before responding, regulating the tendency to overreact — these habits characterize a non-anxious leader. One who responds thoughtfully instead of impulsively attracts credibility, interest and confidence. It’s as if others sense the care and consideration that goes into how a calm leader functions.

Growth-promoting curiosity

Consultants come in two varieties. One type gives solutions and answers, and a second type poses questions that drive deeper thinking. The first type of consultant inspires obedience to the “right” method or idea, and dependency on the consultant. The second type inspires independent thinking and personal responsibility, with the consultant as a conduit, not a source.


“There is no one right way.”

“The course of action depends on the circumstances.”

“What fails today might be the best strategy tomorrow.”

These sayings capture the wisdom of experience, which boils down to flexibility. More rigid leaders have a hard time trusting in exceptions. That’s a problem, because with people issues, there are always exceptions. We’re complicated creatures. That’s why the smartest leaders value discernment over snap answers.

It would be nice if ready-made leaders were abundantly available. But that’s not the case.

Leadership begins with potential and is nurtured over time by thoughtful training that promotes growth in the candidate. This is also a tremendous benefit to the company in the long run.

If business owners want to find and keep the best leaders, they must look for people with more than the “right credentials.” They must look for those with the “right stuff” and commit to developing their potential with good training and solid coaching.

John Engels is an international leadership thought leader, speaker and writer. He is president of Leadership Coaching Inc., a science-based consulting firm serving top-level leaders and partners in family businesses and professional firms. He can be reached at John@LeadershipCoachingInc.com.


  1. Good insights John. I am working on developing curriculum for leaders in our organization and we are more focused than ever on the soft skills, or people skills you are describing. It’s hard to get an engineering or technically driven organization to move beyond the hard skills they have come to adore and credit with the success of the company. Yet, you can see the growth of the company stunted with turnover due to poor people skills in managers, or decisions that never get all the information they need because people don’t want to upset a volatile CEO or VP. We’re working hard to overcome these things, but it is not easy and take deliberate actions. Thanks for your words and the encouragement in your blog.

  2. John your reads on organizational interaction and emotional maturity are consistent with the highest performing companies and governing boards. Your blogs are consistently informative and inspirational. I’m in the “you get what you give” camp of servant leadership theory, but frequently fall short of my goals. That said, you just reinforced I am on the correct path, whatever twists and turns it may present. Thank you for your thoughtfulness and deliberance.

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