Leadership is a lonely business. In the context of a CEO he is on his own at his desk and the buck stops there. That is the logic of accountability. The experimental reality of many leaders is very different. They have one or more critical leader relationships (CLR). These are â€œcriticalâ€ because they may represent the difference between success and failure.
Microsoft, one of the mightiest and most impressive corporations on the planet, regularly voted a most admired company and one of the best to work for, has been led for most of its existence by a very un-leader-like Bill Gates. He was able to achieve success by realizing early on that his talents alone could not build lasting success.
He recruited the best people he could find and during the years of greatest growth relied on a partner in leadership who had all the talents that he, Gates, himself lacked-organizational savvy, people skills, and a confident administration authority.
Many great businesses the world over have thrived on such great partnerships. In the great family businesses of India there are numerous success stories where brothers, cousins, fathers and sons are able to do far more than one person could do alone.
There are of course disaster stories, where two in a box wonâ€™t work. The Ambani brothers have done a lot better in their separate space than when forcibly placed together out of respect for their late fatherâ€™s wishes.
The logic is synergy and the idea is that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The most effective organizations have synergistic relationship at all their levels. Anyone in a leadership position top, bottom or middle can benefit from a CLR.
Then how to choose the successful ones and what steps can be taken to make them work?
First, they may be fit for purpose. The purpose is as the world becomes faster and more complex, and corporations more varied in their internal architecture and cultures it becomes ever harder for one person to do it all. In short, there is a need for more than one pair of hands to cover the territory. There is also a need for other brains to check ones assumptions, others whole hearted support, and other personalities for fresh perspectives. This means a leader of an organization needs someone with shared goals and values, but who is quite different to the leader himself in background and psychology.
Not all groups or organizations are equally political. In some organizations, for instance politicking is overt and rampant, while in others, politics plays only a small role in influencing outcomes. Why is there this variation? Recent research and observation have identified a number of factors that appear to encourage political behavior. Some are individual characteristics, derived from the unique qualities of the people the organization employs; others are a result of the organizationâ€™s culture or internal environment.
Finally, when employees see the people on top engaging in political behavior, especially when they do so successfully and are rewarded for it, a climate is created that supports politicking. Politicking by top management, in a sense, gives permission to those lower in the organization to play politics by implying that such behavior is acceptable.
A CLR can be up, own, peer to peer, or from outside like he/she can be a friend, a professional coach, or even a family member.
What CLRs can deliver will differ as to which of these forms they take. Outsiders are best for emotional support. Bosses and mentors are best for advice. Subordinates are good for material help, and peers are good for challenging oneâ€™s way of thinking.
But this requires good process. The best are semi-formalized and reciprocal. There is an informal â€œcontractâ€ that time will be regularly set aside for each to deploy the skills of smart questioning, active listening creative thinking and emotional support. Then leading doesnâ€™t have to be so lonely any more.