This is a very personal article, especially in part 2 where I speak of my own failings (you can skip to the juicy parts directly in Relational Leadership, Part 2: How I learned to be less of an asshole). I hope to illustrate my belief, that most of us learn relational leadership through the process of relational destruction. At least, that’s been true for me:
“Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment” — Sufi sage
The implications of this idea are profound, because to fully get it, is to start looking differently at all the assholes of the world, all the people who are fumble-fucking their way through life, trying to get a little love and a little success (and often failing, which turns them into even worse assholes, of course). And if you happen to be an asshole yourself, it might also bring you some self-compassion.
Let me begin with a basic frame, or context, around relational leadership. Conceptually, it is very simple.
Relational leadership is emotional intelligence in action. It is the set of actions, attitudes and communications that will have the people around you “win”, or have success in relation to you. You will cause them to feel good about themselves and about you. In a worst-case scenario, if you do this right, they will stop attacking you, criticizing you or ignoring you, and you will stop feeling resentful or envious towards them. At best, in addition to all these good feelings, you will earn their love and respect and they will give you access to resources. And it will cost you nothing but your time and attention, some care, and some humility. For these reasons, relational leadership is a no-brainer. It is the greatest investment you can make in yourself and the people around you. It is the fastest way to grow your circle of influence and the most direct path to happiness.
And yet, hardly anyone practices relational leadership. What usually happens, instead, is that we are caught up in cycles of reactivity originating in past trauma, usually family-based and often ancestral (meaning, inherited through generations).
This is nothing new. The Buddha said it, he called it “karma” or “dependent origination”. The solution he proposes are the so-called “3 jewels”: the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha. These equate to the teacher, the knowledge, and the community; also known as right faith, right doctrine, and right action. I am a very bad Buddhist, or maybe just an ignorant one. I am suspicious of all “faiths” and I can’t sit still for more than 10 minutes, which makes meditation some kind of torture. However, I have made enough stupid relational mistakes in my life to imagine that I have something to say about community and right-action in relationship. Isn’t it interesting, by the way, that the desire for community, to love and be loved, is universal, crossing all cultures and socio-economic levels? And that success in relationship is the primary litmus-test of our success as human beings, and universally admired?
So, backing up: how do you make the people around you win? It’s simple: you appreciate them and you approve of them. You “find them right“, or “honor their right to think and feel as they do” [Jerry Jud]. This can get a little dicey because its not possible to always approve of people. So what you do instead, is to take a small step in the direction of approval. If you can’t agree with them, at least try and understand why they think this way. This might give you more perspective on your so-called “emotional charge” (upset) in this situation. You may stop blaming the other person for your upset. You may start to behave like an adult, and own the truth that unless they are physically torturing you they cannot make you feel anything other than something that you have chosen to feel. Decide to not be a victim of your own feelings. Try and do what the Buddha said to do, or Jesus, or any number of other people. Take the larger perspective, which is that there are a lot of assholes in the world, you are probably one yourself (for whatever comfort this might bring: “the truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off“), and if you choose to negatively engage with them, that’s your bad. It is highly probable that taking this perspective will make you happier, or at least calm you down; and out of this calm, a solution might arise that you had not thought about while you were stewing in your resentments and attack-thoughts, paralyzed by your fear, or making the inventory of your failures and inadequacies.
Here is the mind-fuck of the human condition: most of us know how to do this, at least conceptually. Most intelligent and self-aware people absolutely know how we can transform all our relationships, including our relationship with ourselves, and from there to spread love and joy all around us. The core ideas are very simple (empathy, humility, and surrender). And yet most of us find it impossible to do consistently.
And me? Let me just say I am better at it now, than I was 6 months ago. I tell that story in Relational Leadership, Part 2: How I learned to be less of an asshole.