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by, Wendy Lambourne, director, Legitimate Leadership 


One of the key differentiators between managers and leaders is the nature of the relationship that they have with their people. Good managers have “professional” relationships with their people such that there are reasonable levels of respect and trust between the parties. Leaders have something more. They have “personal” relationships with their people. They bond with their people at a deeper level and, as a result of this, their people are prepared to walk through fire for them.

The strength of the personal connections has nothing to do with whether the leader socialises with his people or not, nor whether he knows the names of their partner, offspring or pets. It goes beyond giving them due time and attention, liking them and holding them in high regard. All of these are preconditions for forging personal ties with one’s employees but they are not what causes the personal connection per se.

What generates the personal bond between manager and subordinate is the fact that the manager sincerely cares about her people, as human beings not only as human resources. It is at the end of the day an issue of the heart, not the head.

Leaders who really care about their people deliberately and consciously choose to put their people’s interests before their own. Every time they demonstrably put their own interests second they strengthen the human bond between them and their people. They grow in stature in their people’s eyes and then, and only then, are their people prepared to sacrifice for them.

Putting one’s employees first is never more evident than during times of personal crisis for the employee(s). These occasions inevitably arise because people are human and difficult circumstances (death, divorce, illness), other than for the rare few, do at some point arise. When they do, the leader’s response either cements or breaks the bond between the leader and her people. I have two examples which illustrate the case, one positive and the other negative.

  • I found myself in hospital once with a young person who was going through brain surgery for two tumours in her brain. She was the manager of a car rental agency and she told me, with humility, that she regularly received offers at twice her current pay. The reason that she was never tempted however was because of her boss who, at this moment, entered the ward. “Where else could I find this?” She said. “He is not only doing my job and his for as long as I am incapacitated, but he comes to visit me at least twice a week, even though he lives on the other side of town.”
  • A young man was washed off a pier on a Sunday afternoon while fishing with his mates. He plummeted down to the rocks below, miraculously did not die, but as a result of his injuries spent many weeks in hospital. He confronted his boss upon his return to his work: “Why, in all those weeks, did you not come and see me?” His boss’s response – that he asked after him at least three times a week – simply did not hold water. The bottom line was that the relationship was over. There was nothing the boss could do to recover from this. His only hope was to behave very differently when personal issues impacted on the lives of other people in his team.

I once spoke to a woman in a retail branch in a bank. She had the following to say. Firstly, that she had had a horrendous year from a personal point of view (she did not give details). “Throughout the year,” she said, “my manager was there for me.” Now she said “there is nothing that, if my manager (not the bank) asked of me, I would not do it.” People give their all at the end of the day for someone (who truly cares about them), not some organisational entity or thing.

Simon Sinek sums it up when he says that people follow leaders who have chosen to look after them. This is what a leader is.