John C. Maxwell: Relationship-Based Leadership

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What is relationship-based leadership? How does relationship-based leadership differ from title-based leadership?

Relationship-based leadership (also known as permission leadership) is the second level of leadership in John Maxwell’s leadership hierarchy. Maxwell writes that progressing from the first level leadership (title-based leadership) to the permission level means that you have gained some influence over your team members and they now do their jobs because they want to, not because they have to. They transform from subordinates into followers—they go along with you because they get along with you, not because your title coerces them to. 

In this article, we’ll discuss Maxwell’s second level of leadership, its pros and cons, how to maximize it, and what to do to move up the leadership ladder towards level three.

What Is Relationship-Based Leadership?

Relationship-based leadership marks the true start of your leadership journey. Reaching this level means that you’ve unlocked a fundamental truth when it comes to leadership: your success depends on your relationships. When you focus on communication and connection, it makes your people feel valued and included. This encourages them to go from compliance to cooperation and collaboration. In short, they give you permission to lead them. 

(Shortform note: Maxwell’s Level 2 and Collins’s Level 2 are similar in that they both focus on relationships. But while Maxwell’s Level 2 is about turning subordinates into followers, Collins’s Level 2 is about being a contributing team member who works effectively with others to achieve a shared objective.)

Pros of Permission Leadership

According to Maxwell, the positives of being a permission leader are:

1. It injects the workplace with positive energy. If you’ve ever had to work with a boss or a team you didn’t like, then you know how draining it can be. Conversely, working with people whom you like and respect makes the hours go by more quickly. Shifting your focus from yourself to your team has an invigorating effect. It makes your people feel cared for and trusted, creating a friendlier work environment and developing team chemistry. This makes work more pleasant for everyone and gives them more energy and motivation to do their jobs and do them well.

(Shortform note: It’s not always easy to remain positive, especially when faced with challenges. In The Energy Bus, Jon Godron writes that you can turn negative energy into positive energy with gratitude. For example, instead of seeing a long to-do list as a negative, be thankful that the company trusts you enough to carry out these tasks.) 

2. Communication becomes a two-way street. Positional leaders tend to talk down to their people. Meanwhile, permissional leaders have conversations that go both ways—to them, listening is just as important as talking. This leads to a greater sense of community, where people feel they can communicate openly, not just with their leader but also with their teammates.

Become a Better Listener

In How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie writes that being a good conversationalist includes being a good listener. He offers the following tips:
  • Ask questions they’ll enjoy answering.
  • Invite them to talk about themselves.
  • Ask about the challenges they’ve faced and how they handled these obstacles. Sincerely praise them.

3. Every person feels like a valuable member of the team. When you see and appreciate the uniqueness of every person on your team, they feel valued and respected, which then has a positive impact on their morale. Even little acts can go a long way to make people feel appreciated and give them a sense of personal fulfillment.

(Shortform note: In The Leadership Challenge, the authors write that the most meaningful form of recognition is a personal one. You can personalize recognition by getting creative with incentives and rewards, by publicly celebrating accomplishments, and by simply saying “thank you.”) 

4. You develop trust. Once you stop trying to impress people and start trying to develop relationships, you start to gain their trust. Trust opens the doors to collaboration and teamwork—sharing, questioning, creating, and taking risks. People will only give you permission to lead them if they trust you.  

Gain People’s Permission to Lead

  • Building trust is an essential part of leadership, because it makes people feel like they have the support of others and makes them more comfortable taking risks. But getting people to trust you isn’t as simple as telling them to do so. In Dare to Lead, author Brene Brown writes that the key is to demonstrate trustworthy behaviors through small moments over time. The following are some behaviors that demonstrate trustworthiness:
  • Setting and respecting boundaries
  • Being reliableStaying accountable
  • Keeping confidence
  • Acting with integrityBeing nonjudgmental
  • Being generous with interpretations of others’ intent 

If you find yourself falling short on some of these behaviors, work on them little by little. For example, if you struggle with being judgmental, the next time someone comes to you for advice, try putting your preconceived notions about the person aside and simply listen.

Cons of Permissional Leadership

While building relationships offers many positives, it can still have downsides. That’s because you’re dealing with a wide range of people, who have different temperaments, interests, and quirks. Maxwell writes that you’ll have a better chance of earning people’s permission to lead them if you’re able to manage these downsides: 

1. You can have a hard time balancing the “soft” side and the “hard” side of leadership. Leaders need to balance the “soft” side of relationship-building with the “hard” side of producing results. If you lean too much toward building relationships, you might accept subpar work from your people just to keep them happy. You might also end up having frustrated high achievers on your team—workers who value action over affection might become impatient with the slow process of building relationships.

The key is to maintain a good balance between the two: build relationships to encourage production, but show tough love when necessary—if you are invested in your people, you’ll care about their progress, not just their comfort. Remember: It’s not about making people happy; it’s about making people better so that you can achieve a common purpose.

(Shortform note: While Maxwell believes that building relationships will inspire people to work, coaching experts say that relationships also allow you to determine the driving force behind actions and results. As a purely hard skills-oriented manager, you might only see your team members’ poor performance without understanding their motivation; as a leader who has built a relationship with your team members, you’re able to dig deeper and understand the beliefs and experiences that drive their actions. For example, if someone on the team doesn’t follow a sales strategy, a manager lacking in soft skills might simply put pressure on the team member to shape up. In contrast, a leader with soft skills will seek to understand why the team member isn’t following the strategy—maybe the team member’s previous experience has shown him a different sales tactic that proved effective for him.)

2. People can take advantage of you. When you build relationships, you’ll find that there are four kinds of people:

  • Users, who use your influence to improve their position but don’t give anything in return
  • Builders, who make the most of the relationship and improve themselves and you
  • Freeloaders, who are content with any benefit that comes their way but don’t actively try to better themselves
  • Friends, who have a reciprocal, genuine relationship with you

Maxwell acknowledges that you’re bound to meet a lot of users along the way, but it’s a relational risk you’ll have to take to open yourself up to the value that other people can bring into your life. 

(Shortform note: Similar to Maxwell, Adam Grant classifies people according to three reciprocity styles in Give and Take: takers, who like to get more than they give; matchers, who balance give and take; and givers, who like to give more than they get. When dealing with takers, Grant says you can keep from turning into a doormat by using a strategy called “generous tit for tat”—taking the game theory tactic of matching the other person’s behavior, but occasionally forgiving a mistake or bad act. For example, if the other person turns out to be regularly competitive, compete two-thirds of the time but cooperate a third of the time. If the takers keep taking, you shouldn’t feel too bad about being a giver—according to Grant, givers tend to be more successful in the long run.)

3. It’s not easy if you’re not a people person. Some leaders have a natural rapport with other people, while others struggle to form connections. If you’re one of the latter, think of relationship-building as a skill that you can hone. Choose to care about others, reflect on what you like about yourself and share that with others, and look for something likable in every person and compliment them on it.

Do You Need to Be an Extrovert to Lead?

Self-help guru Tony Robbins argues that being an extrovert leads to greater success, but in Quiet: The Power of Introverts, Susan Cain argues that today’s hyper-extroverted leadership model is overrated. She cites one study that found extroverted CEOs didn’t perform better than introverted CEOs. While it’s necessary for leaders to have presentation skills, this isn’t a day-to-day requirement. It’s more important for leaders to be able to communicate effectively in small groups and through email and even social media, where they can more easily participate in discussions.     

4. You need to accept people, warts and all—and vice versa. You can’t build relationships only with those with whom you have a lot in common—you have to make the effort to do it with everyone. You’ll be surprised to find that those who are very different from you can keep things interesting and may have a lot to offer the organization.

At the same time, you have to show people who you really are. If you put up a facade, pretending to know all the answers and presenting an inauthentic version of yourself, you can never develop relationships grounded in trust. A relationship based on an inauthentic version of you will likewise be inauthentic. Only by being vulnerable and showing your weaknesses and owning up to your mistakes will you be able to build real relationships.

Become More Likeable

Not everyone is naturally a Mr. Congeniality, but you can work at it. Dale Carnegie offers tips to increase your likeability factor in How to Win Friends and Influence People:

  • Make other people feel important by showing a genuine interest in them.
  • Ask them about their backgrounds and goals.
  • Smile, even when you’re talking on the phone.
  • Remember each person’s name and use it in conversation. Make sure you get the spelling and pronunciation right.
  • Ask questions and encourage the other person to talk about themselves.

Maximizing Permissional Leadership

Once you’ve gotten out of the positional mindset, you can work toward becoming a relational leader. Maxwell lists the best behaviors to help you gain people’s permission and help move you up to the next level:

1. Build self-awareness. Before you can connect with other people, you need to know and like yourself. When you’re grounded in a strong sense of self, you don’t take other people’s opinions or criticisms too personally, which enables you to communicate more effectively rather than defensively. Maxwell recommends asking yourself the following questions to build your self-awareness:

  • What are my strengths and weaknesses? Aside from evaluating yourself, you can ask trusted people to weigh in.
  • What are the things I can improve on? Your development is your responsibility and no one else’s. There are things you can change, but you also have to be realistic about the things that you can’t change—acceptance is a part of growth.
  • In what ways have I contributed to my current situation? While outside factors may have led you to where you are, you also need to acknowledge your part, whether it’s a situation you’re happy with or not. 

Building Self-Awareness Leads to Accountability

Maxwell invites you to reflect on how you’ve contributed to your current situation. This is the first step toward accountability, which The Oz Principle defines as taking ownership and control of your actions, rather than allowing yourself to be controlled by external forces. Being accountable means overcoming victimization, characterized by making excuses, blaming others, refusing to reflect on your behavior, complaining without offering solutions, and going for easy quick fixes rather than more difficult, but more effective, long-term solutions. To become more accountable, you have to:

Confront reality. Be honest about your shortcomings, and determine whether changing circumstances require you to adapt.

Make a connection between your actions and your situation. See yourself as an active rather than passive player in any predicament. By acknowledging that you played a part in creating a problem, you’ll also realize that you have a hand in creating the solution.

Be solutions-oriented. Don’t look for band-aid solutions and instead figure out long-lasting fixes.Be committed. You don’t just acknowledge your part in past situations and move on. True accountability means committing to doing better.

2. Make the decision to like people. It’s not easy, especially if you can sense that they don’t like you. But if you start from a place of openness and positivity and make it your intention to genuinely like people, it can open the doors to them liking you back. 

(Shortform note: If you need more concrete strategies, try these tips to help you deal with people you don’t seem to click with: Practice mindfulness to recognize negative emotions when they crop up, don’t react defensively, and reflect to understand where your negative emotions are coming from—perhaps it’s something you’re struggling with yourself.) 

If you’re not a people person just yet and are more concerned about hitting goals and targets, Maxwell advises including fun in your list of things to do. This will make work more enjoyable for everyone. 

  • Example: Schedule a regular team bonding activity on the last Friday of every month—say, board game night or karaoke night.   

3. Treat people as you want to be treated. Make sure you don’t cross the line from motivation to manipulation by keeping the Golden Rule in mind—treat people as you want to be treated. Be generous with your praise and encouragement. Think of at least one positive thing about each team member and then let each person know it. Also include them in your decision-making when you fine-tune systems and processes that affect them. These practices will help make them feel more confident and valued.

The Difference Between Persuasion and Manipulation

As a leader, you have to motivate people to achieve a common goal. But when does influence cross into manipulation and when can it be considered persuasion? Author Bob Burg differentiates between the two: Manipulation is using your influence for your own selfish purposes, while persuasion is using your influence to get mutually beneficial results. In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, it’s what Steven Covey calls Win/Win, or finding a solution where both parties end up happy.

4. Give effective feedback. Once you’ve built a relationship with team members, you should be able to freely give them feedback about their performance. Practice balancing being caring and being candid. Before calling someone out, refer to this checklist and answer “true” or “false” for each item:

  • I’ve given enough time and energy to the relationship to be open and honest.
  • I value him as a person.
  • It’s something he can address, not something I need to get used to.
  • I want to speak to him for his own good, not mine.
  • The issue outweighs the relationship.
  • I am willing to help in any way I can.
  • I can be clear about my expectations.

If you’ve answered “true” to each statement, then you’re ready to have a candid conversation. The sooner you can nip the issue in the bud, the better. Make sure that you have this conversation in private and speak in a calm, reassuring—rather than intimidating—manner.  

Keep in mind that you must also be open to receiving feedback.   

How to Better Receive Feedback

Maxwell focuses on giving effective feedback, but it’s also important to learn how to effectively receive feedback. According to authors Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen, people who are better at receiving feedback are more open to learning and growth and are thus more successful. Their book Thanks for the Feedback details how you can become better at receiving feedback:

Understand your triggers. By figuring out what sets off your instinctive reactions, you can better control them. Triggers fall under three categories: truth triggers, relationship triggers, and identity triggers.

Get aligned with the feedback-giver. Determine whether the feedback you’re receiving is evaluation, coaching, or appreciation, what the feedback-giver’s intent is, and whether it’s a requirement or merely a suggestion.

Receive the feedback. Listen closely, ask questions to clarify points, add your own input, and address any communication problems that come up.

Wrap it up. Come up with a plan of action and corresponding benchmarks and consequences.

Incorporate feedback. If the feedback is multi-pronged, address one thing at a time and try small experiments before incorporating big changes.   

5. Set boundaries. Sometimes moving forward might require your team to push themselves beyond their limits, and this might cause tension in your relationships—team members might not be able to take the pressure and burn out, lash out, or quit. As a leader, you’ll have to keep in mind that the goal is to grow, not to stay comfortable, even if it means risking the relationships you’ve carefully built. It’s a difficult decision to make, but between adjusting the vision to suit your team and adjusting your team to meet the vision, go for the latter.

Can You Be Friends With Your Subordinates?

With the amount of time you spend with your co-workers, it seems inevitable you’ll form personal—rather than just professional—relationships with them. But this can be a tricky field to navigate. As a friend, you have to be open with another person; as a boss, you may have to keep confidential information from them. A Harvard Business Review article gives some tips for managing friendships with employees:

  • Make sure both you and the other person are both mature enough to know that you have jobs to do—and do them.
  • If you have to be the bearer of bad news (like a layoff), be honest and straightforward. Then, express your desire to remain friends, but understand that the other person may not feel the same way.
  • Establish clear boundaries from the start. Let the other person know that you may be privy to information that you can’t share with him.
  • Differentiate between a work conversation and a friend conversation. If you want to talk about work outside the office, make sure you clear it with your friend so as not to make him feel uncomfortable.
John C. Maxwell: Relationship-Based Leadership

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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