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Leadership and Relationships – It’s the Little Things

In leadership and relationships, it is often the small gestures and words that make all the difference.




I have often been surprised at the number of times I have been reminded of my words and gestures from the past, how they have remained in people’s minds and in some cases had influence in their thinking and on their actions. To be honest, this has not always been in a positive sense, with mistakes and errors in judgment coming back to haunt me at various stages of my life as well. But this blog is more about the positive aspects of our words and gestures.

In my last 6 years of full-time work for GE I had the pleasure of working with another leader, Luke, who I was able to help support, influence and develop, as he did me. We spoke about many things and subjects during this time including the importance of connecting with others. We regularly reminded each other of the content of previous conversations and the phrases used, providing opportunity to delve deeper and reflect upon during our discussions and afterwards. By talking things through and as a result of the enhanced understanding of ourselves and each other, our relationship developed.

These are some of the most meaningful conversations I have had, providing opportunity to challenge, be challenged and reflect upon afterwards. My relationship and related conversations with Luke were one of the key reasons that I sought to develop my coaching and mentoring capability. His influence and the effect of our many ‘chats’ has been profound, but not all relationships need to be this comprehensive to have an impact.

My experience taught me that it is often the seemingly small and less significant conversations that people remember. Each of us have diverse beliefs, motivations, emotional structure and needs. As a result, we respond differently to words used and conversations held, influencing our memories. This makes sense if you think about it. If you remember back to your childhood, what are some of your earliest memories? I am sure that, like most of us, you can recall some of the more poignant and meaningful moments, sometimes with amazing clarity. These points in time and subsequent memories often stem from brief comments or phrases that have stuck with you forever. Some of these may have been the sting of criticism or feelings of hurt…and many of them are positive, meaningful flashes in time.

I bet that if you approached some of the people involved in those original conversations now, they would be unlikely to remember the conversation, moment or recognise the impact the exchanges had.

In my lifetime I have been in the fortunate position to have assisted and coached many people personally and professionally, both in and out of the workplace. This has been through informal and formal coaching and mentoring, leading teams and helping friends and families, as they have assisted me. Those moments when someone refers back to our earlier conversations can be very meaningful and validate many of the approaches and styles of leadership from your past. They also provide evidence for the power of coaching and benefit of having an ‘external’ person to share relevant themes with.

In leadership, how you make people feel is as important as what you do and say.

I am a keen follower of sport. In particular a passionate fan of the Australian Rules Football (AFL) team, Port Adelaide Power. It has been a struggle for Port in recent years, not having made the finals for some time. They have a proud history and have made many structural and personnel changes over the last 6 months to bring the results back to where the fans expect the team to be. I mention this because earlier this week, the team appointed a new captain in Travis Boak. He was brought up in country Victoria but drafted to the Power in South Australia in 2006.

In the last year or so during contract negotiations, Travis had the opportunity to return home to his family, which has a strong pull for him. He was approached by other teams and there was a real risk of Travis going to a team with a seemingly bigger upside, fan-base or budget, if reports were to be believed. But he stayed. Why?

I do not know Travis personally and have never met him but he is a great choice as captain of the Power. There would have been many reasons for him to stay and for him to leave, for that matter. However, after reading an article about his appointment, it reminded me of the importance of those little moments and the words that people use (the impact can be compelling!) that I am sure helped Travis make his decision to remain with the team. In part, the article read:

The phone call on draft day, 2006

THERE are few days as nervous as the day of the AFL national draft, where players worry about if they will be picked up, where they’ll end up if they do, and what they will do if they are overlooked. Boak had been an outstanding junior footballer, tipped to go in the first round – which he did – and needn’t have worried about being selected. But the day is still an indelible memory. Not so much for the draft itself, or the realisation that he’d have to leave Victoria, but because of the phone call from Port Adelaide captain Warren Tredrea. He still has a chuckle when he thinks back to the day. These days, Tredrea is somebody Boak will seek out for advice on being captain, a former teammate who’s now a mate. Back then, realising who was at the end of the line when he picked up his phone made his heart skip a beat. “On draft day, the thing that stood out wasn’t having my name read out but when Tredders (Tredrea) gave me a call that day,” Boak said. “It was just a great feeling when that happened. I was just an 18-year-old who had watched this superstar on TV and then you get a call from him. It was just surreal, crazy.”

All of a sudden you get a phone call from Warren Tredrea, congratulating me and saying he was looking forward to catching up with me on Monday.”

Although not privy to the conversation itself between Warren Tredrea and Travis Boak, the esteem that exists when they talk about each other and the way it made Travis feel then and even now, says something about how the discussion went. It is important to recognise these moments – in the moment if you can. It is too easy for to be oblivious to the influence the words chosen can and do have. The words, terms and expressions we use have a significant impact on others, as they did for Travis. If you have not already done so, I hope that you have the benefit of experiencing what this feels like at some point in your career and journey.

  • Respect the relationship, intention and reality of the situation – be modest in your approach in those conversations when someone reminds you of your words from the past and influence you have had.
  • You may not even remember what you said or the specific conversation, however it meant enough to this person to bring it back up and remind you…and clearly meant enough for you to share the words in the first place.
  • The moments are powerful, validating, humbling and remind us all of the importance of relationships and connecting with others.
  • Do not underestimate the power of your words – which can have both a positive and negative impact.
  • Choose your moments carefully – and the associated words to match.

It may be something as simple as remembering someone’s birthday, thanking them or recognising the impact an individual has had in your life.

Be brave, be honest and share your thoughts – the effect, inspiration and benefit is not always obvious in that moment, but the evidence continues to show us that they are worth cherishing…and repeating.

Have you experienced the ‘upside’ of earlier comments and conversations? Is there a downside? I look forward to hearing about your experiences – please share them below.


Related Articles

Leadership is a RelationshipMichael Ray Hopkin, Lead On Purpose

How to Build Leadership Skills When You’re Not A LeaderDavid Burkus, LDRLB: Leadership, Innovation and Strategy

Travis Boak: Why I didn’t bail on Power – Jesper Fjeldstad, Adelaide Now