Effective Leadership in One Word


I have bookshelves filled with leadership books. I have advanced degrees in the subject. I’ve attended countless seminars, listened to podcasts, followed blogs and train on the topic. And through all that exploration and study, I have come to realize that good leadership can be boiled down to one word. Sure we have lots of vocabulary to slice and dice or give a particular spin to the topic, but when all is said and done it really all boils down to a single concept.

And that concept isn’t unique to the field of leadership. I am privileged to lead a human service organization. For a number of years, my team and I have commented on the overlap between best practices in human services and in leadership. I vividly recall a number of years ago doing a book study with our supervisors on The Speed of Trust and the initial response from many of them was, “This is a leadership book? This is what we do with our kids!” Yep.

Last week, we had a team of staff members attend the Global Leadership Summit. During a presentation on negotiation, I heard a staff member in the row in front of me lean over to a co-worker and whisper “That’s PACE!” — a technique we use in working with our most challenging kids. And she was right. In another example, in the recently released book The Wise Advocate: The Inner Voice of Strategic Leadership two key concepts highlighted are mentalizing (defined in the book as reflecting on what others are thinking, and what they are likely to do next) and neuroplasticity (the ability to develop new connections in the brain) — both of which our clinicians have incorporated into our work for some time. So what is this one word, this single concept that is the essence of effective leadership (and working with kids and families)?


The mantra we use in our organization is “Relationship are primary.” Without a relationship, none of the other tools — whether they come from leadership or human service experts — will be effective. Leaders need followers. And to follow you, to believe in the vision you are casting and take steps to bring it to reality, there has to be some type of relationship with those you hope to lead. Sure, everyone can point to people in positions of leadership who don’t invest in building relationships, but will the best people choose to follow them for the long term?

Yes relationships take time to build. They can be messy, invigorating, frustrating and at times unpredictable. And they are absolutely critical if you hope to maximize your impact as a leader. It is just as simple and complicated as that.

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