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Leading by Relating

The value of relationships and trust cannot be overstated.

Gallup’s Economic Confidence Index recently tumbled 12 points to -34, the second-largest weekly decline since the company began tracking economic confidence daily in January 2008. It was the largest single drop since Lehman Brothers collapsed on Sept. 15, 2008. That collapse, you may recall, triggered a global economic crisis.

The primary culprit for the drop was the partial government shutdown that has crippled core economic areas and strengthened doubts about our politicians’ ability and willingness to work together. This was not the first time that bureaucratic dueling led to nationwide skepticism and doomsday predictions. The index fell nine points in late February and early March 2013 as Congress and President Barack Obama failed to reach an agreement to avoid automatic federal spending cuts. Confidence fell eight points during the week ending February 20, 2011, when Obama and Congress reached a last-minute agreement on the federal budget, avoiding a government shutdown. Americans' confidence in the economy fell eight points during two separate weeks in July 2011, as leaders in Washington debated over whether to raise the debt limit or default on the nation’s debts.

While there is still plenty of room to be optimistic about a confidence bounce-back (economic confidence rebounded within weeks of the March 2013 spending cuts and within several months of the 2011 debt crisis) it remains noteworthy as to how the behavior of some of the most powerful and influential Americans – people who ostensibly represent the wishes of their constituents and the best interests of the American people – can impact how people see their own prospects.

This voter-representative dynamic speaks to a leadership form commonly called relationship-oriented leadership. Relation-based leadership is as its name suggests, a form of leading that relies heavily on the relationships that leaders forge with others. Such leaders are focused on supporting, motivating and developing people on their teams. They encourage cooperation and collaboration, and foster positive relationships and communication. Relationship-oriented leaders prioritize the welfare of everyone in the group and will place time and effort in meeting members’ individual needs. The benefit of relationship-oriented leadership is that team members may be more willing to take risks, because they know that the leader will provide them with support as needed. They may also go the extra mile in gratitude for all that they receive.

Risk-taking and relationships sit at the center of a most unusual exchange that occurred during one of the seminal moments in Jewish history.  Abraham had just been instructed to take Isaac, the son for whom he had waited decades and in whom he had placed all of his future hopes and dreams, and elevate him as an offering. Abraham dutifully followed God’s command, but was hesitant to share the command with his beloved Isaac.

During the first phase of their journey towards Mount Moriah, no words were exchanged between the venerable patriarch and his son. Isaac noticed all of the conventional sacrificial props with the exception of one, the sacrifice. He started to wonder about his father’s true intentions. To gauge the situation, he uttered one word, “avi” (“my father”), to which Abraham responded “hineni b’ni” (“behold, here I am, my son”) and the conversation moves on to the obvious absence of an animal for sacrifice.

The biblical commentator Kli Yakar (Genesis 22:7) suggests that this initial (and sole) exchange reveals volumes about Abraham the father. After he had noticed the animal’s absence, Isaac began to worry. He noticed that his father was more tense (or at least less forthcoming) than normal. He suspected that Abraham had less than positive intentions, possibly as the result of his advanced age. In addressing Abraham by the term “father,” Isaac sought to measure his father’s “paternalistic index,” to determine where the status of the love and emotional connectivity that he felt towards his son. By responding in the affirmative, Abraham showed that he was still the same loving, caring father that he had always been. That response restored Isaac’s trust and the two “walked together,” figuratively as well as in literal terms.

By demonstrating continued care and concern for his son, now and in the prior 37 years, Abraham was able to weather even the greatest storm, a challenge that threatened to tear apart his family in every sense of the term. Because he had amassed equity with his son, he received a pass at the most crucial moment, and was able to demonstrate that God would ultimately determine as to what would serve as the sacrificial offering.

Equity building is a crucial process for all leaders, whether in the workplace, in a voluntary context or at home. By investing in the needs of others, you not only can expect better results, but you can also trust that when times are tough and the chips are down, you will get the benefit of the doubt, if not a helping hand.

The following adage refers to a teacher-student relationship but can easily apply to any interpersonal dynamic: “I don’t care about how much you know until I know how much you care.” When others sense that you are operating out of a position of true love, when they recognize that you care about them personally and deeply, then they remain more trusting in you and your decisions, even when they appear to be confusing or outright counterproductive.