First Posted June 23, 2011.
"If this afternoon, you were to lose everything, become a failure in all that you had sought to create, who would stand by you?"
This is the question I asked of a number of men during a six month period a many years ago.
At the time, I did not realize how traumatizing my question could be. Most of them answered with reflective silence.
The others? "My mother."
None of them were confident that their spouse, their children, their neighbors, the people from their congregation, work, the club or any other social association would hang in there with them during a time of humiliation. In effect, these recognized leaders of their businesses were isolated and alone, alienated from a community of support and caring.
It did not take long to realize that I had to stop asking the question. It didn't help them. I also realized that I had to become a person who could stand along side of them when they would go through the worst experiences of their personal and professional life. It changed my approach to being a consultant. It elevated my understanding of the relational nature of leadership.
Why is it that these men thought that no one stood with them?
Is it something personal?
Or is it something embedded in the way leadership, professional life and the structure of organizations have developed?
Failure of the sort that I described to them could come as a black swan, out of the nowhere, without expectation. Over the past three years, many people have found themselves in this situation. It points to a fragility that exists in our lives that is buffered by relationships of trust.
Trust is basic to healthy human interaction and the functioning of society. We diminish the value of trust when it is understood as little more than the basis of economic exchange.
In my post, The Emergent Transformation, I distinguish between human experience that is series of transactions of information and encounters between people, and a transformational one where our interaction creates a higher level engagement.
Here's an example of what I mean.
The closest Starbucks to my home is in my neighborhood grocery store. For most of the baristas, I'm a customer. I come in, order my coffee, pay for it, and leave. Whatever banter we have is rather meaningless, just the sort of talk that accompanies any transaction.
However, there is one young woman who is different. She engages me in conversation. She recognizes me, tells me about her day, asks about mine with genuine interest.
One morning, I walked in and said, "Grande bold, room for cream, please." She starts to laugh. She stops and says, "Sounds like the names of your pets." We both laugh. It is one of those situational jokes (You had to be there.). So about once every three or four visits we talk about my dog, Grande bold, and my cat, Room for cream.
Granted, the barista and I will never become BFFs or colleagues in business. However, the moment we shared that day transcended the typical economic transaction that was the purpose of my visit, and has transformed my relationship to that store.
The Social Bond Online
Over the past decade, an interest in human connection and social networks has grown dramatically. Much of this interest is taking place online through social media platforms. You only have to look at the rise of Facebook to see the extent of the desire that people have to be socially connected to other people.
Many people denigrate the trend towards connection by social media.
"They are not real relationships."
The relationships that develop are viewed as the online equivalent of a large cocktail party. Lots of meet and greet (search), exchange of contact info (befriending), and a superficial staying in touch (status updates.)
There is a social bond to this shared experience. Real relating is taking place. Some of it is at a low level of social interaction as describe above. However, some of it is at a personally meaningful level. Social transformation is taking place as our connection deepens with each interaction, and possibilities open up for good things to result. This is my own experience.
The social bond is not the online space where we meet. The bond is the connection that we share through a common interest. Our interaction is real and provocative. Like many people, I find people whom are asking similar questions, seeking similar solutions, and who are open to learning from others.
There are two conditions that determine whether the social bond online is superficial or substantive.
The first is the transformational potential of the ideas or common interests that bring people together.
The second is the willingness for participants to allow their interaction to lead the interaction where it needs to go.
As you can see, it isn't being online, but what we do online that matters. By being a particular kind of person, we engage others in such a way that the social bond emerges from its hidden place in the social setting..
Learning to see a social bond
Earlier in my career, I worked at a small college. One of my roles was to develop a student leaders program. For three years I failed as I sought out the top student leaders to form a group focused on leadership. They simply were not interested. Persistence is sometimes not the answer. Changing your approach is.
Over time, and through my doctoral work, I came to see what was in plain sight, but virtually all of us miss when we talk about leadership.
We see leadership as a set of transactions or rather interactions and moments of decision within an organizational context. We think of leadership as a function of process. Is it simply a series of transactions made between people and groups within an business, or is it something more?
When we think only transactionally, we miss seeing the social dimension.
We touch on it when we talk about collaboration and team work. But if you listen, most talk about improving those aspects of their business is not about the social dimension, but rather the tactical dimension of business processes. My observation is that most leaders don't address the social dimension until it has become problematic. By ignoring the social dimension, we create a self-profiling prophecy as issues arise that not subject to easy process change.
Let me say it this way.
The last remaining unexplored leverage that leaders have now is the social dimension.
Tactics and processes, while essential, do not address the issues that many businesses now face. Leaders must identify the social bond that exists within their organizations if they are going to find the edge they need for sustainable growth in the future.
I learned this in addressing my own failure with my student leaders program. My approach had been abstract and tactical, lacking in a context for application. So, I shifted my focus to mobilizing student groups through the social bond that brought them together.
In a college context, there are sports teams, fraternities, sororities, academic clubs, religious groups, advocacy groups and residence halls. In each, a group of students discover each other through a common bond that unites them together. It provides each person connection, a place of belonging, and a sense of identity. For the group it provides purpose, a reason to exist and possibly as they develop a way to understand the difference they can make as a group.
In a business context, there are associations based on interest, skills, industry and locale. The social bond unites the executive team, the administrative staff, the sales staff, and back office as uniquely definable groups whose shared work experience provides a basis for connection, belonging and identity.
The leader of the organization has to discover the social bond that unites all the different groups to make them one group. That social bond is wrapped in what I call the four Connecting Ideas.
When I discovered this perspective, I made two changes to my student leadership program.
The first change was to shift my attention from the individual leader to the group.
The second was to shift my leadership emphasis from teaching abstract principles of leadership to learning to lead within the context of doing it.
I did this by starting two new activities on campus. One was a campus chapter of Habitat for Humanity International. The second was an afternoon play group for the elementary age children of adolescent mothers in our community. For each, I went to the groups on campus, asking them to sign up for a service weekend with a Habitat affiliate in a nearby county or one of the play days with kids during the semester. In both instances, groups eagerly stepped forward to sign up and participate. They saw it as a fun, meaningful activity for their group. The leaders within those groups rose to the top as organization as they took on responsibility, with the added benefit of new leaders coming forth who wanted to focus on these new campus activities.
The transcendent character of a social bond
A group's social bond is not a branded idea. While ideas may describe the bond, it is more than an idea. It is instead something emergent. It is something that is whole, that draws people together into a relationship that transcends the moment.
Here's the difference. Your college's basketball team wins the national championship. The streets of town fill up with cheering, celebrating fans. The experience brings people together around their shared joy for their team. But once the cheering stops, the bars close, and baseball season begins, the bonding experience of the post-game celebration is gone.
The social bond is something that people draw upon for meaning and purpose in their relationships within a particular social or organizational context. This is historically been one of the core strengths of religious worship. It isn't just the ideas of faith, but the shared experience of faith that matters. It is a whole shared experience that elevates one's perception of who they are and how their life matters.
For military personnel, the experience of battle is the archtypical bonding experience. This became quite clear to me when I watch for the first time the HBO documentary, We Stand Alone Together: The Men of Easy Company that accompanies the mini-series Band of Brothers. Lt. Dick Winters commander of the 506 Paratroop Infantry Regiment,Company E speaks about the men under his leadership.
I look upon them ... each man with great respect ... respect that I can't describe ... each one of them proved himself that he could do the job.
The respect which is difficult to describe is the bond that unites them as soldiers. It comes through a shared experience where they were tested as men and as human beings in the crucible of battle during World War II. Shifty Powers describes it.
"You know these people that you are in service with ... you know those people better than you will ever anybody in your life ... you know them right down to the final thing .. that comes when you start your training .. that progresses."
Listen how these men, in many ways not different from people we encounter everday, describe their relationships with one another.
The social bond that these men have exists beyond analytical description. It can't be simply broken up into a collection of ideas or stories. It goes deeper than that. Their relationships matter more than just as as a group of acquaintances. Rather, they are forever connected by the bond of shared experience. You can hear it in what they say.
Here's what Ed Tipper said in the video.
There is an intimacy develops like nothing I've ever experienced anywhere, not in college, not with any other group of people.
It is like the union leader who commented to me during a values identification process with his company.
"I want us to get back to where we were twenty years ago when we were family."
Embedded in these emotions is the social bond that made working for the company or serving in 506PIR Company E something more than a job. What formed was something fundamentally important to their experience as human beings. We are not solely individuals. We are not simply interchangeable parts in a system of organizational processes. And potentially not just list of friends in a Facebook profile.
Attention to the social bond that exists in organizations is largely missing in our society today. We treat the shared work that human beings do as mechanical scientific processes that are to be performed and measured. By removing the human social element we think we are removing ambiguity and creating efficiency and consistency. Rather, we are diminishing the organization's ability to maximize the potential that resides in each employee. It produces a rush to the bottom of the lowest common denominator level of social experience. The potential that resides in each person cannot be released because it must be done so within a social context that shared purpose and experience. Our potential is not realized solely by individual initiative, but by collaborative action. At the heart of every team is a social bond waiting to be recognized and released. It is the hidden potential that awaits recognition by organization leaders world wide.
The challenge we confront
Years ago, when I asked people who would stand with them if they failed, unwittingly, I was revealing the absence of the compelling connection that the social bond in an organization can create. The reason for this is not solely the mechanistic principles modern scientific management. It is also a national culture that seeks to remove risk and danger from every day life.
When I first watched the We Stand Alone Together documentary of the actual members of Easy Company, I turned to my son and said,
"If you ever find yourself in a group where this is your experience of friendship, consider yourself to be one of the lucky few. Most people go through life never having this kind of experience of human community."
At the heart of the social bond is the recognition that we need one another. Not because we are weak, but rather because we are incomplete as individuals. The togetherness that is realized when this social bond is strong enables men and women from diverse backgrounds to join together to achieve greatness beyond their individual potential.
The challenge before us is to believe that this is true, and to act accordingly. For if this is true, then how we organize our businesses will set the stage for the elevation of the social bond creating a culture of shared human endeavor, that is required more today than every before.
First steps in discovering the social bond that exists in your organization.
I could give the standard analytical process of a set of processes that focus on the development of values and organizational purpose. But I won't, even if at some level that is important.
Instead, just treat each person with openness and honor.
Learning how to do that (I'm assuming we all need to learn to be more open to others, and to honor the best in them), a new social context will emerge that can elevate your company to a new place of shared endeavor.
To be open simply means to listen, to understand, to affirm, to let people try and fail, and to create the expectation that others will be open.
It means letting new people have the opportunity to influence decision-making and direction. It means not assuming control over every aspect of the organization's life. And from my experience, openness is a powerful attractor for talented people to come work for your business. It is a signal of authenticity and opportunity.
To honor is to appreciate the value and dignity of each person (see my post Honor and the Lost Art of Diplomacy) .
This is more difficult because it requires us to pay attention to the other people in the room. We must look at them not as human resources or representatives of particular social ideologies. We look at them with dignity and respect, with appreciation for the potential contributions that they can make. In many cases their contribution can only be realized when the social bond creates social strength for the depth of trust and collaboration needed for a challenge moment.
In one way or another, much of our lives is lived standing alone. But it does not have to be this way. To stand alone together is the product of intention, initiative, openness and persistence. It emerges from the thousands of individual encounters that we have where our connection to one another begins to matter beyond getting tasks done. It is where genuine transformation happens.
Discover the social bond in your business, and you discover the path to a future that is yet to be realized.