A Boomer’s Guide for Millennials: The ABC’s of Leadership: R is for Relatable

Based on the research I have done, people who have high emotional intelligence are better able to relate to others, and have others relate to them and as a result have better relationships with others. The biggest failure of leadership in all sectors is their inability to relate to others, specifically their inability to put themselves in the shoes of those they are responsible for, understanding how they feel and why they feel the way they do.“For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act against all white people, I can only say I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times.”

Fifty years ago in Indianapolis, just following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Robert F. Kennedy, with these few words, was able to have people relate to the teaching of King by relating to them their shared feelings; and in so doing, avoided in Indianapolis the violent riots that erupted across the Nation.  As importantly, Kennedy articulated a standard for leaders to “make an effort…to understand and go beyond…”

The term, “it’s lonely at the top” is certainly true for those who are unable to relate to others. The meaning of the word relate has, over time, shifted from recounting something to identifying, connecting and empathizing with others. I assert, based on my own experience, that leaders who relate are not lonely because if you relate to others, they will relate to you, which becomes the foundation for relationships.

I have found with many, as people progress up the political, corporate and social ladders, that they forget “from whence they came”. Usually this results in the inability to relate to others. This inability to relate severely limits the ability to have people follow them.

This is playing out in many countries where politicians have totally misread the mood of the people. My view is that they misread the mood because, particularly in the United States, most of them have become nothing but politicians who are so removed from reality that they are not able to relate to the populous. Few have the ability to identify, connect with and have empathy for those they represent. To his credit, the current President recognizes and should receive full marks for understanding and connecting with his core base of followers. Where he earns zero marks is for his total lack of empathy for those who have real, and legitimate grievances. He, as other autocrats have done and continue to do, is to take advantage of the downtrodden, who are so desperately looking for a savior, and prey on and take advantage of their grievances and fears.

Democracies can be saved if those who are chosen to represent others start relating by understanding how people feel, and more importantly, to understand why people feel the way they do. While garnering this information, leaders must connect and have empathy for what other people are going through. From this, they can build a platform which responds to the real issues versus merely offering false hope and platitudes.

In a CNBC interview, Howard Shultz captured being relatable when he stated, “It’s been a long time since anyone in government really walked in the shoes of the American public.”

However, it’s not only politicians who are misreading the mood of the people; this misperception is evident in all segments of our society. An indicator of this is a recent Gallop poll showing professions in which fewer than 50% of people are trusted: judges (43%), clergy (42%), bankers (25%), newspaper reporters (25%), local office holders (24%) TV reporters (23%), lawyers (18%), business executives (16%), lobbyists (8%). I assert one of the reasons for these damning perceptions is that these professionals are not relating to their constituents. Furthermore, the constituents are not relating to the professionals. It is no small wonder why there is the level of discontent that there is. The Gallop numbers, taken at their face value, suggest that 57% of the population does not respect or have confidence in the establishment.

It is interesting from the same study to compare the least trusted to the most trusted professions, where more than 50% are trusted:  nurses (82%), military officers (71%), grade school teachers (66%), medical doctors (65%), pharmacists (62%), police officers (56%). One thing that immediately jumps out is that the most respected are generally not perceived to be part of the establishment. Another and more significant observation is that the most trusted professions by and large deal with individuals, whereas the least trusted by and large deal with the system. This means that the most trusted professionals earn their trust through individual relationships.

So, how does one become relatable?

First and foremost, regardless of how different you are, view others as fellow human beings. This is what we all have in common, we are all human beings. Inherent in this are other things we have in common – being a son or daughter, a spouse, or a parent, as well as similar experiences – good and bad, reflecting on RFK’s words, “I had a member of my family killed…”

The next step is relating how you feel about situations you face. Again, as an example, RFK’s words, “I can only say I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling.” Be transparent by saying, “I can relate to that”, adding why or explaining how you relate. I remember so well my mother reaching out and comforting other mothers who, like her, had lost an infant, relating her loss and saying, “I know what you are going through”.

In my work in organizational dynamics, I have found there are a lot of myths around inter-generational relationships, particularly the inability to relate to each other. What most boomers have forgotten is that they too were once young, with similar ideals, aspirations, frustrations and fears. In research we have done with the Yale Centre for Emotional Intelligence, we have found that there is little difference on how people, regardless of age, feel and why people feel the way they do about the work they do, the relationships they have at work, and the organizations they work for.

Just being able to relate does not make one relatable however. What makes one relatable is dialogue – something that has become almost nonexistent for most, particularly in the work environment between the boss and the subordinate, where the only interactions are by dictate, during the annual performance review, or when things go south.

I encourage leadership everywhere to start the dialogue, and as RFK implored, “make an effort…  to understand and go beyond.”

(Andrew Faas is the author of “From Bully to Bull’s Eye – Move Your Organization Out of the Line of Fire and a Public Voices Fellow at Yale University)

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