How We Relate
The Secret of Health, Happiness — and Leadership

It is said that quality relationships are the single most important factor in longevity. As it turns out, the ability to relate effectively also has an enormous impact on leadership and business success. There is a paradigm shift taking place in today’s workplaces: from a hierarchical model of leadership to a more relational one — and it affects the bottom line. This emerging paradigm is not only relevant for the way we do business, it directly applies to the way we do life.

Enjoy these short excerpts from Michael Gelb’s new book, The Art of Connection: 7 Relationship-Building Skills Every Leader Needs Now.

Connecting with Ourselves

We create ourselves through connection with others, and we deepen our capacity to connect with others through the work we do to connect with ourselves.

Leonardo da Vinci loved to contemplate the ripples that radiate out when a stone is tossed into a still pond. He wrote, “Everything is connected to everything else.” What if your posts on social media, your everyday conversations, your internal dialogue about the state of the world all rippled out to enliven — or dull — the consciousness of others? In the Buddhist scriptures, the Avatamsaka Sutra presents an image of this interconnected consciousness known as the Jewel Net of Indra.

Here’s my interpretation of what it says. Imagine that the cosmos is structured as an infinite net, a multidimensional spider web, stretching to eternity in all directions. At every intersection of the gossamer strands is a perfect glittering diamond star. The diamond stars are infinite in number, and each one reflects the radiance of all the others. In the metaphor of Indra’s Net each of us is a jewel linked to, and reflecting, all the other jewels.

We are all precious jewels. Our mirror neurons reflect the many facets of consciousness. How can we polish the mirror to better illuminate our true nature and our interconnectedness? And how can we translate that illumination into better relationships, a more intelligent approach to conflict, and greater effectiveness in achieving our goals together?

We begin with a process of self-observation and reflection. If you bring your attention right now to your bodily sensations, feelings, and thoughts, it’s obvious that there ’s a fundamental aspect of you that isn’t your body, emotions, or thoughts. This is your consciousness, your self-awareness.

The key to polishing your mirror is becoming more aware of the habits of body, feeling, and thought that interfere with your ability to be fully present and learning to let them go. As you let go of the unnecessary, clarity emerges. As clarity emerges, you experience a deeper sense of connection.

About the fact that our ability to connect with others is predicated on our connection with ourselves, psychologist and philosopher Rollo May (1909–94) has this to say:

“Finding the center of strength within ourselves is in the long run the best contribution we can make to our fellow men. . . . One person with indigenous inner strength exercises a great calming effect on panic among people around him. This is what our society needs — not new ideas and inventions, important as these are, and not geniuses and supermen, but persons who can be; that is, persons who have a center of strength within themselves.”

Beyond the obvious intrinsic value of the process of aligning with this center of strength, our commitment to the process of growth and change, as May suggests, has a powerful effect on others.

Business guru Peter Drucker observed that in the workplace a leader “who works on his own development sets an almost irresistible example.”

The example you set and the influence you have by working on your own development and reflecting on questions pertaining to your self-knowledge may be even more important in parenting and partnership than they are professionally. Irish playwright Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) quipped, “Only the shallow know themselves.” He’s right. Genuine self-knowledge isn’t a static state, but rather a continuous quest, a never-ending journey.

The Importance of Relationships

Philosopher Martin Buber (1878–1965) observed, a century ago, that our world was becoming increasingly impersonal, materialistic, and transactional. He saw that when we view others as objects, to be manipulated or used for our own ends, we dehumanize not only them, but also ourselves. Buber emphasized that in every interaction we have a choice to view others as fellow humans, with whom we share the same basic essence, or as things — pawns to be moved, scenery for our dramas, obstacles in our way, or as competitors to be vanquished.

“I–It” is the term he originated to express the transactional, objectifying interaction. “I–Thou,” from the title of his most famous work, I and Thou (1923), is the term he originated to refer to the encounter that creates a real connection. The most important point in this book is: Make I–Thou encounters with real people, in real time, a priority. We must invest in one-on-one, face-to-face relationships with the people who are most important to us.

If you are in a formal position of leadership, make it a priority to meet one-on-one with your team members, customers, and key stakeholders. If you are a parent, devote time to connect deeply with each of your children. If you’re a friend, go out of your way to be with your friend. If you want to have a happy marriage or loving partnership, make quality time together your top priority.

Buber counseled that we come into our full aliveness, discover our true nature, and relate to the Divine through our encounters with others. He wrote, “All real life is meeting.”

In addition to the emotional and spiritual benefits of deepening your ability to connect with others, you’ll also be more successful. Gary Spitalnik expresses it in practical business terms when he exclaims: “I have to keep after some of the younger members of our sales team to get out from behind their desks, get the hell off their devices, and actually go out and visit with clients. That’s where the real action is: face-to-face.”

Jon Miller, former CEO of AOL and now a partner with Advancit Capital, says:

“I share a tremendous amount of information with my partners and our stakeholders through digital means, but there’s no substitute for meeting in person. We never invest in a company without meeting the principals face-to-face. Actually we won’t consider a deal unless at least two of our three partners meet with the entrepreneurs directly, and we prefer to ensure that all three of us sit down with them personally. There’s a feeling, a sense of people, that you just can’t get from reading the documents or talking on the phone. That’s why I’m always flying around the country and the world. Showing up, being present, has always been important, but it’s probably more important now than ever before.”

Direct, face-to-face connections aren’t just the secret of individual professional success; they’re the cornerstones of great businesses.

In the groundbreaking classic Firms of Endearment: How World-Class Companies Profit from Passion and Purpose, Babson Business School professor Raj Sisodia and his coauthors, Jag Sheth, and David Wolfe, make it clear that today’s greatest organizations succeed by helping all their stakeholders thrive: customers, investors, employees, partners, communities, and society. They make the world better by the way they do business, and the world responds by making them more profitable. This isn’t touchy-feely idealism; it’s practical, evidence-based reality. The firms studied by Sisodia and his colleagues have outperformed the Standard & Poor’s 500 by fourteen times and the companies featured in Jim Collins’s bestseller Good to Great by six times over a period of fifteen years.

The research presented in Firms of Endearment illuminates “radical new rules” for building an intentional, profitable, high performance business. Among those new rules, this one is fundamental: “Create partner relationships that really are mutually beneficial.” The I–Thou encounter is the secret that brings this rule to life.

Excerpts from Michael Gelb’s new book, The Art of Connection: 7 Relationship-Building Skills Every Leader Needs Now. Reprinted with permission.


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  • Lorraine Brita says:

    Thank you, this article is so reassuring. I manage 65+ at a salon/spa. It’s been pure human revolution. I was way in over my head until I started to be myself. I began to lead by supporting, lead by showing compassion lead by being vulnerable. I depended on no one to become happy in my position. Management can be a no win, dead end, thankless position…so I decided to show up as me and win right where I was. Digging ever deeper by discovering who I really was, how I wanted to show up in the world and then deciding to be happy. I enjoy very deep loving relationships with co-workers who trust me and when all is said and done, trust is a great reward.

    • Michael says:

      “I began to lead by supporting, lead by showing compassion lead by being vulnerable.” YES! Thanks for sharing your beautiful, inspiring words. It’s so important to let people know that kindness, caring and compassion are not only intrinsically worthwhile, but these qualities also promote much more successful endeavors.