How to Be Relatable While Pushing for Excellence

Mar 15, 2021

A leader’s job is to get a bunch of people to move from point A, to point B. And if possible, to like it.

A math teacher leads their students from ignorance to competence. A General leads his troops from the safety of their camp to the trenches of a battlefield. A boss has to make his employees work in such a way as to keep his business running smoothly. A leader knows how to get others to act. A good leader knows how to get others to want to act.

The term “relatable leader” can tend to conjure up an image of some pushover doormat of a boss But when done right, relatability can actually strengthen the loyalty of employees towards their employer. When we say someone is “relatable” we mean that we have common ground with them. We see ourselves in them, and we then feel much more comfortable following them. So how do we establish this common ground?

I Was There Once

The first step is to treat individuals like individuals, and their problems like real problems.

Imagine Bill is woken up in the night by his son, Sammy. Sammy is worried that there’s a monster under the bed, and as soon as Bill leaves the room, this monster will leap out and attack him. To Bill, this concern seems trivial and a bit annoying, but to Sammy, this is a matter of life and death. For Bill to roll his eyes, assure Sammy that monsters aren’t real, and to return to bed, is for him to abandon Sammy in his time of need.

Even though Bill can see that this is a non-issue, this is a perfect opportunity for Bill to strengthen his relationship with his son. Let’s say instead of mumbling an assurance and walking out of the room, Bill’s eyes go wide as he leaps onto Sammy’s bed to get out of reach of the monster. From the safety of the bed, Bill begins to tell Sammy about the monster that used to live under his own bed, and how he fought and killed it.

After finishing his tale, Bill carefully climbs from the bed onto the dresser, and from there he can barely reach the nerf swords lying in the corner. With one finger pressed to his lips, he tosses one sword to Sammy and climbs back onto the bed with the other one tucked into his belt. Wielding nerf sword and pillow shields, they plot their attack.

Of course, this situation is slightly different than the kind of scenario you might see in the workplace because the monster under the bed is not a real problem and Bill has to enter into a make-believe world in order to relate to Sammy. However, Bill can still remember when he faced the same fears as Sammy.

Instead of playing the adult card and walking away, he returns to his own boyhood, the very act of which makes him a better father than the one whose pride makes him unable to break through the age barrier.

Allow Them to Contribute

The second step of relatability is to allow others to contribute. It’s easy to repeat the story of how you fixed your own similar problem back in the day, and then to assume that your solution is the only right way.

Allowing others to present their ideas shows respect and shows those under you that you value their opinion. Even if in the end, you don’t go with their idea, hearing them out makes them feel like they’re a valuable part of the team.

Let’s say in their little war council, Bill suggests that they try to outflank the monster. He says that on the count of three, they should leap down on either side of the bed and begin thrusting wildly into the dark cavern. Sammy, however, disagrees. He argues that they should maintain the high ground, and so his idea is that Bill act as a decoy, leaping from the bed and stomping around the room, trying to draw the monster out. Sammy will remain on the bed, and once he has a clear shot, will leap onto the monster’s back.

Disagree, but Explain Why

If and when you do disagree with the proposed solution, you should communicate why you are not going with their idea. You have to be careful about shooting other people’s ideas down, because you don’t want them to think that you think that they are a hopeless case.

Remember, this is where you build the relationship: you disagree, holding your ground. Then you show appreciation for their idea, so they know they’re valued.

Even if the idea is shockingly bad, try to find something about it that you like, and tell them that, before turning their solution down. This will not only honor their efforts but also act as a moment of instruction. And since you worked to highlight the good in their plan, you’ve earned the right for them to pay attention to what you have to say allowing you to simultaneously make needed course corrections and build up your relationship with that employee.

Be the Relatable Leader they Will Follow into Battle

Learning how to be relatable is key in becoming the kind of leader that others can trust. The three steps can easily be summarized in one short sentence: respect others, and they will respect you. This takes humility, time, and love, but the reward is an environment of trust, selflessness, and respect that amplifies the effectiveness of your team and business.

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