Have you ever been in a set of circumstances where a recognized and powerful person in your organization crossed your path … and for reasons unknown, you had some sort of physical reaction? Maybe they jumped on an elevator at the last minute and wound up standing next to you. Or you were walking down the hallway and suddenly saw them coming in the opposite direction. Or you were up in front of the room in the middle of a presentation, and they walked in and took a seat in the back row. Have you ever “been the boss” and noticed any of those things happening to you? Sometimes the mere presence of power (irrespective of motive or intention) can produce a primal response.
Those well versed in the signaling and triggering dynamics of the brain would tell us about the preconditioned interplay between the amygdala and hypothalamus … but all we really need to be aware of is that as human beings we have an innate ability to sense potential danger. And when we do, it can produce a primal inclination to avoid it and not engage.
This has long been a challenge for people in formal positions of leadership. The challenge emanates from the reality that the more formal power you have, the more those around you are “on guard.” If building trust and having real exchanges with people that work for you is important, then you need to be the driving force that eliminates those barriers.
Few elite leaders have done a better job neutralizing those primal fears in a corporate setting than Alan Mulally. His story as CEO of Ford is well chronicled, but at its core rests his ongoing, every day, all-the-time, 24-7 obsession with making every employee at Ford feel at ease and perceiving him, if nothing else, as approachable. He genuinely invested in building an interpersonal relationship with tens of thousands of employees at Ford. And I realize … that sounds ridiculous. Tens of thousands? Come on!
So please, do not take my word for any of this. Do some Googling! And when you do, one of the single most amazing statistics you will find is this. When Alan Mulally retired from Ford … he had a 91% employee approval rating. NINETY-ONE PER CENT! I place that in all caps because there is no way I would even approach that number if I polled the members of my immediate family!
Now, Alan Mulally is gifted, no question there. He has an IQ “that could probably boil water” and a work ethic that would drive most of us into the ground. But the things that truly distinguished his contributions are things we all have the capacity to emulate. He was compassionate. He was approachable. He was authentic. He invested in building interpersonal relationships. More than anything, the more powerful he became, the more he went out of his way to put others at ease.