After reading the above equation, you might be asking, “What types of leadership problems does this algebraic equation help solve, and what do these variables represent?” I find myself similarly curious and sometimes perplexed when I look at my daughter’s 8th grade math word problems. I ask myself, “Considering I got As in math in middle and high school, why does it sometimes take me awhile to figure out what is going on in these word problems?” But today’s math teachings and methods are different from those of 40 years ago, and the problems and expectations more demanding. To help my daughter, I need to remain patient, listen to understand her issues and frustrations, break down the problem, pay attention to the relationship between all the variables, learn/apply new methods, and inspire/hold her accountable to do her best. If I do these things, I can successfully coach her through solving the problem.

In my executive coaching practice, many of the middle and senior level leaders I work with have to apply the same problem-solving approaches on a grander scale when dealing with current business issues. To illustrate this point, I introduce them to this odd “leadership equation.”  I ease in to the math reference by telling them they need more “R&R” to meet the demands of their roles, and they fervently agree. Then I explain that while I understand they need more “rest and relaxation,” I’m talking about a different kind of “R” plus “R,” the leadership equation “R+R = S.” And just like with “real” math, the leaders and I need to reflect upon and break down the equation to solve for “S” — “Success.”

R₁ = Results

“R₁” in the equation stands for “Results.” Many of the leaders I work with are top performers with a very strong drive. They have been promoted to middle and/or senior management roles with greater responsibility and visibility, because they get things done, get the most out of people, and meet and/or exceed challenging goals. They are called to lead teams/units to deliver profit-rising initiatives, industry-leading innovations, and/or process efficiency improvements while applying new technologies and methods under tight time frames. These leaders are honored to be chosen by their organizations. They have been recognized and rewarded for getting results in the past, and want to continue driving and delivering results now and in the future. Until their higher management roles, they solved their professional success equation by relying most heavily on one variable, “R₁ = Results.”

R = Relationships

Well-meaning middle and senior-level leaders, however, can get caught in the trap of overusing their drive for results at the cost of the second variable in the equation, “R₂,” which stands for “Relationships”:

  • They may push people too hard to achieve unit/department goals, and negatively impact relationships with their direct reports, peers, stakeholders, and manager(s).
  • They may focus on results metrics, and overlook verbal and non-verbal signs that key relationships are suffering.
  • They may strengthen relationships narrowly within their functional areas instead of building networks broadly across the organization. 
  • They may believe that they and their staff have the right answer to business problems instead of encouraging cross-functional collaboration to ensure collective solutions.

These approaches do not yield success. Middle and senior management roles require leaders to refocus and accept that they are less directly responsible for delivering the results themselves, and more directly accountable for building, maintaining, and enhancing relationships. They need to solve tough problems with and through others in order to be successful. Their roles are more “nuanced,” and require excellent quiet and active listening (asking questions, affirming, summarizing, empathizing), facilitation, collaboration, and influencing skills. These leaders need to demonstrate increased emotional intelligence, and spend more time gathering stakeholder input, gaining solution alignment, and creating/communicating a strategy and vision that others will buy into and be responsible for implementing.  

Results + Relationships = Success

Thus, leadership is best executed with a proactive and conscious practice of delivering results and building relationships in order to achieve the “S” in the equation, “Success.” Leaders need the self-awareness to realize when these two variables are not in optimal balance, as well as the commitment and skill to make adjustments based on feedback and job demands. They need to continue developing their listening, facilitation, collaboration, and influencing skills to successfully navigate complex political landscapes as they ascend the ranks. And as I need to do when helping my daughter with math word problems, they need to remain patient, listen to and understand others’ issues, break problems down, pay attention to the relationships between all the variables, learn/apply new methods, and inspire/hold people accountable to do their best. 

My observation after 18 years of executive coaching is that if leaders truly commit to and work on the “results and relationship equation” on a daily basis, they report being more successful in both aspects of their roles, as well as happier at work and home. As as result, they enjoy more of the other “R&R” they seek — some well-deserved rest and relaxation.