Leadership is about people, so it’s not surprising that two of the seven leadership dimensions that my PhD study uncovered are about relationships.

What is interesting is what those dimensions are: unconditional engagement and humane connectivity.

The two relationship dimensions make up the horizontal arms of the model. They are what gives your leadership wings, so to speak. With other people on board, we can go higher and further than we could have on our own. We can achieve more.

However, the way we think about leadership, especially in business, is often not congruent with these two relationship dimensions. If we want to be great leaders who achieve sustainable results, we need to reframe our thinking and realign our actions.

Today’s blog explores why unconditional engagement matters in leadership and business, three practices that characterise it and how to practise it.

Why unconditional engagement matters

In Chapter 7 of my book, The Leader’s Inner Source*, I described unconditional engagement as follows:

The fifth dimension, unconditional engagement, is about unconditional acceptance of ourselves and others. It is about appreciating our own and others’ value as intrinsic, in other words, inherent to us as humans, and not based on our behaviours, beliefs or any aspect of ourselves which we relate to our identity.

Unconditional engagement allows us to let go of our desire to be in control and to be right as it relates to another person. It is about what the other person needs, not only about our ideas. It opens the door for us to trust others more instead of relying solely on ourselves.

To most leaders, especially those in business, this description sounds quite soft and “fluffy”. However, in reality, it is a vital leadership practice in any organisation that wants to achieve results.

Often, we incorrectly assume that, in an organisational context, we as leaders have the right to demand results from those we lead because they are employees. They get paid for their work, after all.

But research has shown that that assumption is not true. The work of Wendy Lambourne from Legitimate Leadership is especially enlightening. In her book, Legitimate Leadership*, Wendy explains that “people are hardwired to resists coercion and to retaliate when they feel manipulated.” (p. 24)

Demanding anything from employees triggers this reaction.

Instead, their research has shown that “[m]anagers […] are accepted or rejected on the strength of their perceived interest in the wellbeing of their employees. Trust is granted or withheld, leadership is seen to be worthy of support or not, primarily on this basis.” (p. 17)

As the Legitimate Leadership team puts it elsewhere:

Only when individual managers have a genuine concern for their people as human beings and enable them to realise the best in themselves will their people be willing. It is two drops of essence, care and growth, which gives those in authority legitimacy, not money.

If we want to achieve more than what we can as an individual, which is true for every leader, we need to have our people on board. And doing so requires unconditional engagement – genuine concern for our people as human beings.

3 practices that mark unconditional engagement

So how do we practise unconditional engagement?

Here are three ways that both Wendy and I have written about in our books.

1) Give unconditionally

As I put it in my book, engagement must happen “without manipulation or expecting a return. Authentic engagement shuts down when employees sense that they are being manipulated or when conditions are attached to their employer’s generosity.”

Or as Wendy put it in her book, “Giving is only giving when it is unconditional. […] Leadership is about giving something to one’s people, not getting something out of them.” (pp. 35, 41)

2) Let go of the need to control

From my book:

Managers can control systems and processes, not people. Leaders lead people, and the only person leaders need to and can control is themselves. Forcing people only leads to discontent and discourages them from being creative, effective and productive.

 And from Wendy:

[E]mployees, not management, ultimately decide to what degree they are prepared to be led. […] [M]anagers have only as much power as their employees permit them. […]

When those in authority are accepted, their visibility outside the boardroom is welcomed. Employees take their concerns to them rather than to their employee representative or to the human resources function. They abide by managerial decisions and, if disciplinary action is taken, do not rail against it. The average employee does what is expected and more.

(p. 21)

3) Appreciate, respect and trust employees’ judgements

As I put it, “[A]llow [employees] to be proactive. It is a vote of confidence, a sign of respect and opens the door to unconditional engagement and the creation of new opportunities.”

And in Wendy’s words, “[E]mpowerment implies an incremental suspension of control in order to enable the subordinate, […] replacing control with accountability.” (p. 33)

How to grow in unconditional engagement

Unconditional engagement is far from easy. We can only practise it with any consistency if we are mature with a healthy sense of self and if we’ve learnt to separate the person from their behaviour.

I devote an entire section of Chapter 7 in my book to what it means to have a healthy sense of self. In essence, it means that we value ourselves and therefore others intrinsically, not based on what we do or any aspect of our identity.

In Legitimate Leadership, Wendy refers to mature vs immature people. “Immature people are here to take. Mature people are here to give” (p. 35). Legitimate leadership is for the mature person who “can suspend her needs and act for reasons higher than self-interest” (p. 36). This person can “suspend their own agenda for the agenda of their people” (p. 72).

Another vital skill that I cover in-depth in my book is separating the person from the behaviour. Unconditional engagement is not condoning a person’s behaviour or agreeing with their beliefs. As I put it in the book, “Unconditional engagement does not mean that any behaviour goes.”

The Legitimate Leadership Model agrees. Excellence and accountability are crucial elements of it, but it is always based on genuine care and trust. As Wendy says in her book, leaders must “use results as the means to enable people” (p. 162).

Want to know more?

Unconditional engagement is not soft, and it is not fluffy. It is a crucial skill for all leaders and managers who want their teams to operate effectively to reach organisational goals.

But unconditional engagement is countercultural for many of us, and it’s not easy. However, we can learn to shift the way we think and act to realise its benefits.

If you are interested in learning more about practising unconditional engagement in an organisational context, I highly recommend Legitimate Leadership’s approach, which is why I am proud to operate in partnership with them.

If you are interested to learn more about how Legitimate Leadership can help you shift the culture at your organisation, contact me on +27 83 265 9027 or reanduplessis@rdup.com.

* The Leader’s Inner Source and Legitimate Leadership are available on Amazon, or contact me to purchase either book directly.