Over the past five years, one of the more consistent criticisms leveled at U.S. President Barack Obama is his inability to build relationships—both domestically and abroad. This lack has resulted in political standoffs and divisiveness here in the U.S. that shut down the government on several occasions and has led to unfortunate misunderstandings about the country’s motives and resolve on a variety of issues throughout the world.
Whether due to ideology or inexperience, it’s become all too clear that Mr. Obama has demonstrated a dismaying flaw in his leadership style. Most successful leaders will agree, maintaining strong personal relationships is the key long-term success on any level. Over the course of my career, I found this truism demonstrated time and again.
A case in point: For nearly 20 years, “Mohammed” had been a friend and business partner. We had shared journeys, meals and considerable profits while weathering dozens of the disagreements that accompany any successful relationship. Our association had begun when Mohammed, a successful entrepreneur in the Middle East, decided to build a hotel and needed the management expertise we at Marriott International could provide. Then came the day in 2009 when he glared at me and hissed, “Your company will be dead to me when you retire.” Given our long history, his outburst was a shock.
As my crisis with Mohammed demonstrated, even after years spent developing trust and confidence, a relationship can be damaged in one disagreeable moment. Our falling out had its start in a financial dispute between Mohammed and his partners and our neutral stance in the matter.
In subsequent visits, I took pains to assure Mohammed of our respect and admiration and told him we had considered a variety of possible solutions. Nevertheless, he remained frustrated by his predicament, and he eventually told me that the real issue was our refusal to unquestionably take his side in the quarrel. The depth of our relationship was the only thing that kept the partnership from breaking apart. Eventually, the dispute found resolution, but the need to ditch the desk and maintain the relationship remained.
Solid relationships are not formed overnight, however; and they are defined by culture and community. Different values and customs can sometimes make genuine connections difficult to build and maintain.
A strong connection may begin with untold hours of dining together and mingling at social events. But to reinforce a productive relationship you need to demonstrate fairness and evenhandedness. It’s hard work but the rewards of getting out from behind your desk and making the effort to build strong relationships face-to-face are many.
Over coming months, I’ll discuss other situations in which maintaining strong relationships saved the day.