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Leading with comfort and joy


A favorite ancient Christmas carol speaks of “tidings of comfort and joy”, reminding Christians to rest easy in Jesus and be assured that all will be well. I’ve always loved the carol and see that there is some relevance in comfort and joy to how you lead others.

In the context of your leadership:

Comfort is your ability to lead with ease and confidence.

Joy is a feeling of well-being and great happiness.

Leading with comfort and joy requires you to make deliberate choices in how you live your life every day.

Consider that you might lead with ease and experience happiness when you pay attention to self-care and caring for others:


Take care of yourself first: Take stock of your fulfillment and take responsibility to improve the personal arenas that need attention by asking yourself some questions:

Physical: Exercise and healthy eating can help you control your weight, prevent disease, improve your mood, and increase your stamina for the daily challenges you face at work. Are you exercising regularly, and do you have a sense that you’re physically fit? Are you consciously eating foods that are healthy?

Mental: Feeding your brain is important to taking care of yourself and your ability to lead at your best. What new things are you learning? How are you being intentional about what and how you learn?

Emotional: Caring for your emotions is every bit as important as caring for your physical body and your brain. What passions have taken a back seat to your work life? Are you spending the optimum amount of time with those you love and who love you back?

Spiritual: Your spirit is the part of you that experiences meaning and connection to something greater than yourself. What is your life purpose, and are you acting in accord with that? What regular practices do you have that connect you to a greater good?


Serve others: Become clear about how you administer to the needs of others and be accountable to improving how you lead:

Demonstrate respect: When you show respect to others, it means you trust them to do their work, treat them with civility, and honor them as human beings. What do you do to notice the good in others (even those who “push your buttons”)? Who do you need to seek out and repair a relationship with?

Express caring: People will care about you and work harder with/for you when you show that you care about them. What can you do regularly to demonstrate your appreciation of others? What have you done lately to show your team how much you appreciate them?

Give guidance: Everyone needs some coaching at some point; if you coach well, the people you guide will become self-resourceful. Who needs your coaching? What else can you do, on a regular basis, to help others develop and grow?

Set an example: People follow you when you lead with values, purpose, and skill. What gaps do you need to fill in the way you lead? What’s the first step you can take to become a better leader?


When you make conscious choices on how you live your life, you will lead with ease and happiness.

God rest ye merry gentlepersons! Happy holidays!


Practice improving your relationships to become a better leader


“If we want to introduce new leadership behaviors in our lives, it’s necessary to practice.” Richard Strozzi-Heckler, The Leadership Dojo


Leading others has everything to do with the relationships you form with them. And when you lead others well, your success – and that of your organization, has the best chance of occurring.

When you discover through feedback you’ve received that your relationships have room to improve, it can be discouraging. However, this feedback is simply a reminder that things can be better. It’s a good thing to know because as your relationships with your manager, your peers, your direct reports, or your customers/clients improve, so does your ability to achieve results.

What you might not know is that leadership is something that needs to be “practiced” in the same way the best basketball players, ballerinas, or virtuoso pianists do. More to the point, the relationship behaviors you need to have as a leader that are capable of connecting, growing, inspiring, and influencing others must be practiced.

You have been born with some of those relationship behaviors. Others must be learned and practiced in order to become embodied. If you are observant, you may notice that as soon as one behavioral habit becomes ingrained in your psyche, another one appears that needs to be practiced and worked on. Some examples of relationship behaviors that are commonly “practiced” by leaders who are intentional about improving their relationships include the “how to” of:

  • having “small talk” conversations
  • listening better
  • getting along with their manager
  • dealing with high performers and/or poor performers
  • forming better relationships with their peers
  • learning to coach others

Start practicing today to improve your leadership relationships by:

Getting feedback on relationship behaviors that may need some “tweaking”. Almost any leadership 360 will have questions relating to your relationships (in the form of how well you communicate, collaborate, work in teams, etc.) that when answered, can help you to understand your gaps. You can also ask for feedback or hire an executive coach to do targeted interviews of your stakeholders around your relationship strengths and gaps.

Creating a plan to close the gaps in your relationships. Create a written action or development plan and find someone to hold you accountable to your action steps. Make sure that your steps include the specifics of the behaviors you need to incorporate, for example, what will you be doing when you listen better?

Trying on new behaviors that will strengthen your relationships. Be willing to do some things that aren’t in your comfort zone. For instance, having small talk can be uncomfortable (but it is necessary to connect with others). Try the new behavior, and observe how others act differently in the workplace and toward you; adjust as needed.

Ongoing “practice” until new, more effective behaviors become “habits”. When you’re diligent in and reflective in your practice, your new behaviors can become “second nature”. This usually means they’ll feel more natural, automatic, or habitual. It may take months for this to happen (so patience is key).

Improving the relationships with your stakeholders requires dedicated practice and a dose of courage. Your improved rapport with others will be rewarded with improved leadership and a successful organization.


No ham please! What your employees really want for the holidays


The company I worked for in my first professional position gave all of the employees a ham for the holidays. Although I was grateful and surprised to receive anything at all, there was a bit of dismay for this gift because:

  • They didn’t ask me what I wanted
  • My salary was barely a living wage
  • Management treated employees as a commodity with firings for minor transgressions
  • I was vegetarian (but was able to donate my ham to someone who could use it)

The next company I worked for was a wonderful place to work. We were paid well and treated as individuals and with respect. They gave us a holiday bonus which was a percentage of annual salary. I was happy and grateful about this until I worked in corporate compensation and discovered that the CEO’s holiday bonus equaled my annual salary.

Now I was getting the picture. Throwing food and gifts was supposed to – what – make me work harder? Be more loyal? Do as I was told?

Whatever the reason, it wasn’t what worked for me to feel connected and motivated.

At some point, I realized the intangibles were important to me, and as I moved up the ranks in my career, I did my best learn what employees really wanted.

And you should, too.

If your employees are making a good, competitive wage and are doing work they enjoy, it only makes sense for you to listen beyond the requests they make for money and promotions to figure out what really brings out their best work. They want you to ask them. And even if they don’t know the answer right away, they will walk away and think about the question.

You may find that their answers are surprising. They aren’t what you expect. And they are intangible, but they are something that you have some power to provide to them, if only you will change the way you lead. When I talk to employees, the responses I hear about what they’d like from their managers show up most often in these areas:

Freedom to figure out how to do things on their own, to make mistakes, and to pick up and continue to learn from them. Most employees don’t want to be told how to do something unless they fear retribution from you. Almost all employees will need to be pointed in a general direction or will ask for your advice, but if you allow them to figure it out and make mistakes, they will grow and develop into better employees.

Respect for them personally, and for the work they do. Employees want to be appreciated and told when they do a good work (this is rarer than you might think), and to be respected as the resourceful, smart, and perfectly capable human beings that they are. Believe in them as fully able to go beyond what they think they are capable of, and you might be surprised to see them achieve even more than their own expectations.

Connection to a vision and purpose that is big and inspiring. Inspire them to see what is possible and to understand how the work they’re doing connects to a bigger picture than they can currently see. This is the kind of connection that powers great organizations to succeed and make a difference in the world, since it is powered by motivated and inspired employees.

The ham and the bonus were gifts that were appreciated, but not really what I wanted. Likewise, your employees really want freedom, respect, and a connection to something bigger. Those are the real gifts you can give to them. Why not ask them what they want and find out for yourself?


This post was originally published in Smartblog on Leadership.



Only lifelong learners need apply


Guest post by my friend and colleague, Sheri Welsh


I remember being a student in the Business School at Central Michigan University. My coursework was rigorous and challenging. After 4 ½ years of hard work, I recall the feeling of accomplishment upon receiving my degree. I also remember feeling like my new found knowledge and degree would successfully carry me into a great career. I looked forward to putting the books down and having freedom from hours of studying. While not a conscious decision NOT to learn, it WAS an unconscious move to allow learning to slip to a low priority in my life. And years later I realize – that’s precisely when the learning began.

After 25+ years in business, I now look back and recognize that I began learning from my very first day on the job. But a paradigm shift about learning – of consciously seeking out opportunities to learn and challenging myself through continuous improvement – came much later in my career. And I believe my experience is similar to what many professionals have encountered. Maybe you too have allowed your supervisor or employer to drive what you will learn and you have not yet committed yourself to becoming a lifelong learner.

In the fast paced, ever changing world we work in, learning for many has become an institutional expectation. For example, how can an engineer continue to advance and be successful in her career if she does not continually learn more about her field of expertise? In fields such as engineering, supervisors and employers frequently provide what the organization sees as important and pertinent learning opportunities for their teams. If you are employed by a company that embraces learning you are indeed fortunate. These learning experiences are truly win-win – good for the business and good for you. But regardless of whether or not your employer provides adequate training and development for you, you must develop within yourself a drive for lifelong learning and continuous improvement that goes beyond what is required. You must chart and develop a path for learning that helps to fulfill your personal career goals and aspirations.

“A demonstrated ability for lifelong learning” – I predict that in the not too distant future, this skill set will become a standard sought after by successful companies, much like “good communication skills” and “good computer skills” are standard required skills today. Why? Because our economy, our world and the marketplaces we conduct business in are changing rapidly. What will our core business, customers, and markets look like in 3, 5 or 10 years? Based on our current speed of change and innovation, the future becomes quite difficult to predict. Given that, companies can no longer afford to hire candidates with just the skills necessary to perform the requirements of an open position. Many now look to hire candidates with skills necessary to perform the next role the company may need them for, a role that may not even exist today. Soon, most professional roles will have position requirements such that only lifelong learners need apply.

So where is your career headed? Have you embraced lifelong learning? Are you charting a course of learning and development for yourself or are you allowing your employer to chart it all for you? What do you desire to do 3, 5 or even 10 years from now? Are you developing the knowledge base and understanding it takes to rise to those positions – and the roles of the future – the ones you may not even have thought of yet?

Maybe today is the day that will change.


Sheri Welsh is the President of Welsh & Associates, Inc., a full-service regional executive search and professional recruiting firm. She holds a BS in Business Administration from Central Michigan University and is a Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR), a Certified Personnel Consultant (CPC) and a Certified Employee Retention Specialist (CERS).

Sheri is also the creator of Kzoo Connect, a blog developed to tell the good news of Kalamazoo to everyone who will listen, focused on attracting our valuable talent back home to live, work and play. Follow along at or on Facebook or Twitter.

How to make one helluva good person, together


I sat with two leaders in one of the last meetings we’d have. Six months of hard work by these two dedicated leaders who were leaders at odds with each other in an organization had paid off, and we were discussing what they’d learned.

These were not the same two people I saw in the beginning: blaming each other for the breakdown, angry, and worn down by fighting for their way. Recently I had sensed a shift in them and their relationship.

They had the ability to make this shift all along. But when we started our work, it was buried under years of “stuff” that included judgment, assumptions, and self-preservation.

Now, they didn’t shut down when the other person spoke. There was active engagement, a softening toward each other, and a willingness to appreciate each other. Today, they listened to understand the other’s viewpoint and to seek agreement on the important work decisions they jointly had to make.

There is almost always a bigger purpose than the individuals who can’t see eye to eye that sparks reconciliation. And that was the case with these two.

The organizational mission was an important motivator for them to heal their relationship, and they were uncomfortable enough with the current situation to take risks and to make some specific personal commitments in a positive direction.

The process to reconciliation is simple but the execution can be hard. These two discovered some “secrets” to reconciling a broken relationship over the time we worked together. I’d like to share them with you:

Discover and declare the vision or mission that jointly drives you and if your organization doesn’t have one, be creative and make one up for yourselves. Make it big and inspiring; a statement that will drive you in your work together.

Commit authentically to a new future. What commitments are you willing to agree on that will help you to work together? These need to be shared behavioral goals like “listening without judgment” or making requests of the other person when you want help. Whatever you decide, this is an essential foundation for reconciling.

Let others around you know of your commitments. You are making a declaration and setting the stage for true leadership by modelling what you expect from others and humbly admitting that you aren’t perfect. Go a step further and ask for feedback from your stakeholders when either of you strays from your commitments.

Get to know each other differently. Spend time getting to know each other and your history. What, in your history, makes you who you are today? How did your families work (or not) together, and how did that experience shape you?

Be willing to have respectful and regular “meta conversations”. Surface the hidden elephants in your relationship and be willing to speak to what they mean to you as individuals. (P.S. you may find that those elephants are full of assumptions and judgments about the other).

Assess your progress together. Ask and discuss these questions together: How are we doing? Are we noticing that the commitments we act on are making a difference in our organization (s)? Why or why not? What do we need to adjust?

Make new commitments for your future. There will be bumps along the road. But what you don’t want to do is to go back to the past. What new commitments do you want to make to assure your continued success in the relationship?

As we completed this almost-final meeting, one of the leaders said that she learned that the two of them “Make one helluva good person together”; in other words, they discovered how they use knowledge of each other to lead “as if they were one”. I know they’ll experience bumps in the road ahead, but I also know they have everything they need to deal with the obstacles…..together.


This post was originally published in Smartblog on Leadership.



Leading with unconditional positive regard


Pema Chodron, a well-known Buddhist teacher and nun, states that “As soon as you begin to believe in something, then you can no longer see anything else”. I think she’s got something there, and I might also paraphrase this to “As soon as you begin to make assumptions and judgments about others, you are no longer open to who they truly are”.

We may tend to hang on to what we believe about others, damaging our relationships with them and preventing them – and our organizations – from taking full advantage of their potential. When a leader can get past their critical beliefs and see people as worthy human beings who are doing the best they can do, then everyone and everything flourishes.

Seeing others with unconditional positive regard

Those who work in the coaching profession (whether they are life, business, or executive coaches) may be familiar with the idea of “unconditional positive regard”, a term borrowed from therapeutic methodologies, described as a way of accepting and supporting someone no matter what they say or do.

Unconditional positive regard is an attitude of non-judgment and non-assumption about someone that can give them the freedom to be who they are without the fear of loss of your esteem for them. It doesn’t mean you like them or approve of what they do. It means you respect them as human beings and their right to self-determination.

It doesn’t mean that you can’t intervene if someone you lead is going to cause harm. It means you can intervene if you do it from the standpoint of respect rather than punishment.

A way to help those you lead to grow

In the end, taking on an attitude of unconditional positive regard is a growth strategy for the people you lead. It allows them freedom. It can foster creativity and new ideas. It increases the chances that they will bring their best to work. And interestingly, it increases the chances that you’ll bring your best self to work too.

Unconditional positive regard has little to do with what’s happened in the past and everything to do with what’s possible in the future. If you think about it, you know someone who has turned their life around. My guess is that this often happens because someone has seen what’s possible in that person. It can work for you as you lead others too.

Sure, you get paid to make judgments and assumptions. However, for a good portion of the time, judging and assuming just doesn’t work as you relate to and lead people. Anecdotally, the most effective, influential, and impactful leaders I’ve known are experts at unconditional positive regard. And that translates into healthy employees, relationships, and organizations that can be unstoppable.

Think about it. What would it mean for you to take a stance of “unconditional positive regard” with those you lead?

Agile leadership: what it is and how to get it


Armed with a degree in biology I started my career as a bench biologist, but the route from there to where I am now is quite circuitous. In the almost 25 years I spent in a corporate environment, I held eight different positions in three major business areas. All of my career moves were of my own choosing.

At one point, my manager told me that if I wanted to go into management, I would need to stay in a position for longer than a few years. I thought his advice was faulty when I heard it (and as it turns out, it was), so it didn’t slow me down.

I loved learning new things, and my curiosity led me into some unusual jobs; I learned what I needed to, completed what I started, and moved on. Apparently, this “job hopping” (a term I heard often) wasn’t normal at the time. I was willing to risk a career for the ability to continue learning in far-ranging business arenas.

Every bit of what I learned in those positions was put to work on the next corporate business, what I do now, and what I will do in the future. There is a term for people that learn and are able to capitalize on it: “learning agility”.

Leaders who are agile learners are quick thinking, decisive, curious, intuitive and take (what others might call) risks. Agile leaders are exactly what we need in our organizations that are getting bigger, flatter, and more complex. They adapt moment by moment, are creative, proactive, able to learn on the fly, and comfortable with complexity.

Whew. This is a lot to ask of a leader, but the good news is that even if you don’t consider yourself “agile “now, you can learn to be. How?

Try new things: Get out of your comfort zone. Travel. Take on unusual assignments. Make lateral moves in order to learn something new. Converse with people who aren’t in your usual circle of colleagues and friends and be curious about them. Volunteer for something you never thought you would do. Take a class, learn a language. Try your hand at an artistic endeavor.

Stay present: To be able to learn on the fly, you need to be present to your experience. Observe your inside reaction as well as your external experience to new opportunities. If you have difficulty with staying present, try meditating (a new experience in and of itself!), which can help you to practice being present and create new neuronal connections that may make it easier.

Be reflective: Set aside time daily to reflect about what you’re learning in your quest to become more agile with your new experiences. It helps you to capture your learning in writing. Hire or seek out a reflection partner; someone you trust who can ask you about what you are learning, hold you accountable, and encourage you to continue. The trick here is to capture your learning systematically, not just hope it all sinks in.

Agile leaders learn and apply their learning in order to keep up with the pace of change. What have you done to learn something new lately, and how did you capture your learning?




Are you ready to do the work of being coached?


If you’re thinking of working with a coach, consider them as a guide. You will be taking responsibility to actually do the work that will help you to become the best you can be.

An analogy would be the sports or music coaches you’ve had. You “met” with them on a regular basis, but in order for you to get better at your craft, you also needed to practice between these meetings. It takes work on your part.

In executive and leadership coaching, this means you will co-design fieldwork with your coach that will be practiced in your workplace during your coaching engagement. You’ll need to reflect on what went well and what didn’t with those assignments and be ready to discuss your successes and challenges with your coach. Then you’ll practice again and again over the period that you being coached (usually for 6-12 months).

The reason for this “fieldwork” is that this is how you’ll learn, practice, and embody the new behaviors that are required for you to be the best leader you can be.

Although you may also co-design other types of assignments with your coach (perhaps some reading or an extracurricular work activity that has relevance to your coaching goals), this on-the-job fieldwork is of the utmost importance. This is the stuff that will change you. Although regular meetings with your coach are important for accountability, new insight, and moving you forward, they’re secondary to the experience of doing the fieldwork you’ll design with your coach at each meeting.

It can be hard, but rewarding work. It requires you to:

Be open to trying some things you have not tried before or that you may have preconceived negative opinions about. You’ll need to be creative in co-designing fieldwork that will be contextual to your situation and workplace while still getting results.

Be present as you try new behaviors. You’ll need to self-observe your reaction and the reactions of others around you as you practice your fieldwork in the workplace.

Be reflective and willing to take the time needed to think about your new behaviors, whether they are working for you, and how you might need to alter them for better results. For many leaders, this will require that they block out time on their schedules to reflect.

Be humble because the people around you will know that you are working with a coach. Coaching seldom needs to be a secret, and those around you will likely participate as stakeholders in your coaching engagement, providing feedback and encouragement.

Be engaged in practicing the fieldwork or provide a substantive reason why you didn’t do it to your coach. “Forgetting” to do the fieldwork is only excusable once or twice. Find a way to remember (tie a string around your finger? Put a sign up in your office or a note in Outlook?) and just do it. It’s that important!

The “fieldwork” (or “practice”) that you co-design with your coach is the key to successful personal/professional change. It will require time and effort, but it will help you to develop your new skills and behaviors.


Collaboration: it’s not what you think it is


“I’m going to begin to collaborate more with the stakeholders outside of my organization – clients, cross-functional partners and others.”

I asked the leader who made this statement what “collaboration” meant to him and his organization.

“I see it as a way to get more buy-in into the mission of our organization and to learn a bit more about them in the bargain.”

This isn’t really collaboration, a term that has become a buzzword in business and politics. True collaboration is not about what you can get from others.

A continuum of interaction that I learned many years ago helped me to understand what collaboration is. It can help you to understand what you really want to do in the situations you deal with and therefore direct your attention, intention, and behavior when you choose to collaborate.

Three words that begin with “C” broadly describe the types of interactions and relationships you may have with others. On a continuum, they look like this:

Competition à Cooperation à Collaboration

They can be defined in this way:

Competition: In competition both parties are attempting to win something. In the parlance of Stephen Covey, this is a win-lose situation; one party will get what they want and the other loses out. There are times when it makes sense to compete: organizations set out to “win” in the marketplace. You might also observe competition internally in an organization when two or more people are vying to win a promotion or when individuals with opposing views are competing for their idea to be adopted. Realistically, I think there are many times when competition occurs in organizations where it shouldn’t. Think carefully about whether you are using competition as a healthy conscious choice in your way of leading before you adopt it as a general strategy.

Cooperation: Many organizations have a lot of cooperating going on which is mistakenly labeled as “collaboration”. Cooperation often means that people agree to something but in the bargain may have to “give in” or “give up” something that is important to them. They may not fully buy in as they continue to cling to their own vested interests. At some point dissent appears and can interfere with a project, team, or organization. Cooperation can have the impact of increasing dissonance in a strategy, project or team and ultimately it can slow or stop the work you’re doing. Nonetheless, it is often an expedient strategy when the stakes are lower or time is of the essence.

Collaboration: Collaboration is a step above cooperation, and it’s rarer than hen’s teeth. When people collaborate, they give up their own vested interests for the greater good (often the greater good is fostered by a “compelling vision” of the future). They’re driven to work through their differences to achieve a goal by working hard to understand other’s viewpoints and being open and genuinely willing to change their mind. The stakes may be high and stretch them, but they are able to collaboratively bust through barriers to reaching the end goal. If you look hard enough you may see “moments” of true collaboration in your organization, but it generally doesn’t happen as often as it should. It takes time, effort, and ongoing attention by a leader to make collaboration work. True collaboration is a powerful way of making great things happen. Listening for understanding, co-creating the way forward with all interested parties, and a willingness to sometimes let go of deeply held beliefs can make collaboration part of the culture. Not to mention that collaborative work can be great fun and seem almost magical for those involved.

You will stand out if you can make collaboration part of your personal leadership style, being intentional about how and when you create the conditions that will foster it. Are you striving for competition, cooperation or collaboration? When does it make sense to strive for which of these?

This post was originally published in Smartblog on Leadership.


The “V Word”


Emotionally open to attack, harm, or damage.


We were young and old, male and female, leaders and coaches, sitting in a circle at the retreat center that houses a profound learning experience called “Presence-Based Coaching”. We were learning to learn from each other. When we started talking about vulnerability, the room quieted as our struggle to understand what it meant in our lives and work. This learning is part of a lifelong journey for those of us who yearn to make deeper connections with other people.

We talked about how the word “vulnerability” is taboo in most arenas of our lives, but particularly in the places where we work. We imagined that our aversion to what became jokingly known to us as the “V word” was bound up in the part of us that didn’t want to admit our failings. We fear emotional attack and judgment. We understood that the ego has a strong grip on us and recognized our own fear that we would be rejected by society and not liked by others when we were vulnerable.

We gained more insight as the week progressed that we were becoming vulnerable as we sat in our circles, ate our meals, went for walks together, and just did the things we did when we had so much time together in an enclosed space. As we opened our hearts to each other, we demonstrated the power of vulnerability and deep connection even if we would never see each other again.

Leaders need to open up their hearts

In your work world you rarely encounter physical harm. The harm you most often protect yourself from has primal names like rejection, shame, humiliation, and disgrace. You’ve felt these things at some point and you don’t want them to visit again. After all, aren’t leaders strong, resilient, and courageous?

Yes, the best leaders are all of those things when times call for it. At the same time, none of those things work or matter if they don’t stand on a strong foundation of healthy relationships. And healthy relationships begin with opening yourself up – in other words, being vulnerable to those primal things you don’t want to feel.

Your leadership will ascend when you open your heart in these ways:

Ask for help when you need it. Nobody has to bear the weight of the world on their shoulders, and people want to help. Who can help you?

Tell stories that connect you with others, even the ones that might show you in a less-than-ideal way. Chances are that others have had similar experiences and you can learn from each other. What stories show you as less than perfect?

Admit failure out loud because we all fail at something. Failure connects us to the larger community when we openly admit it. The shared experience of failing draws people together. What failures are you willing to admit to?

The “V word” is an honest word that can connect you with others. It requires much of you, but it gives back so much more. It’s okay to show your vulnerability.


Mary Jo Asmus
Mary Jo
A former executive in a Fortune 100 company, I own and operate a leadership solutions firm called Aspire Collaborative Services. We partner with great leaders to help them become even greater at developing, improving, and sustaining relationships with the people who are essential to their success. This blog is for leaders and those who help them to be more intentional about relationships at work. I am married, have two daughters, and a dog named Edgar the Leadership Pug who exemplifies the importance of relationships to great leadership.
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