There are few things as sad as when a person discovers the importance of his relationships too late in life. Too late, because so many years were wasted on the wrong priorities, pursuing success in the workplace at all costs, being caught up in endless conflict, platonic relationships, jealousy, hatred, feelings of resentment and bitterness. Too late because quality relationships need time and focused attention to grow and mature before bearing all the fruits of true happiness, contentment and gratitude. It is very unfortunate that we often only discover with hindsight that life, and particularly modern life as portrayed by the media, deceive us. It leads us to the wrong destination. More correctly, we allow ourselves to be influenced by the wrong things and simply follow the crowd. When we realise it, we are disillusioned and disappointed in ourselves. Can it be avoided?

James Hollis in his book On this journey we call our life asserts that the quality of all our relationships is a direct function of our relationship with ourselves. If we neglect building quality relationships it might very well be that we are unwilling to face ourselves. Let me be clear about this concept of facing yourself. It does not mean being preoccupied with your own ideas and emotions. It does not mean 'navel-gazing', analysis-paralysis or passivity. It also doesn't mean being ego-centric. In truth, as Hollis points out, the most loving thing we can do for others, is to 'render our relationship with ourselves more conscious... If we are to serve relationships well, we are obliged to affirm our individual journey.'

Indeed, something like success, as the world in general sees it, can be completely misleading. Whilst I am getting affirmation for being successful in my work, always taking charge of things and projecting a powerful and successful image, I can silently be wondering why I always have to feel in control. Being constantly driven can win a person admiration in some circles, but there is a dark side to it: the fear of not being in control, of feeling powerless. Are we prepared to admit that the thought of not being able to control most of our lives scares us out of our wits and that we try to compensate for the feeling by being busy all the time? A brutally honest question that the compulsive, over-worked leader needs to ask himself is: How loving spontaneous and free are my relationships? Is there not something missing in my life? Something really important?

The more we try to silence these questions, concerns or restless feelings, the less we are able to recognise them as important signals to regain an integrated life. By trying to suppress these important signals from our souls, we are less able to love ourselves, which is the pre-condition for loving relationships.

So, let us consider our organisations and work-life. If we can agree that too much of our time and energy is spent at work by surrendering to the idea of working like robots without any sense of meaning and deeper fulfilment, then surely we will also agree that it is much more ideal to aspire to true community at work. Doing work, setting and achieving goals, being productive and being profitable as a team of trusting and caring people who find meaning in their relationships, add so much to our enjoyment and quality of life. In our typical large corporations one can hardly imagine true community, but leaders are in the position to lead happy work-communities as well profitable businesses and effective institutions. Whether we want to or not, we bring the needs of the soul to the work environment and suffer its neglect. And as someone said, 'bottom-line thinking is too often thinking with your head in your bottom'. It is inevitable that one will overlook very important things in life.

Maintaining and growing intimate relationships for life can be the most difficult challenge one faces in life. It must be said that, as important as unconditional commitment to the relationship is, it is still no guarantee that it will grow and flourish. It is a far too simple statement to say that failed marriages are the result of poor commitment by either or both of the partners. However, it is hard to think that relationships can grow and flourish for a lifetime without serious, unceasing commitment. The learning and self-knowledge that one can gain from such a commitment to another person, is priceless. If we have learned how to cultivate and stimulate the primary relationship in our lives, we know form experience what is needed for good relationships with colleagues at work.

In all our relationships we experience the tension between the desire to be close on the one hand, and the desire to be separate on the other. (This is very well described by Peter Steinke in his book How your Church family works). We want to be part of the team and, at the same time, we want to be separate of the team. We want to feel that others care for us, that they value us and enjoy our presence. But we also want to 'hear' what we think. We want to be able to feel comfortable with ourselves when nobody is around. We can never escape this tension. We can only learn to balance it better. As we learn how to define ourselves better, we also need to learn how to stay in touch with others.

If we ask our partners or close friends, they will tell us if they experience us as emotionally distant. We can tell ourselves there is nothing wrong with it, but there is a point where we become dysfunctional. Wanting to oppose others more often than not, on the one hand, and evading confrontation and conflict, on the other, are signs of becoming dysfunctional. Conflict is part of life and relationships. We might want to justify the position by saying that we do not want to create more problems and unpleasantness. The reality, however, is that we choose to evade others and will not try to reach a position of improved understanding and appreciation of different views to our own. Ever experienced a team member who is constantly obstructive, distinctly unhelpful to the cause?

What about the other end of the scale? What happens when we lose the balance to the side of wanting to be close to others? The danger, as pointed out by Steinke, is emotional fusion. Our emotions become tangled in with others' emotions and we have difficulty to determine the boundaries of our identity. The need to feel accepted and affirmed becomes desperate. Alternatively, we want to feel that our partner or the group is dependent on us. Again the imbalance is dangerous, unhealthy and dysfunctional.

Knowing oneself in terms of our inclinations to lean dangerously to one side of the self/others scale, is an important first step to growing better relationships. What follows is unceasing commitment to reach out to others in the sincere effort to make the relationship as good as it possibly can be. By the end of our career lives, it is the relationships we formed that we will remember and treasure, more so than the lists of achievements and accolades.

Author's Bio: 

Dr Gerhard van Rensburg has been practicing as a full-time leadership and executive coach since 2002. His coaching focus is the development of leadership. He published two leadership books, The Leadership Challenge in Africa, and Leadership Thoughts. He strongly believes that we need to be lifelong learners in the areas of our vision, character and relationships. Growth in these areas form the foundation to our career and leadership growth. His approach in coaching is to partner with people as a facilitator of their growth, particularly as leaders in the workplace – thereby optimizing potential and positive results. In doing so he integrates the various relevant contexts and perspectives.

He developed an online leadership development program in 2012/3 named '32 Leadership Principles to unlock your potential' (www.newlead.co.za.)