Auto pioneer Henry Ford once asked, “Why is it that I always get the whole person when what I really want is a pair of hands?” Let’s face it: relationships are messy. Many leaders would rather deal with people only in terms of their work life. But the reality is that when you lead someone, you always get the whole person—including their dysfunctions, home life, health issues, and quirks.

Good leaders understand that the heart of leadership is dealing with people and working with the good, the bad, and the ugly in everyone. They do this on Level 2. Leadership experts Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus put it this way:

Leadership is an essentially human business. Both universities and corporations seriously miss the point with their overemphasis on formal quantitative tools, unambiguous problems, and ridiculously oversimplified “human relations” cases. What we have found is that the higher the rank, the more interpersonal and human the undertaking. Our top executives spend roughly 90 percent of their time concerned with the messiness of people problems.6

I think if we’re honest, we have to admit that the messiness of people problems is what can make leadership no fun. So often, as we get to know others and we start to see their flaws, we become disillusioned with them. And we often end up like the woman at a cocktail party who was trying her best to look happy. Someone noticed a gargantuan sparkling rock on her finger and exclaimed, “Wow! What a beautiful diamond!”

“Yes,” she said, “it’s a Callahan diamond.”

“I wish I had one!” the onlooker replied.

“No, you don’t,” the woman tartly responded.

“Why not?”

“Because it comes with the Callahan curse.”

“The Callahan curse—what’s that?”

With a deep sigh and a forlorn look, she said, “Mr. Callahan!”

The more we learn about others, the more disappointed we may be. Why? Because each of us has imperfections and irritating habits. We all fail. After the Nixon years, Billy Graham said, “Everybody has a little Watergate in him.” We must learn to accept that about one another and still work together.

As a leader, you may be tempted to build relationships only with the people you like or with whom you are highly compatible, and to ignore the others. However, by doing that, you have the potential to lose a lot of people. It’s important to remember that while the things we have in common may make relationships enjoyable, the differences are what really make them interesting. Good leaders on Level 2 deal successfully with these differences and leverage them for the benefit of the team and organization.

Good leaders are able to look at hard truths, see people’s flaws, face reality, and do it in a spirit of grace and truth. They don’t avoid problems; they solve them. Abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass once said that you can’t expect to get a crop without plowing, and you can’t expect rain without thunder and lightning. Leaders who build relationships understand that conflict is a part of progress. Often it is even constructive.

John C. Maxwell, The 5 Levels of Leadership: Proven Steps to Maximize Your Potential (New York City, NY: Center Street, 2011).

We have just released a new Bible study on: Messy Relationships

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