Ice Cream, Alchemy and Leadership

Pepper de Callier

I was reminded of one of the key abilities of a successful leader recently as I was walking to my favorite ice cream store in Namesti Miru. It was a beautiful sunny spring day—perfect weather for enjoying an ice cream cone. After getting my ice cream, I sat down on a bench in the square. As I sat there watching other people walk by, talking and enjoying their ice cream, I was reminded of one of the most common issues I deal with in coaching very bright, driven people.

I call these people alphas—a term with its origin in the study of animal behavior. Alphas in the animal kingdom are the leaders of the pack. They are recognized by the other animals in the pack for their dominance. Alphas in the world of business are also recognized for their abilities and very often find themselves promoted quickly into management or leadership roles for a number of reasons. This recognition could be as a result of their functional talents and performance or it could even be because their employers don’t want to lose them to a competitor. Whatever the reason, in many cases, it comes so quickly that the alpha just hasn’t had time to develop some of the other skills that are necessary to successfully transition to a leadership role.

Alphas in the animal world lead by brute force, intimidation, and showing their teeth a lot. They aren’t interested in social interaction; they are interested in being alphas. All of which brings me to a common deficit of alphas in the business world: people skills—understanding the need to build relationships in a way that transcends the transactional. Alphas generally feel most comfortable in talking to others when they have a specific need, or transaction, in mind that requires input or action from the other person. In the mind of many alphas, “If I can’t see, touch, smell, or feel the result now, it’s a waste of my time--full stop.” The reason for this is very simple; many alphas think in very linear patterns and are driven by logic, so it’s easy for them to miss out on the relationship thing. The tragedy, though, is that this thinking is exactly what holds them back from becoming true leaders—leaders who inspire others to accept hardship, challenge, and uncertainty with low levels of negative stress and high levels of productivity.

This is what I call the “alpha paradox”. Being transactionally driven, alphas don’t like to do anything that can’t be crossed off a list, like an informal conversation over an ice cream with someone they know in a business context for example—anything that takes them away from being “actively productive”.

Now, here’s the paradox: it is through these informal “non-productive” conversations that leaders build a human connection with others, which allows them to learn valuable information and feel the real pulse of their team, their board of directors, their company, their customers and their competitors—all of which help them become more effective.

This commitment to investing in relationships is one of the key indicators of transition from a management mentality to one of leadership. It signals a move from a purely process way of thinking to one in which a much broader cause and effect context is considered.

By doing this—investing in relationships—something quite dramatic often happens. The people in whom you have “invested” no longer look at you as a transaction in their lives. They no longer look at you as just the source of a paycheck, or a product, they look at you as someone who has displayed an interest in them as human beings and, in turn, they have an interest in you as a human being. What’s the end result? People feel a connection, a human connection, with each other and that’s when the alchemy occurs. People who once felt used begin to feel valued and respected, transactions begin to happen because of relationships not because of economics alone, customers become partners and sustainable productivity moves to a whole new level.

True leaders understand the importance of investing in relationships in an authentic way, which brings out the best in those around them (and themselves). And, considering that you can get a scoop of ice cream for about 20 crowns, I’d say it’s a pretty good return on your investment.

So, here’s an idea: send this article to your favorite alpha and invite him or her out for an ice cream or, if you are an alpha, invite someone out for an ice cream—without a transaction in mind. It’s a great time of year to invest in relationships.