We may be well into an age of enlightenment in the world of business leadership, with leaders focusing on relationships and team building rather than issuing edicts from the corner office.

“Enlightened business leaders are emerging as a force for growth in an increasingly competitive business world,” says Sallie J. Sherman, co-author of Five Keys to Powerful Business Relationships and founder and CEO of S4 Consulting.

But just what are some of the traits that make a leader enlightened? Sherman says they include curiosity, inventiveness, diversity of thought and a focus on collaborative relationships designed to produce win-win situations.

Sherman’s firm helps businesses deepen and strengthen their relationships with other businesses – as well as improve the relationships within a business itself as a means to create a competitive strategic advantage.

Powerful relationships can bring out the best in all parties, she says, and enlightened leaders are especially good at building those relationships.

“When people hear the word ‘power’ they think of control, domination and win/lose situations,” Sherman says. “When it comes to business relationships, that’s not what we mean by power at all. We’re talking about collaboration and co-creating value.”

Powerful business relationships, she says, are built on influence rather than control, and on openness instead of suppression. The ability to master those relationship skills is what helps turn leaders into enlightened leaders.

Sherman says some of the principles that go into developing those relationship skills include:

  • Being able to connect. When it comes to work, many people want to get right down to business and don’t have time for what they view as small talk. But actually, Sherman says, making a connection with the other person is the lifeblood of business. “It’s not about manipulation or just exchanging pleasantries for the sake of it,” she says. “It’s about making a genuine effort to find a way to relate and share a common ground before moving straight to accomplishing the task at hand.”
  • Showing empathy. Being able to empathize with others can help in several ways. You can adapt your problem-solving approach to get the best results for everyone; people will find you easier to work with; and you can better anticipate possible problems. “You also will increase your ability to influence others because you’ll learn over time what works and what doesn’t in your relationships,” Sherman says.
  • Being able to develop trust. Trust in business relationships is important because it allows all parties to feel safe, empowered and capable; reduces miscommunication and friction; eases the problem solving; and requires less upkeep in maintaining the business relationship.
  • Showing a willingness to share information. Hoarding information can create major crimps in productivity and negatively affect relationships, Sherman says. “It’s important to emphasize to everyone in the organization that sharing is critical for the firm’s thriving, and to improving the firm’s overall performance,” she says.
  • Learning to manage yourself before you manage others. “The most important relationship in business is the one we have with ourselves,” Sherman says. When business leaders examine their own strengths and weaknesses objectively, they are able to identify opportunities that can improve their relationships with others.

“Too often, these relationship skills have been seen as ‘soft’ rather than drivers of economic value,” Sherman says. “But businesspeople who work at becoming more authentic and more skillful relationship builders are often the ones who get promoted and succeed in reaching their goals.”