Intimacy: Does it exist?

By Tom Shenk

The following article is based on information gathered from the book Leadership is an Art by Max De Pree.

Intimacy concerns us personally, professionally, and organizationally. It enables us to meet others’ needs sufficiently through understanding, believing, and with practice. We often fail to think of intimacy in a work sense, but the actual definition of the word, according to Webster, is “closely acquainted or associated; very familiar.” In order to be closely acquainted with someone at work or at home, there must be an element of trust that is brought about through accountability and depth.

“Intimacy is the experience of ownership which often arises out of difficulty, questions, exasperation, or survival.” Ownership comes about when individuals are challenged and find themselves playing a vital role in the work process. Leaders looking to create and keep intimacy must strive to enable rather than encumber those around them. The sense of ownership given to others creates momentum and brings about a passion which serves as a key component of intimacy.

Like a marriage, it is impossible for a company to amount to anything without the individuals inside making it happen. Therefore, our companies can never be anything we do not want to be ourselves. When we see this clearly look at life from that perspective, work becomes more personal and we develop an intimacy that adds value to work and to our organizations.

Important as it is that we pull our own weight and contribute to the big picture, it is also important that we work together as a team. Three elements in working together are: dealing with change, dealing with conflict, and reaching our potential. These are best brought about through a strong commitment.

Contractual relationships are commitments but tend to be legal and based upon reciprocity. They almost always break down under the duress of conflict and change and have nothing to do with reaching our potential.

Covenantal relationships, however, tolerate risk and forgive errors. They rest on a shared commitment to ideas, issues, values, goals, and management processes and are vital in creating intimacy. Covenantal relationships induce freedom and fill deep needs, enabling work to be meaningful and fulfilling.

Max De Pree is convinced that the best management process for today’s environment is participative management based on covenantal relationships. “Covenants bind people together and enable them to meet their corporate needs by meeting the needs of one another.” We must do this in accord with the world around us.

How can we begin to build and nurture intimacy? One way is by asking questions and looking for answers. How does the company connect with its history? What business is it in? Who are the people and what are their relationships with one another? How does the company deal with change and conflict? Most importantly, what is their vision of the future? Where are they going? What do they want to become? Leaders need to think about these questions. Leadership demands this if we are to be intimate with our work.


Bring Back Intimacy

  • Be a servant.
  • Demonstrate maturity.
    • Express it by a sense of self-worth, belonging, expectancy, responsibility, accountability, and equality.
  • Be effective.
    • Enable others to reach their potential personally and professionally.
  • Provide and maintain momentum.
    • The feeling among a group of people that their lives and work are intertwined and moving toward a recognizable goal.
  • Develop, clearly express, and defend civility and values.
  • Give others freedom to grow, be themselves, and exercise diversity.
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