We recently visited the stunning city of Porto, which is full of colourful old houses on the steep banks of the Douro, hence its nickname of the City of Bridges. As we took the customary ‘six bridges’ tour, a lovely hour-long trip along the river, I was struck by how much of the city’s success has stemmed from building bridges. And so it is with leadership: by building bridges, a leader can significantly increase their effectiveness and cultivate success all around them.

A route to transformation

As I sat on the hillside in Gaia, the city on the opposite side of the river to Porto, I had a huge revelation: what if there was no bridge? And of course, there was a time when there was no bridge, when life must have been entirely different for the people living on either bank of the Douro. Then I thought about the incredible transformation the first bridge would have brought about to all their lives, imagining the wonder they must have felt to walk over it for the first time. Pretty mind-blowing!

If you think about it, building bridges through leadership can result in equally powerful and fundamental transformations too. Whether we’re looking at large-scale peace and reconciliation projects like the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, commercial projects like the successful integration of two firms after acquisition, or the ultimate resolution of a tricky contract negotiation, bridges can bring about enormous positive change.

Bridges are about linkage and communication, smoothing the path and improving access, taking a more direct route and boosting the two-way flow between two points. In the case of Porto and its neighbour across the water, Gaia, building bridges has brought the two communities closer together, encouraged trade and formed a bond that has endured for centuries. What’s interesting is that each bridge was built for a specific purpose and, over time, each bridge has brought more success, invariably requiring another bridge to be built to keep pace with the rate of growth.

In Porto, one bridge wasn’t enough, and no doubt the existing six bridges won’t be enough in the future. How can you continually build bridges through your leadership to ensure similar levels of sustained success?

Building connection

As with bridges, leadership is fundamentally about connection: between people, organisations and ideas. And, as you might expect, connection is also central to our four essential pillars of leadership: Listening, Energy, Authenticity, Direction (LEAD).


  • Listening is arguably the very best way to connect two people. It shortens the distance between them, creates a deeper level of understanding and, even if the participants continue to hold opposing views, the very act of listening enhances the sense of connection for both actors. It is also true that both the person listening and the person speaking can derive enormous value from the experience. By listening deeply, the listener gains incredible insight while the speaker receives a significant boost to their self-worth.


  • Energy is an essential connection between intention and accomplishment. As leaders, it doesn’t matter how great our ambitions are if we don’t manage our energy (and that of our team) properly. Burnout is all too real, so we must be alert to the early warning signs in ourselves and others. When energy and engagement levels are high, when team members are sparking off one another and united around a purpose, it’s possible almost to feel the connections crackling and buzzing between people.


  • Authenticity in leadership – the ability to be yourself and show vulnerability – is an incredibly powerful way to form connections with others. As leaders, when we create an environment of psychological safety, where everyone feels able to be honest and open, it has the effect of bringing people closer together, thus breeding trust, bridging gaps and improving information flow.


  • When a good leader successfully sets the direction for their team, articulating clearly the purpose and objective, something wonderful happens in terms of connection. A group of individuals becomes a unified entity as they work together to achieve a goal. Even if they encounter problems along the way, when the direction remains clearly understood the team can flex their approach while remaining united.

Be the bridge

John Donne wrote, “No man is an island” and indeed, no leader should be either! But leadership is not just about building bridges: leaders also, at times, need to be the bridge.

When people or ideas are in conflict it invariably falls to leaders to step into the breach. Reaching out to form connections – and sometimes literally bringing two people or groups together in a room – can at times present a challenge, but with the foundation of good LEADership skills as described above, a leader will be able to bridge even the widest abyss.

I would really love to know what bridges you are proud of creating, and perhaps are actively building at the moment. How can your transformative actions inspire the rest of us? What can we all do today to connect people, remove barriers and make life simpler and more harmonious? Whether internally within your team or organisation, or externally, I urge you to be inspired by Porto and make building bridges a central part of your leadership.

Let’s start something new!

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