Relational Leadership (Part One)

What is Relational Leadership? Some define it as leadership by consensus (also derisively known as “Pooled Ignorance”). Others think Relational Leadership is about creating good relationships in an organization (of course, “good for whom” is always nebulous). Still others think Relational Leadership is about playing politics, paying attention to what others want in order to get what you want.

The newest definition I’ve seen is an application of Daniel Goleman’s excellent insights from Emotional Intelligence to the leadership process. The Relational Leader, according to some, is a social leader. However, none of these definitions get at the heart of real Relational Leadership.

Relational Leadership is the application of leadership scholar Burns’ (1978) insight that leaders and followers are in a relationship together. This is significant because it recognizes that leadership can be done without charismatic power or influence. The work of the Relational Leader is to mobilize people to address the need for positive change by connecting with the values and beliefs of the people, thus elevating the entire leadership enterprise to a level above influence, power, position or manipulation.

The Relational Leader is also an ethical leader. In other words, she connects with the values and beliefs of her people.

In the church, the values and beliefs of people are explicitly stated in the theology of the congregation, a statement of faith, a creed, or a confession. This is not to say that people carry it out real well, just that the organization agrees “these are the things we believe in.”

It’s a little different for business. In a secular organization, organizational leadership studies identify three “levels” of cultural belief: artifacts, espoused values, and basic assumptions (Schein,1992). Nevertheless, Relational Leadership in this sector is still about the leader connecting with the values and beliefs of the followers.

Part Two answers the question: What does Relational Leadership actually look like?

10 thoughts on “Relational Leadership (Part One)

  1. In the context of Church leadership, one hopes this idea also includes leading from an intimate relationship between the leader and Jesus.

    1. Brett,
      Relational Leadership is based on a particular understanding of the nature of people. Those of us in the church context understand that nature as the Imago Dei. In fact Trinitarian theology insists on behaving “in community” the way we have seen God act “in community” (see my dissertation). So…yep!

  2. Rupert,
    I read your leadership posts (believe it or not) through the filter of educational leadership (as you know). After 17 years in public school, I now shift back over to my roots preparing for a new year back in Christian school administration/leadership.

    It is interesting that at the final leadership summit I attended this summer for 1500 or so administrators in the Palm Beach County School District, the emphasis of the whole two days of workshops was exactly that, relational leadership. In some cases, even in the public sector, I’m sure there are some of the politics and getting what you want through relationships–that is true anywhere and even in churches. I also know it is the “in” and “popular” type of leadership being touted now, but, it was a rough year for our district and the overwhelming realization from the top down was that the relationships and trust between administrators, teachers, parents, and students was the thing that was stretched and tested this year. It was also noted that many there, including the superintendent believe that the relationships built previously were what got everyone through the year and it is now the focus of how the district will operate to get itself back to full strength and is how they will operate in the future (after making some big blunders in that area and having to do a lot of back-pedaling and patching up of those situations this year).

    Now I find myself realizing how important relational leadership will be as I enter a new job–and back in a Christian school. I’m sure everyone will want and have positive relationships back in a Christian setting, right??? I do know building those relationships as a leader is slower at the beginning and does take lots of TIME! In the long run, though, it should save on the work and time (and difficulties) for all…I hope. I don’t remember if it was in one of your Facebook posts or somewhere I was reminded of it, but how did Jesus lead? Was he relational? Of course–along with much more.

    For what it’s worth.


    1. Kevin,
      My experience is much like yours, everyone talks a lot about relational leadership and trust and service, etc. However, when we start looking at how things “get done,” especially in the educational setting, decisions are made on the basis of what is convenient for the educators and not the “customers,” the students and families. Furthermore, most schools in my experience are so “top-down” structured that good teachers feel stifled and creativity is stymied. My fear is that many in educational leadership (yourself excepted!) see Relational Leadership as a PR problem instead of a very different way of doing leadership.

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