Relishing relational leadership

Photo by Dylan Gillis on Unsplash

Relational leadership is not another style of leadership rather a ‘way of being’ in leadership

David Giles

In my previous post I focused on a negative aspect of what is being demonstrated in the place of leadership in some of our schools and businesses, so in this post I want to put forward what I see as the positive alternative. This focuses on the nature of leadership – the sort of leadership that inspires, encourages and takes an organisation forward – with the whole team behind it.

A lot has been written about leadership in recent decades – and I’ve attended my fair share of leadership programmes. Many of these follow the line of helping you identify and augment your ‘leadership style’ (e.g. authoritarian, participative, delegative, transactional, transformation and so on) – but few focus on what I believe is the essence of strongly effective leadership, and that is the notion of relational leadership.

I recently had the privilege of working alongside David Giles and small group of people to design a course on leadership for those exercising leadership in different roles within education. We were looking to design a programme that would be meaningful in the bi-cultural context of Aotearoa-New Zealand, equipping participants for the constantly changing social, cultural and global contexts they and their students inhabit.

David’s contribution to the group as an academic, researcher and writer in the filed of relational leadership became pivotal in our thinking, and through his expert guidance and provocation, we designed a programme that would be very different to many of the others out there, with this one focused on developing participants’ understanding of what it means to be leading relationally.

Relational leadership is not another style of leadership rather a ‘way of being’ in leadership. David argues that relational leaders live ‘out’ a way of being that authentically embodies ‘care-full’ relationships. He describes it like this:

  1. Leadership always involves a relational way of being
  2. Leaders always make a difference to the relational culture within their organisations
  3. Leaders should be equally attentive to efficiency and effectiveness as well as to ‘life’ between its members
  4. A primary task of leadership is the mentoring of emergent and aspiring leaders
  5. Leadership requires courage, and is not for the fainthearted
  6. Relational leadership relates to the minimum use of ‘power’ and a ‘call’ to robust dialogue

David isn’t alone in this way of thinking. In their book titled Appreciative Leadership: Focus on What Works to Drive Winning Performance and Build a Thriving Organization, Diana Whitney and her colleagues write…

“… leadership is the relational capacity to mobilise creative potential and turn it into positive power – to set in motion positive ripples of confidence, energy, enthusiasm, and performance – to make a positive difference in the world”

Whitney, Trosten-Bloom & Rader, 2010, p. 3

So in a world where there is so much advice being given on how to lead, it is refreshing to be encouraged by this alternative view which focuses on learning to be a leader – a relational one. For me being relational in leadership is the key that differentiates the approach to leadership that many embrace which is really just management in disguise. By being relational (as distinct from procedural or systematic for example), a leader can be far more effective building a culture in the organisation that cultivates innovation, brings out the best in others and in the end, makes a positive difference in the world.

These are exactly the qualities that Gino Wickman identifies as necessary in the role of ‘visionary’ in an organisation. Wickman has developed the Entrepreneurial operating system (EOS®), written about in his book Traction. The EOS provides a framework and process for helping organisations to achieve business success. Wickman explains that a critical role in any organisation is the visionary – typically the owner, co-owner or founder of an entrepreneurial organisation. These are the people with a dozen new ideas each week, generally very creative. But the successful visionaries are the ones who are also relational – the culture of the organisation is very important to them, They tend to operate more on emotion and as such, like to have a handle on how others are ‘feeling’ in the organisation.

The second role Wickman considers essential in the organisation is the ‘integrator’. This person is generally good at managing, holding people accountable and love running the day to day business of the organisation. These two roles, visionary and integrator, are essential in any organisation argues Wickman – they are complementary, each covering the weakness of the other and together providing huge strength.

In a classic view of leadership the visionary might be regarded as the CEO (and often is) – but from a relational perspective, both roles – and others in the organisation – demonstrate leadership when they exhibit the qualities of being relational outlined above. It would be too easy to differentiate the role of visionary and integrator and simply assign them the labels of leader and manager. While the ways these roles function they might align with our traditional view of leaders vs managers, their ways of being in that role will be a more powerful determinant of how successful the organisation is – and how well those working in it feel about working there, about the value of what they are doing and about collaboratively working to make it even better. Relational leadership emphasises the relationships among people when leading an organisation. It values inclusion, empowerment, purposefulness, ethical behaviours, and process orientation. No amount of systemic delegation, incentive pay or bonuses, accountability frameworks or instructions delivered through layers of hierarchy will achieve that – certainly not for the long term.

So there’s my response to the ‘misery of managerialism’. Become a relational leader and empower the others in your organisation to express themselves in this way also. Yes, meeting targets and ensuring the records are kept etc. are all very important parts of maintaining a viable organisation, but if this focus dominates activity at the leadership level things descend rapidly into the misery of managerialism.

A relational approach, on the other hand, values people, grows them, inspires them and creates a culture where they are self-motivated to be the best they can be in the role they have. If you’re in a leadership role and this strikes a cord with you, ponder the following as a way of considering how you might become a more relational leader:

  • to what extent do you involve everyone and everyone’s ideas in the decisions being made? Do you give them the ability to be involved as well as the feeling of being involved in group decision making?
  • do you have a deep concern for the growth and development of others and the tools to encourage that growth? How is this exhibited?
  • are you absolutely clear about your organisation’s vision and purpose, and do you regularly communicate this with those you work with? To what extent do you involve others in the vision-building process?
  • how do you identify emerging talent in your team(s), and in what ways do you intentionally mentor emergent and aspiring leaders?
  • do you demonstrate a personal commitment to a shared set of values, and do all ethical decisions you make model the behaviours that the rest of the group needs to follow?
  • in thinking about how teams operate, do you believe that the process is as important as the outcome and they need to encourage collaboration and reflection throughout the process?
  • how do you respond when there is disagreement? Are you prepared to have the courageous conversations, and can you do so in ways that preserve the integrity of individuals involved?

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