Relationship Leadership

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As we venture into uncertainty, there seems to be an ever increasing emphasis on leadership and its role in mobilizing others to «get on» with the business of adapting to this uncertainty.  It is often stated that it all begins with those in leadership positions and it is their responsibility to «lead» the way.  Somehow they are expected to rise above the fray, and slip on their leadership armour and lead the troops.  In fact many books on leadership, state quite clearly what «one» (the leader) needs to do, how they should behave or the competencies or actions they need to perform to get others aligned.  The assumption at play is that if the leader does not get it «right» then the task of adapting may fail.  

I would like to suggest that this is a flawed or even unrealistic view of leadership. I would like to explore and present another way of framing leadership, one where the focus of «getting it right» is on what occurs in relationship between leaders and followers.  Framing leadership in this way may give some insight on collaborative actions that can be taken when responding to the current uncertain environment.  It is a move away from the mindset that the leader is the “hero” or super person who possesses capacities beyond the reach of ordinary people.  

Rather than step away from others (and step into the phone booth) perhaps another way of leading is realized when one moves closer to others and adopts a stance of listening and learning.

At its essence, I would like to propose that leadership is a relational practice. Leadership can only be understood as it stands in relationship to followership.  It is this relationship that makes leadership function.  What are some aspects of leadership that could be explored if we viewed leadership as a relational practice and move away from the focus on the individual person of the person in authority (leader)?  

How do organizational members adapt and prepare themselves for an uncertain future; if the focus is on relational leadership?

How are members of the organizationmobilized to achieve the desired outcomes of an organization? How do members collaborate and work effectively together?

These along with other questions begin to emerge when the focus is taken away from the person of the leader and emphasis is put on what facilitates adaptation and growth among organizational members.

Another question you could ask yourself is what would I be thinking if my focus was on my relational reality with my followers.   Imagine this scenario.   As a leader, I have an important message to convey to you; we will be living through some major changes.  I prepare myself well in advance of our meeting; in fact I take courses that help me ensure that my message is delivered in an effective way to you.  My preparation done, I meet you and within a few minutes of the conversation, I realize that you are not receiving my intended message; in fact the exchange is becoming increasingly uncomfortable for you and me. Does this mean that I have not been an effective leader?

This is where relational leadership begins. What do I need to do to move this forward? The answer lies in what is going on between the two of us.   How can we together attune this exchange?  How can I deliver what needs to be said and have you participate in the dialogue?  This is risky, for as a leader I am invited to let go being in control as the reality is that despite my best efforts, it is only you that can choose to attune yourself to what I am saying.  This is where real engagement and dialogue begins. We can move forward together when I am attentive and capable of being in relationship with you.  I choose to engage in dialogue with you and allow leadership to develop through our relationship.

My effectiveness as a leader is realized when my followers chose to follow and accept my leadership.  I am a part of these relationships, not apart from these relationships.  When the focus is on relational leadership; I focus on collaborative practices and creating the capacity to collectively adapt to uncertainty.  The shift is from what do I need to do and get right as a leader to recognizing what fosters collaborative practices and how we could together respond effectively.

In relational leadership, both those in authority (leaders) and followers create leadership by constructing the meaning of direction, commitment and adaptive challenge. (Wilfred Drath; 2001).

I would like to explore relational leadership further in upcoming blogs.

By Raphael Amato, Associate MCO Business Group Inc.

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Recent comments

  • Artardicus Maximus
    July 10, 2012 - 13:00

    My horizontal leadership comes from the hammock.

  • Keenan Wellar
    April 28, 2012 - 00:15

    A great introduction, I am looking forward to your further thoughts on this topic in blogs to come. Perhaps you can talk about horizontal leadership within organizations. There seems to be a positive trend towards less hierarchical leadership, but there is still much resistance, due largely perhaps to the unfamiliarity of leadership that is not based on "the one."