Be Relational

This month we are focusing on relationship principles in the context of leadership. The most obvious of those is that of being relational, or building genuine, trusting, and personal relationships that enhance and improve leadership. This particular post is an expanded version of one of the first few that were published on the sight; over time, the original has been my most popular post, so in light of this month’s theme, it seemed appropriate to share it again.

I believe that effective leadership, leadership that results in personal and organizational change, happens best within the context of relationship. In any situation or environment, there are leaders and followers; while those players can change, both – whether they be individuals or groups – are necessary. You cannot eliminate or ignore the fundamental fact that there is a relationship that exists between leaders and subordinates, therefore the effective leader will intentionally build and nurture relationships that benefit the leader, the followers, and the organization.

During my first year as the head of a school, initially I kept getting annoyed with the fact that necessary tasks were constantly interrupted by people and their needs. In the course of that year, as I developed in my leadership, I realized that I needed to allow time for people. At first, I thought I could simply do this by budgeting a certain amount of time for tasks and the rest of my time for people. I quickly learned that I couldn’t really budget specific time for people; rather, I needed to make people and relationships the priority. Over the next few years, my own research validated for me the importance of relationship in leadership development, affirming the “value of relationship for effective leadership and its importance to leadership development . . . [and affirming] its importance for components such as building trust, communicating effectively, resolving conflict, impacting perceptions, and effecting change.” (McMaster, 2013, p. 78)

Current leadership views have also drawn the same conclusion, evident in a number of leadership theorists who have highlighted or indicated the importance of relationship as a characteristic of effective leadership. For example, Margaret Wheatley (1999) includes as one of her leadership principles the focus on building and nurturing relationships that benefit the culture. Michael Fullan (2001) includes relationships as one of the five factors that leaders must manage in order to lead through change, and specifically says, “It is time . . . to alter our perspective to pay as much attention to how we treat people – co-workers, subordinates, customers – as we now typically pay attention to structures, strategies, and statistics. . . . there is a new style of leadership in successful companies – one that focuses on people and relationships as essential to getting sustained results” (p. 53). Kouzes’ and Posner’s The Leadership Challenge (2002) describes “five practices of exemplary leadership” and their application to leading through change, including the practices of “model the way”, “enable others to act,” and “encourage the heart,” all of which are instrumental in relationship building. And the Leader-Member Exchange (LMX) theory of leadership, as explained by Graen and Uhl-Bien, “makes the leader-member relationship the pivotal concept in the leadership process” (Northouse, 2013, p. 182).

Even beyond these few examples, as modern leadership theories and concepts have shifted in emphasis from transactional style (leadership is based on an exchange process between the leader and follower) to transformational style (leadership appeals to the moral fiber of the followers to enlist their support and involvement for their own benefit), the relationship between leaders and followers has become a focal point. I have learned this lesson clearly over the time of my leadership in the last few years, and I have now come to truly understand the importance of developing relationships with those whom I am directly leading or trying to impact. In my leadership roles, I have focused on building a culture of relationship between myself and my subordinates and superiors in order to facilitate an environment of greatest impact. Relationship has become pivotal to my practice of leadership.

As a result, what has changed for me is the intentional focus I place on cultivating relationships and investing in people.  In my early leadership, I focused on the organization and management of tasks, and people were secondary.  I have since reversed those components: I focus on people and relationships as primary, and the management of tasks as secondary.  Don’t misunderstand me, the tasks are still necessary and vital to the success of the organization, but I don’t let them get in the way of people (as opposed to the other way around). I believe that an organization’s success is directly connected to the people within that organization, therefore leadership needs to invest in those people; however, I feel even more strongly that people matter (and that they matter to God), and so I believe that I must care about and invest in people for that reason more than any other.

The clear conclusion for an effective leader as that you must take time for and invest in people, because people matter.  When people believe that they matter, and the leader builds a culture of relationship, the organization will benefit, and people will grow. That makes sense.


Fullan, M. (2001). Leading in a culture of change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2002). The leadership challenge (3rd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

McMaster, J. S. (2013). The Influence of Christian Education on Leadership Development. The Journal of Applied Chrisitan Leadership, 7(1), 17.

Northouse, P. G. (2013). Leadership: Theory and practice (6th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Wheatley, M. J. (1999). Leadership and the new science: Discovering order in a chaotic world (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.


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