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How Relational Leaders Can Make a Greater Impact

Prior to 2020, the language of leadership was already expanding. Evolving from the traditional  ROI-driven, client-focused, and result-oriented lexicon of the past, to something broader and more empathetic: relational leadership.

Relational leadership isn’t just the way of the future, it’s been the way all along. Like so many powerful and effective leaders have demonstrated: when we broaden the language of leadership to go beyond just the numbers on the board or the balance sheet, when we focus on people and how they work together as individuals, we achieve more. Because every story of achievement , every amazing win, relies on people as its doers. So today, that’s what we’re talking about.

Relational leadership is the way of the future

Every day – mental wellness, psychological safety, diversity, and inclusion feature prominently in the language of organizations everywhere. Because, as many realized throughout the remote work “experiment” of 2020 and 2021, identity and a common purpose are truly the most sustainable fuel sources for experts and professionals in every field. This shift in perspective made it clear:  people aren’t just tools. They’re whole, individual people. Just like players aren’t simply numbers or positions.

Relational Leadership Core Values

A relational leader maximizes impact by placing a priority on four core values: 

  • Purpose: You know what you want to accomplish. You’ve envisioned the outcome and you have a plan to see it happen.

  • Empowerment: Even the simplest team activity shows we can do more together. A relational leader works to involve others and actively encourage growth – but it’s not always easy (or comfortable).

  • Inclusivity: A relational leader welcomes every idea – because a broad  perspective and a diverse point of view are a powerful asset. Everyone has the potential to make an impact.

  • Process-Orientation: By focusing on the individuals in the group and how they work together, relational leaders make BIG goals a reality by consistently working, collaborating, reflecting, and improving every step of the way.

Because progress requires people

While traditional leadership approaches are focused on What the company wants to accomplish and How (from the top, down). Relational leaders are focused equally on the Who (from the ground up). Any team-player may think, “duh”. But even when we scratch the surface of the psychology at play, it’s easy to see how the Who empowers the What and the How. 

Creating high-performing teams by empowering How and What with Who

Recent studies on college soccer teams highlighted by the Association of Applied Sports Psychology have demonstrated that high-performance starts with two key concepts:  “task cohesion” and “social cohesion”. 

The study shows us that  a working team only truly becomes a team when “they share a sense of purpose and a clearly defined collective goal”. Understanding the team’s tasks and how each member will be accomplishing them is a logical first step towards unified forward progress. But that’s still really only about the what and the how, right? 

Social cohesion is the other essential component. Because at the highest and lowest levels of competition, connectedness is key to cohesive communication. It’s one thing to understand the goal and how we can generally achieve it. But without understanding the people and personalities at play, it’s hard to do it effectively. Hell – it makes it hard to even talk about it effectively.

Think about it

Every worthwhile endeavor is ultimately a story – whether it’s told on a court, a field, or in a boardroom. At its core, any good story is made of complete sentences: subjects and predicates. 

The what – the subject – only gets you so far. But the doer of the story – the predicate, full of potential and action –  is essential. Without the Who – the story falls flat. 

Ensuring the entire team feels safe and included – from their identity to their ideas – is absolute table-stakes for the team to feel connected and cohesive in moving the narrative forward.

Have you ever listened to Guy Raz’s fantastic podcast, How I Built This? Without starting with Who, the incredible show his team has built would be little more than a business showcase. People are the predicate. They make the story. 

You may not care about an underwear company. But Sarah Blakely becoming the youngest female billionaire by founding Spanx all by herself? That’s a different story (check out the episode here).  

You could have nothing in common with women’s soccer. But Lisa Baird’s experience fighting for equality as commissioner of the National Women’s Soccer League while the entire sports industry “went dark” in 2020 is a much different story than just balls and goals. 

With this in mind, It’s no wonder Linkedin made the smart decision to add ‘pronoun support’ to user profiles. Ensuring the entire team feels safe and included – from their identity to their ideas – is absolute table-stakes for the team to feel connected and cohesive in moving the narrative forward. That starts with an absolute dedication to “Who” on a fundamental level. Otherwise, how do we even start to tell the story?

Women are uniquely positioned to thrive as relational leaders

Gone are the days where traditional leadership styles rule the day. As the working world evolves to new modes of work and a stronger drive by individuals to live and work with purpose: relational leadership cultivates the confident individuality that translates to better teams, brighter ideas, and radically improved organizations.  This evolution of leadership poses a fantastic opportunity for everyone. But for women, it can be a true opportunity to break through.  

In 2015, Corinne Post – associate professor of management at Lehigh University’s College of Business and Economics – studied 82 teams at 29 innovative organizations for her report When is Female Leadership an Advantage? She concluded that the special quality women leaders bring to teams is a natural tendency towards relational leadership, “stimulating high-quality relationships, bonding, and connectivity among members.”

‘When she speaks, we’re all ears’.
This is relational leadership at work.

Outside of verifying the generalization that women tend to “pay more attention to the quality of relationships,” which can be an advantage, especially when teams are “challenged by size, geographic dispersion, and functional diversity.” Post dug into how women tend to “deal” with conflict as active, empathetic listeners rather than “dominating it”. With this in mind,  researchers like Post believe organizations of all kinds can look to female leaders for the authentic relational skills that strengthen teams, drive authentic participation, and encourage better results all-around.  It’s not a matter of “women” vs “men” but of creating cohesion that helps teams win.

Becky Hammon represents a perfect example of this mindset. In a Washington Post interview about leadership and her transition from WNBA player to San Antonio Spurs assistant coach, she said, “You have to take a hard look at character, whether it’s a sports team or a boardroom. There has to be enthusiasm and energy to compete in whatever field you’re in, but character is the greatest determining factor for success.” Look for a comment by any of Hammon’s players and you’ll quickly notice them highlighting her as a coach who leads by listening, learning, and sharing. 

Relational Leaders are focused on people

While Dejounte Murray says “I’ve been watching her talk to every single player, whether he was a veteran dude or a young dude. Just using her voice and her knowledge of the game.” Demar DeRozan says unequivocally: “When she speaks, we’re all ears”. This is relational leadership at work.

How to add relational leadership to your personal and professional brand

Relational leadership skills aren’t a “soft” or a “hard” skill, or something to neatly add to a resume (that’s the problem with labels, and resumes). But by actively working to incorporate the 5 qualities of relational leadership (Purpose, inclusion, empowerment, ethics, and process orientation) your connection, collaboration, and end-result will all benefit. 

Step 1:  Start with yourself

Work on self-awareness. Not just so you can identify your strengths and  weaknesses – but so you can be open about them. This will help you understand your blind spots and build on your adaptability to better connect and collaborate with your team. A “fake it til you make it” mindset never did anything to prop up a team. Ask yourself:  “How does this relate back to my purpose?”

Step 2: Make teamwork safe and inclusive

Psychological safety, inclusion, diversity, and emotional intelligence are hardly buzzwords. Is someone not contributing to your team? Find out if they truly feel like a part of it first. When we share diverse perspectives and active, inclusive debate – we build a more flexible platform for everyone to stand on.  

Step 3: Cultivate a growth mindset

Making a point to know and understand your team is one thing. Moving forward to growth is another. That’s where coaching and incremental improvement become essential. Where do we fail? How do we fail? Learning from failure and building our collective body of knowledge together welcomes new perspectives, new pathways forward, and new progress.

Step 4: Be the change

You’ve heard it before (and you’ll hear it again) But you have to be the change. To really improve as a relational leader, you have to live as one.

But don’t forget: while it’s not always simple, relational leadership makes creating an impact easier by broadening the language of leadership and empowering teams with individual passion and collective purpose.

Personal is Professional

For relational leaders it’s clear that personal is professional. By understanding yourself, your story, and your role in the team – it’s far easier to connect, collaborate, and create a sustainable impact. It’s why words like empathy, engagement, and authenticity are hardly just jargon, but sustainable fuel for progress. 

Ready to create a more empowered personal brand?

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