Relational Leadership

The ABC's and XYZ's of leading an organization come down to how you connect with others by Karen M. Dyer

Relational leadership is not new. In fact, if leadership is anything, it is about relationships. So why then do leaders, especially those at the top levels of their schools and school districts, struggle with this concept? Perhaps it's because relational leadership is just too basic, too simple.

Relational leadership involves being attuned to and in touch with the intricate web of inter- and intra-relationships that influence an organization. As Etienne Wenger points out in her book Communities of Practice, it is about the meaning and identity that are created when people work together.

Regardless of the rules, structures or roles and irrespective of tasks, strategic plans, political alliances, programs, contracts, lawsuits, etc., relational leadership is about people and their perceptions (which, in essence, are their realities) of how they are being treated.

Lacking Specificity

Most leaders claim to be effective in the area of relational leadership. Yet when asked to produce data to substantiate their personal assessments, many would be hard pressed to find staff, colleagues and even some bosses who would be comfortable in giving feedback that contradicts the leader's personal perception of his or her strengths in this area. The reason is that the higher up in the organization one moves, the less likely the individual is to receive honest and specific feedback about their relational leadership skills, according to Paul Kaplan, Wilfred Drath and Joan Kofodimor, co-authors of High Hurdles: The Challenge of Executive Self-Development.

Staff resist giving honest feedback for various reasons. Some fear retribution; others are reluctant because of their own insecurities in dealing with confrontation. Consequently, leaders continue to believe and behave as if they are adept at relational leadership when unbeknownst to them they may be alienating some of the very people who are critical to their success. This is why so many executives feel blind-sided by poor performance ratings, nonrenewal of contracts or worse, termination where the primary reason-whether articulated, implied or unstated-is about a deficit in relational leadership.

As a solution, more and more educational leaders, like their business counterparts, are turning to 360-degree feedback as a vehicle for getting data about their strengths and developmental needs in the area of relational leadership. Information from peers, direct reports, superiors and others are compared to personal perceptions, which gives leaders an authentic read on their relational assets and liabilities.

This process, coupled with executive coaching and goal setting, is a powerful strategy for leaders who are committed to becoming more skilled in the relational arena.

In this age of accountability, many leaders are hired for their ability to produce results. Sometimes leaders assume this means they are expected to value and promote things, ideas and projects more than the people who are responsible for implementing and sustaining these.

For instance, there's the individual leader who smugly argues that he or she is "high task, low relationship." Again, the simple lesson is that "high task" without "high relationship" may produce decisively quick yet temporary results. The low relationship variable may well contribute to sabotage (subtle as well as overt), poor morale, organization ineffectiveness and/or unnecessary turnover in staff.

Six Competencies

Numerous competencies are important in the area of relational leadership. The following represent a small subset of factors developed by the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, N.C., that contribute to success for leaders and managers:

* Leading employees: Demonstrates skill in effectively delegating to staff, providing a broad range of employee challenges and opportunities, acting with fairness toward direct reports and hiring talented people for the team.

* Interpersonal savvy: Demonstrates skill in building and mending relationships, evidences compassion and sensitivity, is able to put people at ease and understands and respects cultural, religious, gender, socioeconomic and racial differences.

* Work team orientation: Demonstrates effective listening skills and communication (oral and written) through involving others, building consensus and influencing others in decision making.

* Conflict management: Demonstrates skill in using good timing and common sense in getting things done without creating unnecessary adversarial relationships, recognizing that every decision has conflicting interests and constituencies.

* Managing change in others: Demonstrates an effective use of strategies in facilitating organizational change initiatives by considering other people's concerns, involving key people in the design and implementation of change and adjusting management style to changing situations.

* Effectively confronting problem employees: Demonstrates decisive and skillful acts, handled with fairness, when dealing with problem employees, including those who are loyal but incompetent or ineffective.

Failed Relations

Just as some relational leadership competencies are associated with success, specific factors not only contribute to poor relationships in and out of the workplace but often lead to stalled careers.

Leaders who are arrogant, dictatorial in their approach, emotionally volatile and adopt a bullying style under stress often leave a trail of bruised people. By resisting input from others, ordering people around and making staff feel stupid and unintelligent, leaders set themselves and their organizations up for failure.

While it is imperative for leaders to develop skill in the different areas, one must be equally aware that an overdependence on a strength can become a weakness and contribute to poor relational leadership. For example, while leaders may relate well with all kinds of people, they may be spending so much time building networks and glad-handing that they are not taken seriously as credible, take-charge leaders.

Consider the following: Superintendent K, a school leader on the fast track, is in the second year of her third superintendency. During her annual performance review, members of her governing board reveal their concerns about her relationships. Responding to her request for specifics, the board president remarks that while the superintendent does not shy away from conflict and is good at hammering out tough agreements, she often drives for solutions before others are ready, leaving in her wake those who could be potential allies.

Citing a recent case involving redistricting, the board president comments about the superintendent's success in getting a plan approved at the expense of community and staff sentiment that could prove to be essential in an upcoming special election.

Appropriate Timing

In this composite of a couple of real-life examples, the very strengths that led this high-potential school administrator to upward mobility and early promotion have become a weakness. While she has experienced technical success, an overreliance has in essence turned the skill into a relational problem-a lack of recognition about the importance of interdependence.

Relational leadership is more than being described as a "people person." Likewise, relational leadership is not about being "touchy feely" or routinely having everyone join hands to sing rounds of "Kumbaya."

The key is having a range of interpersonal skills and approaches and knowing when to use what with whom. The outcome, as described by Michael Lombardo and Robert Eichinger in their book, For Your Improvement: A Development and Coaching Guide, is "the ease of transaction where you get what you need without damaging other parties unnecessarily and leave them wanting to work with you again."

Simply put, relational leadership is about valuing one's greatest organizational asset-people.

Karen Dyer is manager of the education sector at the Center for Creative Leadership, P.O. Box 26300, Greensboro, N.C. 27438. E-mail: dyerk@leaders.ccl.org