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Relational leadership

By Professor Jackie Ford - July 2019

There has been a noticeable change in the language used and the terms ‘leadership’ and ‘leaders’ have become much more pervasive in studies of organisations as well as in politics and in the media more generally.

Yet so much of this study remains focused on hierarchical forms of leadership which privileges the leader and reinforces a one dimensional view of what it is to be this leader. What is worrying in this enduring enchantment is the undue focus on the senior leader as organisational hero that romanticises the influence of the individual leader and neglects other parties and contexts that are at the heart of leadership. This has meant that the perspective of those being led has been marginalised and furthermore, that the social, specific and cultural context within which the leadership relationship occurs has been overlooked.

The various ways in which writers have sought to classify leaders and followers also have a normalising tendency, to make assumptions associated with the homogeneity (‘the one size fits all’) of the leaders or the followers into one or other category.

This is problematic, not only on the grounds that followers (and leaders) themselves have many unique characteristics and identities, but also that many of these individuals (at different times) could be depicted as both leaders and followers, which adds complexity not only to theorising followers and leaders but also to practicing these roles. My research within organisations over the last three decades speaks more to relational leadership approaches. Such approaches recognise the significance of interpersonal relationships and the powerful effect that interactions between leaders and those being led can have on our lives at work.

Our daily experiences and interactions with colleagues in the workplace tell us of the unique and multiple ways in which we bring our sense of who we are to the workplace – in all its myriad forms – as parents, siblings, friends, work colleagues, as well as other social identities such as our gender, age and ethnicity.

All of these factors can influence our relations with those around us. Thus, rather than focusing on styles of leadership and the heroic qualities of leaders, leadership is the collective and relational work of many people in an organisation. The focus thus shifts from leaders towards followers with leaders in a relational dynamic, in terms of giving voice to all people in an organisation, and harnessing the combined intelligence of the workforce as part of a process of building new relationships within, across and indeed outside the organisation.

Each individual, whether a leader or a follower, will experience leadership differently and in recognising power asymmetries in organisations, we know that this relationship will not always be one of equal partnership and communion.

It requires that those in leadership roles recognise and empathise with the needs, feelings, circumstances and history of those individuals they lead. But it also behoves on followers to claim their voice and value the shared contribution that they make to the leader-led relationship. All too often, we hear of followers feeling unable to speak out and be recognised and thereby denying their own sense of who they are and what they can contribute. This dynamic, relational and contextually specific approach means not being bound by rigid theories, models and thinking on leadership so that we can address approaches that are more politically aware, socially concerned, morally-informed and able to tackle the problems caused by too much attention paid to individualistic agendas.

We need understandings of leadership that are more inclusive, ethical, eclectic (rather than prescriptive) and contextually meaningful and that give us the language to challenge stereotypes, norms and assumptions that continue to privilege those in more powerful roles.

As fundamentally social beings, humans crave social stimulation, warmth, and emotional interchanges from the beginning of life. This can be translated through to organisational life. In our workplaces, we continue to have needs associated with emotional exchange, mutual acknowledgement, recognition and social contact.

Rather than being constrained by leadership notions and practices, we should be seeking approaches that improve interactions between people at work and recognise the locally situated and unique relationships that people build together. We have been stuck in the rut of traditional ways of theorising, researching and practising leadership and we now need to break away from such mediocrity and challenge both macro and micro approaches.

At the macro level, we need to confront some of the bigger social, economic and political leadership questions and at the micro, organisational level, we need to have sight of the micro-revolutions that we can seek to achieve through reframing our leadership practices. We thus need to build more inclusive, participatory, relational and social platforms for leadership

To find out more about our research into leadership visit our International Centre for Leadership and Followership pages.