The Relational Leader

We all have to overcome adversity at some point in our life, but are you prepared for the cost of what it takes to lead your team through this life’s challenges?

Thinking back to a situation where one of my team was experiencing a very public personal issue, and working at an organisation that deeply valued its public reputation, you would think letting them go would be the be obvious choice. The trouble was, I knew their character and the issue at hand was not in-line with who they were. So I had a choice; to stand firm with my organisation and protect its reputation at all costs, or request the time to understand the inconsistency of their character and the  situation.

It is situations like these that highlight the difference between management and relational leadership. There is room for both but I would suggest that when times are tough it is relational leadership that will not only get you through, but bring real health to the situation.

Growing into a relational leader has been a journey over many years. If I was to liken it to anything, it would be like my faith. Having grown up in the church, I just accepted that this was my faith belief. It provided comfort and belonging as long as I remained within the bounds of what was acceptable. This type of lifestyle was great until I’d encountered adversity that existed beyond the realms of religious decorum. Simply put, the rules couldn’t offer me wise counsel for some of life’s situations. It was at that point that I sought out a personal relationship with Jesus, not just a religion. It was here that  relationship offered a depth of understanding and personalised direction that will helped me navigate the toughest of times.

Transferring the concept of relational leadership over managerial decorum into your team environment can be tricky. I am not suggesting that when boundaries are crossed, decisive management should not to be exercised. I am also not advocating for every team member to become a close personal friend. To find balance here is to take the time to get to know your staff, team members and your leaders; to know their character, values, passions and personal pains. By getting below the surface we gain the ability to respond with authentic empathy to our teams personal and work place challenges. This personal knowledge also builds our own confidence in our teams ability to handle situations out of our own field of view. Ultimately, building our trust in their responses to the difficult situations simply because we have taken the time to get to know who they really are.

Before we get to the practical part, it is important we don’t devalue authentic relational leadership by categorizing it as a skill to be mastered. Instead lets look at relational leadership as an extension of our own character, uncovering the characteristics that we need to work on and weighing up if we are willing to pay the personal costs of becoming an authentic relational leader.

When time is short it is easy to prioritise the task over taking out the time and energy to really get to know your team. This is fine for a season but if you neglect to lay the relational foundations of your leadership early, when adversity strikes it may be too late to build the relational understanding to facilitate a truly inclusive team solution. Relational leadership starts at the beginning. Whether you are the new leader walking in to lead a team, or a new person has joined your team, to have an authentic relational relationship, we need to start getting to know our people from the start. Getting to know your team members early will lay the foundations for relational dividends long into the future.

Genuine relational leadership is also a two-way street, not just a top down manager-worker relationship. A critical component to this is vulnerability. Here, we need to show them the same level of vulnerability that we expect from them. This can be very uncomfortable, but also rewarding. As we show our teams the same level of vulnerability we are asking of them, it will only serve to build their trust. This depth of vulnerability will also give them the confidence that even when they don’t understand the situation, they can be confident that we have their best intentions at heart.

If we are going to seek to get to know our teams on a deeper level, we need to practice what we preach. The relational window we give our teams into our lives will give them the ability to see the inconsistencies between our own character and our actions. Whilst this may seem scary for some, we should see this a personal challenge to personify the character traits we seek to perpetuate in our teams. Are you prepared to let your team hold you accountable the same way you do for them?

How many times have we heard the victory speech soured with the words, “we may have lost a few along the way, but we made it”, this spotlights the victory but minimises the relational cost to the members of the team. One of the marks of a great leader is not only the success of the team but being a champion for each individual’s achievement as well. As the leader reaches beyond the corporate goal, it is here that the leaders genuine desire to see each member of the team succeed become evident. It is this characteristic that will underpin genuine trust in your team, so even if they do not agree with your decision they will faithfully follow your lead in the knowledge that you have their and the organisation’s success at heart. Simply said, becoming the reason for others success will only build your own leadership credibility with your team.

Finally circling back to my team members personal situation, it was then that the many years of relational leadership paid off. My leaders knew me well enough to trust in my ability to deal with the situation, allowing me to briefly step outside the management structure and engage with my team member to a depth often not found in the work place. And yes, this is a good news story as well. My team member was publicly absolved and kept their position within the organisation. However, the real win for the organisation was that they proved to the community that they not only support their employees but value them enough to truly get to know them.

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