HR Mavericks

Eddy’s HR Mavericks Encyclopedia

Relational Leadership
Relational leadership is the key to unlocking the potential in your organization that will drive growth and innovation. Find out how to become a relational leader who makes a difference.

What Is Relational Leadership?

Relational leadership is a people-centric form of leadership that focuses on the individual rather than on their output. Relational leadership values relationship over position, process, or policy.

Why Is Relational Leadership Important?

Business and organizations are built around people. There is no industry in the world that is exempt from utilizing people's strengths, abilities, and experiences. It doesn’t matter if your organization builds widgets, serves customers, or is just one step in a much larger process; your company lives and dies based on the people who are involved. So why does relational leadership matter? Stephen Covey, in his book “The Speed of Trust,” talks about how organizations are built on trust, and the only way to build trust is relationally. Many of us have experienced or heard horror stories when people try to “lead” from their position, authority, or experience without ever getting to know the people they are trying to lead. How do you know if you’re a relational leader? If you’re asking that question, then you’re already headed in the right direction. Here’s a question that you can ask yourself: “Who knows the employees better, me or Amazon?” That can be a bit of a punch in the gut, because we all know how well Amazon knows us. Amazon knows what we purchase and what we look at. It has a pretty clear understanding of our life stage, family make-up, interests, and hobbies. Do you know your employees that well? Obviously, people are going to ask Amazon and Google things they would never ask at their job, but the point remains valid. If we want to build trust, we need to know the people we work with. If we want to understand a person’s strengths, we need to know the person. If we want to know their weak side, we need to understand that person. You can send out surveys, do skill assessments, and have people take the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, but at the end of the day, that puts people into boxes and leaves out nuance. Relational leadership is all about understanding a person and helping them become the best version of themselves. It’s about building trust in order to create psychological safety. It’s knowing them well enough to draw out their strengths, help them grow, and give them opportunities to flourish in your organization. Relational leadership values the person over their productivity. It’s about building an empathetic relationship with another person and wanting the best for them in a genuine way.

Relational Frameworks for Work Leaders

Leaders wear multiple hats when they focus on relational leadership. Every leader tends towards a particular relational approach and must work to strengthen others. Relational leadership also requires a different approach for every person, because every person joins the team from a different starting point. Let's look at four common types of relational leaders.

The Coach

You’ve either experienced what it’s like to be coached or you’ve seen a sports movie with a great (or bad) coach. No matter the sport, the role of the coach is similar. Great coaches understand their players. They know their strengths and weaknesses, and they know how to push them in the right direction. Bad coaches yell, get angry, and shut down when things aren’t going their way. Great coaches re-orient their approach based on new information. The coach sets a high bar for success but gives their players the tools to succeed. They help set strategy and build team unity. They’re not set back by failures and not puffed by wins. The greatest coaches understand the ins and outs of the game and understand the difficulties the players face.

The Shepherd

You may have never met a shepherd (or a sheep) in real life, but you’ve seen a shepherd’s crook. The shepherd’s crook is a tool of care and protection. The shepherd’s job is to care for the sheep. Employees aren't sheep, but they do require care and protection. The shepherd uses their crook to pull sheep from danger, point them in the right direction, and protect them from wolves. As a shepherd-focused relational leader, your role is to care and protect the employees in your flock. If they’re losing focus or going in the wrong direction, gently nudge them back in the right direction. If there are toxic employees or clients, do your best to protect them from getting hurt or burned. This type of relational leader doesn’t need to get into all of the daily details of each employee’s work, but they do need to be ready to step in to guide and protect. The shepherd leader is highly observant and looks to see where the whole flock is heading.

The Gardener

If you’ve ever tried to grow your own fruits, veggies, or flowers, you know it's not easy. Amateur gardeners assume that soil, water, and sunlight are all you need, but expert gardeners know that there is a lot of nuance and variables within those three areas. Great gardeners help plants grow. The same is true for great relational leaders: they help their employees grow. Gardeners often use a trellis to support plants to grow higher and bigger. The gardener relational leader builds trellises—systems and structures— that help humans flourish. They know that a generalized approach to learning and development will only get you so far. These leaders seek to build a structure or process to help each individual grow. This type of relational leader knows that employees don’t just need hard technical skills; they need growth in soft skills, too. For you, it might look like building in regular check-ins, specific learning opportunities, and creating personal growth plans with employees.

The Firefighter

Firefighters are there to save the day and rescue those in need. Hopefully, you’ll never have to literally save someone’s life, but as a relational leader, there are things you can save employees from. Firefighters kick down doors and break down barriers so people have a clear path to escape. This type of relational leader does the same thing: removing barriers so employees have a clear path forward. An example of this is being in the habit of asking a question in daily standups: What is blocking you from moving forward?” You may have the ability to eliminate an obstacle or coordinate getting that obstacle removed. In some cases, you may need to break policies and processes that are hindering forward momentum. Structures and processes can be beneficial, but too many complicated ones can lead to frustration and slowed momentum. The firefighter relational leader isn’t there to get the attention and the medal; they’re just doing their job and helping people in need. Clear the path for your people and remove the obstacles that are slowing them down.

Tips for Using Relational Leadership

Relational leaders need to focus on progress, not perfection. You’re going to mess this up eventually. If you stick around long enough, you’re eventually going to run into an employee who is hard to lead. Personalities clash, and communication can break down. These tips will help you refocus and aim for steady progress as you grow into a relational leader.

Tip 1: Be Authentic

You are a person. You have a personality. You have strengths and weaknesses. You will fail in your job, and you will fail your employees. Perfection is purely a myth that’s impossible to attain. Be the real you. Be the same person in the workplace as you would at your friend’s birthday party. Admit it when you mess up. Lead by example, and don’t ask someone to do something you wouldn’t do yourself.

Tip 2: Be Honest

If you truly want people to succeed and genuinely want the best for their life, then be honest with them. Everyone deserves dignity and respect, so treat them that way. Be honest about your own mistakes and the mistakes and success of others.

Tip 3: Be Curious

Relationships are not a checklist to complete or a book to be read. People grow and change. Their motivations, interests, strengths, and passions change throughout their life. Be curious about people. Ask great questions. Assume you don’t know everything.

Tip 4: Be Well

You can’t lead on an empty relational tank. You might not have a relational leader pouring energy into you, and in that case, you’ll need to look elsewhere. Maintain friendships and relationships outside of work. Find that mentor or coach who isn’t concerned with your “bottom line.” Relational leadership can be draining, time-consuming, and frustrating, but it’s worth it. You need to be in a good, healthy space in order to lead others. Take care of yourself, and you’ll naturally take care of others.

Examples of Relational Leadership

Relational leadership can be found everywhere. Here's a few examples you might recognize and draw inspiration from.


Ever had an incredible teacher that you still remember to this day? Can you remember something they actually taught you? Probably not. Most of us remember great teachers because of the way that they approached us, cared for us, and wanted to see us succeed. The classroom was just the environment for them to help you grow and mature.

Your Friends

Friends can be life-giving, but they can also be life-draining. Lifelong friends stick with you through the valleys and mountains. Be the kind of relational leader who would make a great friend. Great friends have similar characteristics to great relational leaders. You don’t have to be a friend to all your employees, and in some cases, it’s healthy to keep the relationship professional, but you can embody the same characteristics of a great friendship, such as loyalty, compassion, and encouragement.


Have you ever thought about CrossFit objectively? Essentially, they create a daily workout challenge and a space to work out in. Yet CrossFit feels very different from going to a normal gym with workout machines. CrossFit excels in creating community and is very relationally focused. People are talking with each other, there are community events for people to socialize outside of the workout, and there’s a communal aspect to conquering challenges. Relational leaders can learn from the communal aspects of places like CrossFit.
Jack Grimes

Jack Grimes

Jack Grimes is new to the traditional "HR" role. His previous experience building and leading teams in the restaurant and non-profit industries is a natural on ramp to a dedicated HR role. He wants to build systems and structures that aid in the flourishing of people.
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Other Related Terms
Company Reporting Structure
Direct Reports
Employee Directory
Employee Newsletter
Employee Relations
HR-to-Employee Ratio
Internal Communication
Management Styles
People Management
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