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What is Relational Leadership?

Updated: Jun 30, 2023


I’d like to begin answering the question “What is Relational Leadership?” by first noting that the practice of Relational Leadership requires honoring different modalities for gaining and sharing diverse forms of knowledge. Humans across all cultures have created different modalities for learning, sharing, and teaching knowledge that don’t always match the formal classroom setting and testing process of the American education system.


The assigned readings, podcasts, and our experiences curated for the MACL cohort during our week-long residency at MCAD highlight multicultural practices by giving us different points of entry for learning in an effort to not only inform and include, but honor each student’s respective learning styles and cultural background. Embodiment exercises with Shannon Litzenberger demonstrated ways in which we can use our bodies to feel our way into learning leadership principles by activating and focusing our bodies by being “more present, less prepared” as Adrienne Maree Brown says. That idea was amplified by Marcus Young in his opening session’s invitation to consider the question of what it means to arrive well and the wise words of Rev. Angel Kyoto Williams “You belong because you breathe.”

Personally, the practice of embodied learning, slowing down, and focusing on presence is difficult. Like working out a muscle for the first time, my body wants to fall back on pre-established routines and not venture into the new and unknown. My modality for learning comes from my Jewish background which taught me intellect as the primary vehicle for success. Studying hard, getting good grades, and learning how to speak and write well were considered non-negotiables. But growing up closeted, I had no idea how this intellectual framework would interact negatively with my emerging queer identity as an adult. As a result, I entered into queer spaces “Intellect First” and quickly saw how it dinenfranchised people or worse, made them feel threatened by me. I learned that while my intellect can be a useful modality in certain spaces, the ego that sometimes accompanies it can actually harm the very group I am trying to connect with. It was only when I stopped trying to impress people in queer spaces with my intellect that I began to learn how to be present, watch, listen, and learn in the ways that Marcus and Shannon invited us to consider in their sessions.

At its core, Relational Leadership is a framework that aims to bring diverse peoples together to co-create a shared, common vision for a good life and society. In corporate environments, how successful that framework is able to be realized depends entirely on leadership’s willingness to embrace Komives’ model for Relational Leadership from “​Exploring leadership: For college students who want to make a difference​”, which highlights ethics and inclusion as two philosophical pillars of leadership. Applying these pillars within the paradigm of “Knowing, Being and Doing”, growing in self-awareness, releasing control, and trusting people, emerge as key qualities for leaders to create ethical and inclusive workplaces. But introducing these two pillars of Relational Leadership into existing corporate environments requires removing the pre-established values that have a stronghold on how American businesses are run.


The hierarchical nature of most corporations today values protecting those in power above all else. Values such as “the ethical treatment of workers'' or “inclusive workplaces'' are rarely given consideration, and on the rare occasion they are, such few resources are provided to create real impact, that any initiative to enact systemic change fails spectacularly and reinforces its lack of value to those in positions of power. Because of this, relational leaders are faced with two seemingly impossible challenges: bring ethical and inclusive values into the workplace, and dismantle the current unethical, exploitative hierarchical structures dominating corporate culture. I’ve seen many friends and colleagues alike come to the same conclusions in conversations on the topic and each one asks the same question: “So how do we do it?”

Jon Alexander’s attempt, as shared in his book Citizens, gets closer to answering this question better than anyone else I’ve seen. Those in power have created incredibly sophisticated systems to retain that power. The only way to create real change is if those systems can be penetrated deep enough to get to the individuals benefiting from those systems and convince them of a different way. What Jon Alexander does correctly, in my opinion, is identify the concept of citizenry as a means of penetrating through those power systems to engage leader’s to consider their individual role in contributing to the collective health of the nation. Citizenry infuses individuals with a moral responsibility to each other to create a more just and equitable world and inspires both personal and collective action and identity. This ancient idea has been taught to all Americans in civics classes, but Alexander proposes that we need to reimagine and expand our collective understanding and identity from national citizens to global ones.


The term “Global Citizen” first emerged in the 4th Century BCE among the Greek Cynics who coined the term "cosmopolitan" – meaning citizen of the world, according to Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. Viewing ourselves as citizens of the world moves us closer to realizing the moral and inclusive values of Relational Leadership because everyone is seen as having a role to play, a moral responsibility, and a lived experience that all contribute important perspectives and values to our collective health. By doing so, we create space for new and ancient voices, learnings, and practices to be represented and shared at the collective table.

As budding global citizens gathering at the collective table, our time spent in nature with Marcus Young exploring Robin Wall Kimmerer’s guidance from Braiding Sweetgrass to “let the land lead” asked us to consider how, and consider the Earth’s place and role in our collective health, and whether or not we respect the planet and honor the learnings and practices of those whose entire cultures have been devoted to learning from the land. Paul Bauknight’s work in Minneapolis asks us to consider whether or not the experience of the people living in communities we want to engage in is acknowledged and respected as a powerful source of knowledge and valuable insight for engagement and potential reform. These questions are critical for leaders to ask and act upon, especially as our elected officials prioritize personal gain and power over addressing the needs of their constituents and the American public at large.


For me, the essence of relational leadership is centered in creating ways to acknowledge and empower all people as global citizens. I’m reminded of Zara Ebrahim talking about being “a catalyzer rather than decision maker or enforcer” in her TED Talk. She says “We don’t create change in communities, we listen to the communities that are already there, and collaborate with them to co-create a process to enact change.”

In my own work, I am exploring how to build on these learnings and those I acquired from queer spaces by moving away from “doing and telling” and moving into “listening and catalyzing”; to begin asking and discerning if those gathered at my collective table feel empowered to share their individual and community expertise, cultural practices, and lived experiences as valuable contributions to the collective good, and what role I might play in helping make those spaces a more frequent reality.

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