The Genius of Relational Leadership

"Do it!" I said to her. Why did I need to say it again? Why couldn't she simply obey? "Why?" She snapped back. Her big, beautiful eyes glistening with frustrated tears.

"Because I said so. I'm your dad." I thundered.


This was my conversation with one of my daughters recently. I'm ashamed and embarrassed by it, but I recall it here because it was the starting point of a revelation.

With my wife away that morning, I began the day with a plan for parental awesomeness. I laid out the plan, and the little people cheered. So, I led my brood of four to the playground. Next came an invigorating walk, with nature lesson included (bonus points). There was laughter. There was learning. All that was left was the walk home, where my pre-made lunch was awaiting us. Slow clap for dad of the year.

And then the wheels fell off. Whining, heat, sweat, scrapes — all results of our little journey — began to take their toll on my beloved brood, and by the time we walked up to the house, we looked less Swiss Family Robinson and more Children of the Corn. Oh, and the lunch I made? No one wanted it. Yeah. That.

My flesh began to show through my garments of grace as I commanded these little creatures to eat. Eat! Then the push back came. Then, the conversation above happened. Finally, I pulled out my big ol' trump card and slammed it on the table. I'm the dad, I'm the boss, eat your food, or it's gonna get unpleasant around here.

But this blog isn't about parenting, it's about leadership. See, I made the mistake I've made a thousand times before, and you've probably made the same mistake too — the error of leading from position instead of relationship.

Positional leadership says, "Follow me because I'm the boss." And, while most of us want to be the boss, leading from the position of "boss" is actually the worst way to lead. The real genius of leadership happens when you don't do what I did with my kids. The real genius is in relational leadership.

Relational Leadership is Strong The strongest leaders are looked up to by those who follow them. How does that happen? Among other things, it happens when leaders are related to their followers. When they can say, "That guy is one of us and I trust him," they will not only achieve their short-term goals, but establish the strength of their long-term leadership.

Relational Leadership is Safe Leaders make mistakes. Only one leader never did, and you're not him. So how can we trust and follow someone who is not perfectly trustworthy and always worth following? When we know them, not just their position. Had I been more concerned about relating to my kids rather than commanding them, I might have cared a little bit more that it was 91 degrees outside, and they'd already walked 3 miles, and that's quite a bit for a little squirt. They would have been safer if I'd leaned into my relationship with them, rather than my rulership over them.

Relational Leadership is Loving Simply put, if you don't care to know the people you lead, you don't care about them. While the CEO can't know everyone in the company, he can certainly know his direct reports. He can be a hero to his VP's wife and kids, rather than a villain. I didn't act in love in my conversation with my daughter that day, I acted in pure authority — something God doesn't do, so why should I?

Relational Leadership is Christ-like Speaking of God, let's talk about how he leads. God doesn't lead us like some despot on a power trip. God leads us — his people — like a great dad. Jesus said, "I only do what I see my Father doing." The Son of God taught us to follow God as our Father, not just our ruler. God cared enough for us to relate to us personally, not just command us with mere authority. We're safe in that kind of leadership because we're known. We're known because we're loved. And because we're known and loved, of course we can follow God's leadership. Who wouldn't want to follow a leader like that?

The good news is, aside from moments like the one I mentioned, I've got a pretty good relationship growing with my kids. I came to them later and repented for my bad leadership. They forgave. And we all talked about the good leadership of Jesus, and how we both — leaders and followers — better be led by him. Only when we're led by Jesus, can we ever be any good at leading like Jesus.