Relational leadership and its implications for our world

What is relational
Leadership is an emergent property of relations.

Our shared topic is the understanding, practices and development of relational leadership and its implications for facing and solving complex challenges across society.

Q: What is relational leadership?
A: It is a powerful way to understand leadership as the capacities and actions of social systems.
Leadership is an emergent property of relations (Denis, Langley & Sergi, 2012). Leadership is a relational process of shared sense-making and meaning-making (Bill Drath, The Deep Blue Sea, 2001).

The best description is our article on direction, alignment, and commitment as a relational ontology of leadership, full text here.

Our purpose is to share and create knowledge, and to help shape the Center for Creative Leadership research agenda in this area.

This community is comprised of members in the Center for Creative Leadership plus a global community of scholars, practitioners, and leaders. Contact: Chuck Palus at CCL (

The structure of the community is:

  1. This website
  2. Webinars
  3. Meetings in a variety of forums

CCL sponsors this Community. We want to further coalesce and mobilize this Community inside CCL as our home institution. At the same time we are boundary spanners and our network of researchers and practitioners is global and diverse.


Our overarching research question is: 

In what ways does a shift in perspective and practice—from leadership as solely the capacity and actions of individuals to leadership as the capacity and actions of a social system—yield better results for individuals, groups, teams, organizations, partnerships, coalitions, and communities? What relational practices increase direction, alignment, and commitment? What development practices foster more adaptive leadership cultures?


An old adage is now global and urgent: Despite our differences we are all in it together. Problems once specialized and localized now spread across geographic, social, cultural, and disciplinary boundaries. These wicked problems require leadership that is distributed, fluid, and constructed in interaction.  What is getting in the way of enacting leadership in this way? Perhaps it is our ingrained view of leadership that focuses on formal leaders and their capabilities, relegating the larger system of interactions and relationships among people that produce direction, alignment, and commitment to the background.  It’s time to encourage and test the benefits of a broader, more systemic view of leadership as a collective social process.


Focusing on this critical area enhances our ability to:

  • Provide proven and cutting-edge knowledge, tools, and services aimed not just at developing individual leaders but also at enhancing the processes of leadership.
  • Expand our reach to include clients who are working to resolve societal issues (e.g., community-based coalitions, public-private partnerships) in a way that is customized to their needs.
  • Stay at the forefront of a shift in the field toward more collective views of leadership.


The underlying (philosophical) idea of relational leadership generates many practical models and applications.

Relational leadership: Leadership is an emergent property of relations.

The following areas at CCL derive from a relational paradigm and are thus deeply inter-related.

The DAC Framework is a direct result of relational thinking.

CCL has a body of research and practice which builds on a relational view of leadership. In each of these topics, leadership is regarded as an aspect of a complex social system.

  • Network Leadership
  • Boundary Spanning
  • Vertical Development / Transformation
  • Leadership Culture & Leadership Strategies
  • The DAC Framework
  • Dialogue
  • Social Identity
  • Leadership for Societal Impact

CCL Point of View on Relational Leadership: Summary

“Relational leadership” (RL) is a paradigm (or ontology) for understanding leadership in which the starting place is relationships among people.

Relational leadership: Leadership is an emergent property of relations.

RL is an alternative to the more traditional (Western) paradigm in which the starting place is the character and competencies of the individual.

A key value of RL is that it starts with a new set of assumptions that offer new possibilities for innovation in research and in everyday practice.

It’s not that individualistic assumptions are wrong. Individualistic assumptions are often useful. RL offers a larger perspective that can be seen to contain individualistic perspective as a special case. This is how paradigm shifts in science and society operate: The new paradigm transcends and yet still includes the older paradigm.

In other words: “Relationships create individuals” is a larger and potentially more fruitful perspective than one limited only to “individuals create relationships.”

Relational leadership is often misunderstood in ways that pull it back into the individualistic paradigm. Since the strength of RL is its power as an alternative to individualistic paradigm, it’s important to maintain the distinctions, and to understand the concept of relational leadership in its own right.

RL is NOT a particular style of leadership as in “situational leadership.” RL is not a particular theory as in “transformational leadership.” RL is not a new form of leadership in which collective action is valued.

Then what is it?

Relational leadership is a way of saying: What if we started the whole project of understanding the whole subject of leadership afresh?

Relational leadership is a way of understanding the sources of leadership that support more purposeful, collective action. It is not a “type” of leadership. Rather relational leadership is a set of underlying assumptions which offer new possibilities for innovation.

We at CCL advocate for a particular way of framing relational leadership, and we welcome others in the spirit of dialogue and inquiry. There are a variety of different ways the term relational leadership is used. Many of these differences are semantic. Other differences point to important issues for research and practice. We wish to explore within and beyond these various ways of framing our subject, while at the same time not getting bogged down in terminology and recognizing that language in this area is fluid and evolving. This is a big tent and all are welcome.

Lately there has been confusion in differentiating among a number of important ideas, namely the following: Collective leadership. Relational leadership. Interdependent leadership. Leadership in networks. Holocratic and other “teal” ways of organizing. Shared leadership. Distributed leadership. The term “leadership” itself is used in diverse ways and often seems like excess baggage. There is quite a bit of overlap in the underlying ideas and yet proponents of each term are trying to capture important features. Effective research depends on further clarifying what we know in a way that opens to new possibilities. A number of us at CCL have developed our own ways of understanding these ideas and we wish to “put them in the middle” of dialogue with our colleagues.

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