A history of relational leadership at the Center for Creative Leadership

Over the last two decades CCL has taken a more relational view of leadership, striving to understand and practice leadership as a collective social process. A strong relational theme has appeared in the field of leadership more generally, some of it due to CCL influence, most of it due to a growing zeitgeist of relational thought and practice.

As we move forward it is helpful to know how we — the Center for Creative Leadership — got here (note: this is not a review of the field).

Organizational scholars and practitioners have long been aware of the social processes underlying leadership and organizational dynamics. However, the field of leadership itself, as it slowly emerged after WWII, relied on psychological theories about individual characteristics and behaviors. This was due to many historic factors, including the emergence of the field of psychometrics, and the staffing and talent development needs of influential organizations such as the Peace Corps, the CIA, and the US Army. Every sector of an expanding post-war society needed leaders. Leadership became understood as an amalgam of character, personality, knowledge, and experience.

This individualized view of leadership was, and is, both useful and incomplete. At CCL in the early 1990’s there were two areas of research and practice that each encountered the limits of an overly individualized approach to leadership. These limits produced two challenges to leadership theory and practice that ultimately required “new lenses on leadership” (as we framed it at the time).  These two challenges were about hierarchy and difference. Let’s look at each.

CCL began coaching and studying senior executives in the late 1980’s in a feedback-rich process called APEX. APEX was successful in developing individuals, and it was also clear that leadership was more than the sum of the top leaders in the hierarchy. Bill Drath called into question “the source of leadership.” Is the source of leadership within these individuals at the top of their hierarchies? Can the source of leadership also be understood as between and among individuals, that is, as relational? What might be the advantage of shifting our view, or “changing our minds about leadership,” from characteristics within to (also) processes between? An influential CCL report titled Making Common Sense (1994) framed leadership as meaning-making in a community of practice.

One of the opportunities in shifting our view from within to between is to better understand leadership as an open system. Systems produce outcomes. A key article in 2008 proposed the outcomes of shared direction, alignment, and commitment (DAC) as fundamental to the ontology of leadership as understood relationally. Thus, whenever DAC is observed, whatever produced that DAC could be construed as leadership, and as a potential target for development. The DAC Model has been a practical avenue for helping all kinds of people look at leadership in a new and useful way. The measurement of DAC remains a challenge.

The Connected Leadership Project was started in 2002 to investigate the potential of a relational view of leadership. Combining research, theory, and practice, notably from the field of OD (organization development), this group built and tested a model of Interdependent Leadership. Constructive-developmental theory led to our stage (“snowman”) model of leadership culture transformation. The Connected Leadership Project led directly to the CCL Organizational Leadership practice area, and to our focus on leadership strategy as a way to implement this more systemic, collective view of leadership.

The identification of Organizational Leadership (OL) as a basic area of CCL research and practice had the unintended consequence of contrasting and polarizing with the notion of Individual Leadership (IL). The SOGI Model (for society, organizations, groups, individuals) was created to establish a multi-level leadership framework with a more inclusive conception of targets for development. The recently emerging notions of societal leadership, and leadership strategies for societal impact, connect with CCL’s mission to serve society globally. Also in this period starting around 2000, CCL studied corporate social responsibility (CSR) in terms of its leadership and strategic requirements.

Now let’s look at the challenge of difference. CCL has done pioneering work on the development of women and minorities in leadership roles. CCL open-enrollment programs were effective in developing individuals, and less effective in systemic impact. Once again, a useful but overly individualized view of leadership was limiting further progress. An R&D project called Leadership Across Differences took a multi-level view of social differences, looking not only at individual factors, but also at social dynamics at the group, organizational, and societal levels. CCL was learning how to think and act globally.  Results of the LAD Project include our work on social identity in leadership dynamics, as well as our Boundary Spanning Leadership theory and practices.

Leadership Beyond Boundaries (LBB) was sponsored by RIPD, beginning around 2005 as an action learning project, using design thinking to reach more of society, globally, with practical forms of leadership development. LBB was also born out of these challenges posed by hierarchy and difference, and—influenced by the aforementioned work—has also framed leadership as a collective social process. An important result has been engagement with the bottom of the economic pyramid, with the goal of greater democratization of leadership around important societal issues. The need for practical innovation and affordable solutions in delivering leadership development under these conditions has led to a number of innovations, such as the Leadership Essentials approach to teaching and training; to further development of the Leadership Explorer tool suite; and to work that bridges differences across multi-collective systems on such issues as economic development.

More recently the challenges presented by hierarchy and difference, understood relationally, have led us to the field of social network analysis. Network analysis allows aspects of relationships relevant to the production of DAC to be measured at multiple levels ranging from ego-centric networks, to within and between group networks, organizational networks, inter-organizational networks, and to various kinds of societal networks. This new horizon promises much for our understanding and practice of leadership and leadership development.