#17622 Relational Leadership: New Developments in Theory and Practice

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  1. D-Leadership”

In analyzing leadership patterns in organizations identified as exemplars of collaborative leadership we found that they are characterized by three inter-related factors:

  • Leadership is more decentralized than in command and control organizations, with many change initiatives initiated and led by individuals and teams operating at lower organizational levels.

  • Leadership is designed to tap the distributed and collective intelligence of organizational members in making leadership decisions. Thus, leadership is often shared among individuals with different forms of knowledge and expertise.

  • Leadership is more decoupled from formal leadership positions than in traditional command and control organizations. Many individuals in non-managerial positions initiate, champion and lead change initiatives.

In short, we found that leadership in these settings was decentralized, distributed and collective, and decoupled from formal roles, hence we call our model “D-leadership”

We were also struck by three additional findings. First, we found very high levels of leadership self-efficacy at all organizational levels. Many individuals drive change within these organizations and have confidence in their ability to step into leadership roles. Second, we found employees in these settings shared a broad awareness of the business goals and strategies of their organizations, a phenomenon we call a “global mindset.” This meant that, regardless of their formal roles, individuals could exert leadership informed by the broader goals and guiding principles of their organizations. Third, we found these organizations had routines for vetting ideas, creating teams, conducting experiments and accessing organizational resources in a timely manner that were widely-known and accessible to members throughout the organization. In short, there were interwoven sets of dynamic capabilities that facilitated leadership within innovation and change processes.

  1. Organizational practices and policies that support D-leadership

The following organizational structures, practices and cultures appeared to support D-leadership:

  • Hiring for leadership self-efficacy and collaborative ability

  • Long on-boarding processes and ongoing socialization to sustain strong understanding of organizational goals and principles as an aid to decision-making

  • Organizational managers operating as coaches, not bosses

  • Orchestration of, and rewards for, creative, cross-functional interaction and collaboration

  • Well developed processes for collective vetting and selection of new initiatives

  • Just-in-time structures and flexible resources available for new initiatives

  • Mechanisms for coordinating and aligning individual and team efforts

  • Widely shared mechanisms and norms that support risk prevention and mitigation

  • A culture of perceived fairness and transparency

Relational leadership and D-leadership

In their conceptualization, Gittell and Douglass define relational leadership as “a pattern of reciprocal interrelating between workers and managers regarding what is to be done and how best to do it” (Gittell & Douglass 2012). This form of leadership, they argue, allows organizations to fuse the more focused, in-depth knowledge of workers with the broader, less focused knowledge of managers to create a “more integrated, holistic understanding of the situation” (Gittell& Douglass 2012). Finally, they note that relational leadership is one of three key processes in role-based interrelating, along with relational coordination (worker-worker) and relational coproduction (worker-customer). The D-leadership model differs in a number of important ways:

  1. In the D-leadership model, leadership decisions arise not just from worker-manager interactions, but from worker-worker and worker-customer interactions as well. In fact, our case data suggests that these decisions most often involve intertwined sets of recursive interactions involving all three types of agents. Thus the level of analysis shifts from the dyad to the system or network of relationships.

  2. The relational model rests upon the assumption that managers and workers have very different knowledge bases. In the organizations we studied, however, there was a great deal of overlap in the knowledge base of workers and managers.

  3. Finally, in the D-leadership model, leadership behavior emerges from the interaction of leaders, teams and contexts. Leadership cannot be viewed in isolation but must be seen as an emergent process.

From relational to sense leadership with savoir-relier: Leading in complexity

Valérie Gauthier

HEC Paris, MIT Sloan
In the concept of savoir-relier, we address two dimensions of leadership: relational and sensible. We define savoir-relier as the capacity and will to build sensible, trustworthy and sustainable relationships across boundaries (i.e. between entities that are inherently different, opposite or antagonistic), hence encouraging and valuing differences to engage in positive and mindful innovation. To do so, savoir-relier enacts sense (meaning, sensibility, vision) out of complexity for both the individual and the organization in their relation to the world as they become relational sense-builders who are capable of embracing complexity with efficiency as well as respect and humility.

This article is based on three assumptions: 1) Following Morin’s theory on complexity (from the Latin Complexus: “that which is woven together”), we argue that the world’s complexity cannot be filtered through the lens of rationality or specialized and isolated scientific disciplines alone; thus organizational theory needs to bind psychological and sociological perspectives and open to subjective sensibility as a complement to objective rationality and to transdisciplinarity as a new way to address this complexity. 2) Secondly we argue that the savoir-relier process for leaders and organizations is analogous to the process of poetic translation as presented in the poetic translation theory (Gauthier, 1994): by translating the unexpected associations between heterogeneous constituents (as in the sounds, images and meaning in a poem) and by re-creating a new and dynamic ensemble that builds mindful and sensible sense for the new environment in which it thrives. 3) This understanding of complexity and poetic metaphor applied to leadership opens the door to a new way of approaching leadership where the relational sense-building capacity of individuals and organizations as living systems functions effectively in complex settings that carry a multiplicity of paradoxical constituents and uncertainty factors. We will address the role of the SR leader, manager or function in the organization with reference to three different settings. In so doing, we will thus link to existing research and lay foundation for future research in organizational theory, leadership, decision-making or any other area touching upon complex thinking where the savoir-relier perspective can be further exemplified and strengthened.

Savoir-relier as a response to complexity

We understand complexity as posing the paradox of the one and the many, of order and disorder, of subject and object, of reductionism and holism. Facing complexity in this way requires a paradigm shift where relationship and sense building play a central role. At the level of organizations, large and small, anywhere in the world, we argue that the need for sense to perform at complex global levels involves savoir-relier capacity. It is translated into organizations that face and address complexity as “a fabric of heterogeneous constituents that are inseparably associated” (Morin, 2008) by developing a savoir-relier that builds sense out of mindful connections between those constituents and fosters positive innovation. Complexity is “the fabric of events, actions, interactions, retroactions, determinations, and chance that constitute our phenomenal world” (Morin, 2008).

Organizations as living systems

The complexity theory of Morin draws from a wide range of domains where savoir-relier already applies, such as natural sciences and human sciences and we open the door to different possible applications and research to further demonstrate the relevance of this concept for thriving businesses and people in our 21st century world of complexity. For instance, the science of ecology was born out of the central concept of ecosystem: “the organizational ensemble that constitutes itself by means of interactions between living beings and the geophysical conditions of a specific place… ecosystems are themselves part of the biosphere which has its own life and regulations” (Morin 2008: 88).

To further explain what subtends Morin’s vision of complexity we illustrate the three principles it relies on: dialogic, recursive and holographic. The dialogic principle emphasizes a special kind of link where the elements are necessary to each other, both complementary and antagonistic. The second principle is called recursive as individuals produce society that produces individuals. This cycle of production is itself self-constitutive, self-organizing and self-producing, hence producing a relational circuit. The third principle surpasses both reductionism and holism by relying on the image of the hologram where the sociologist is part of the society of which she is not the center, but a part and possessed by all society. In the end, the holographic principle binds with recursive logic, which is linked to the dialogic idea so that knowledge of the parts is enriched by knowledge of the whole, which in turns draws from knowledge of the parts, producing a single productive movement of knowledge.

Relational leadership as a sensemaking process

While building upon Morin’s theory of complexity we make a positive link with the use of the basic evolutionary epistemology process assumed by the organization concept of sensemaking (Weick, 1993). In this sensemaking process, we see a transition between the complex thinking process and the savoir-relier process through the retrospective interpretations that are built during interdependent interaction (Campbell, 1965, 1997). Sensemaking can be treated as “reciprocal exchanges between actors (Enactment) and their environments (Ecological Change) that are made meaningful (Selection) and preserved (Retention). We will call this model “enactment theory,” as has become the convention in organizational work” (e.g., Jennings and Greenwood 2003in Weick, 2005: 414). While this retrospective process differs from the recursive principle in Morin’s theory, the reciprocal interrelations and the notions of ambivalence in the use of previous knowledge can be linked to the complex and dynamic holographic and dialogic principles.

Accordingly, using an analogy with the poetic translation process (Gauthier, 1994) we argue that the following skills are necessary for effective relational leadership: 1) An intuitive mind to perceive the unique and complex forces that build sense out of a system. It is the same intuition that, pushed by the desire to innovate and combined with creativity, will help in the final act of re-creation and sense-building in line with decisions made on the way. 2) An analytical mind to get a deep understanding by decomposing and decoding complex situations and problems. This refers to the capacity of a leader to discern patterns, understand different viewpoints, listen and empathize with people’s diverging and heterogeneous ideas before and in order to forge a vision and before making any decision. 3) The ability to integrate uncertainty and chance in assimilating the complexity of the environment where the situation lies and where it goes (vision) thanks to the holographic principle. The leader here needs to capture the sum of contradictory and ambiguous pieces of information both as part and as a whole to build a vision for the organization to move forward. To be effective, such assimilation of uncertain chance events requires a high degree of self-awareness and introspection in order to identify and accept the role of the subjective in the objective so as to build a sound and responsible vision for the organization. 4) A capacity to “decenter” oneself and create a movement from the original situation in its living system to the new one, which encompasses agility. Here the leader proves again her capacity to adapt but also to weave between antagonistic environments or living systems embedded in their language, space, culture and time. In leadership, this can be exemplified by strategic thinking (versus programming or planning). 5) Finally, the courage, creativity and drive to make choices, decisions, and take calculated risks in the act of creative translation so as to communicate them effectively. This final act of re-enunciation or re-creation is what really distinguishes the savoir-relier leader from others by integrating timely, mindful change and innovation with a sense of humility.

Applying savoir-relier to examples from recent research

We will finally explore how the savoir-relier concept can apply to organizations, using three examples from recent research: 1) case managers in hospitals working across functional boundaries as shown by Kellogg, 2) HR systems and helping in organizations as shown by Mussholder et al and 3) brokers’ role in building creativity and innovation in the music industry as shown by Long Lingo and O’Mahoney. These three examples will be presentedto demonstrate how savoir-relier contributes to further understanding relational leadership as a process of sensemaking.


To survive the 21st century’s rational, specialized, individualistic and complex world, organizations need to resolve the tension between the necessary agility to adapt to a fast changing complex environment and the need for sense reflected in their ability to foster innovation with vision, sensibility, mindfulness and ethical values. Whether this tension is positive or negative, the resulting challenges and paradoxes require a new approach to leadership, which involves two essential building capacities: one with respect to relationships and the other with respect to sense.

Developing strategic relational leadership
Carsten Hornstrup

MacMann Berg/University of Tilburg
The aim of this research project is to develop a relational approach to strategic leadership and organizational communication. In the initial face of the project the focus has been to develop a coherent theoretical framework, inspired by systemic and constructionist ideas. The ambition is to use his frame as a thinking tool (Hornstrup et.al. 2012) as a source of inspiration for developing fruitful practices. The basic idea is that modern organizations are facing two key challenges. Building on interviews with 1500 CEO’s from public and private organizations, the conclusion is, that the increasing complexity and an increasing change rate is by far seen as the two biggest challenges for managers. To be able to exist and thrive in these circumstances, organizations must be able to exploit complexity and change. One of the key elements in doing so is by developing their ability to change or innovate their management and organizational processes. In other words, the challenge is to get from change management to creating organizations that develop their adaptability or changeability.


Increasing complexity and speed of change are two of the key challenges we face in strategic leadership of modern organizations (Hamel 2007, IBM 2010). One of the key obstacles to meeting these challenges is the use of out-dated mental models, built on a rational and mechanical understanding of organizations and human communication (Pearce 2008, Gergen 2010). These mental models have much more in common with the early 20thcentury thinking with its focus on solving very simple problems – creating frameworks for turning human beings into “semi programmable robots” (Hamel 2007). As Hamel argued: ”To a large extent, your company is being managed right now by a small coterie of long-departed theorists and practitioners who invented rules and conventions of ‘modern’ management back in the early days of the 20thcentury. They are the poltergeists who inhabit the musty machinery of management” (Hamel 2007: ix). When considering the images often used to describe organizations, the mechanistic view can be seen in the charts and diagrams that tend to dominate our thinking about organizational design. “They are the product of the static understandings generated by a mechanical view of organizations” (Morgan 1997: 6).

An important difference between a mechanistic and a systemic-constructionist approach to organizational communication is that the former is based on an epistemology that assumes we can transmit information, knowledge, experiences from one person or one consciousness to another (Weick 1995, Pearce 2004, 2008), while the latter is based on the notion that each group constructs its own image of the world (Maturana & Varela 1987, Maturana &Poerksen 2004). This socially constructed image guides people’s perception of themselves and the world around them and guides the way they communicate and create relationships within and outside their group (Gergen 2009, 2010).

Strategic relational leadership

In developing the concept of strategic relational leadership, I address three different domains of leadership communication (Lang, Little & Cronen 1990, Hornstrup et. al. 2012). Together these domains can open us to seeing organizations as not just as “systematic (rational) systems” but also as “ecologies of relationships and communication” (Bateson 1972, 1979). These domains include both the domain of production, the domain of aesthetics and the domain of explanation. The domain of production focuses on how the more rational aspects of relationships and communication influence organizational coordination through clarity and transparency while the domain of aesthetics focuses on how the more emotional side of relationships and communication influence organizational coherence and coordination through culture, emotions, beliefs and attitudes. Finally the domain of explanation includes curiosity, reflexivity and irreverence (Cecchin 1987, Tomm 1988, Cecchin et.al. 1992, Barge 2004, Hornstrup, Tomm & Johansen 2009).

Looking at the different domains in a more practical light, each contributes to our understanding and ability to work with strategic organizational issues. The domain of production invites us to develop organizational patterns of stable relationships and communication in a way that creates clarity and transparency – clarity about goals, roles, directions and relations and transparency about what, why and why not. Transparency is a way of addressing the things we can be relatively certain about while admitting that there are unforeseen or unknown issues that will influence us as we move into the future. In this way transparency is a vital part of creating more distributed strategic competences because it invites everyone to be aware of uncertainty and thereby invites everyone to pay attention to the fact that things very well might change (Pearce 2008).

The domain of aesthetics, with its focus on culture, emotions, beliefs and attitudes, is important both as a condition for and an obstacle to change. Very often organizational cultures and values work as a hindrance for change. Using the iceberg metaphor, the largest and heaviest part of organizational culture is below the water line and pulls in the direction of stability. We must be aware of the effects of cultures and values and look at them with both appreciative and irreverent eyes (Cooperrider & Srivastva 1987, Cooperrider & Withney 1999, 2000). To look at them with appreciative eyes means to look at them as an underlying logic that guides the way we see, understand and act (Hornstrup & Loehr-Petersen 2003). If we don't appreciate the value and the culture, very often people will take it as criticism of something dear to them. In other words, before moving in the direction of changing the organizational system, we should be aware of the positive aspects of any culture. At the same time we need to look at cultures with irreverent and challenging eyes – or rather, invite people to be active participants in taking an irreverent look at their own culture. If we don't involve people in this process, and do it with a high degree of transparency, we often end up with even more change resistant organizations (Steensen 2010).

To keep the awareness and ability for change, the domain of explanation is vital. It is by keeping a reflexive open mind and keeping our curiosity alive that we create organizations with a high degree of flexibility. If we connect these capabilities (curiosity, reflexivity and irreverence) to the domains of production and aesthetics, we can open up space for more flexible structures and procedures and create cultures where change is a natural part of organizational life. Together, I propose, these three domains allow leaders to bridge the hard-core and soft-core aspects of leading and organizing.

Leading in coordination: The meta-feedback role of leaders of performative groups
John Paul Stephens

Case Western Reserve University
Recent research on coordination has had little to say about the role of leaders. Rather, organizational scholars have focused more on the practice of coordination amongst organizational actors. Specifically, scholars have focused on how various qualities of communication and feedback influence coordination, such as speech, actions, and systems that reflect more mindful consideration of the relationships amongst actions within and between workgroups (Bechky, 2003; 2006; Dougherty, 1992; Gittell, 2002; Hargadon & Bechky, 2006; Kellogg, Orlikowski, &Yates, 2006; Weick & Roberts, 1993). All of these studies have provided detailed knowledge of how individuals use symbols, language, and routines to successfully interrelate their actions at work. However, we know little about the involvement of those in leadership positions (as managers or centralized coordinators) who must surely be present in these contexts.

The place of leaders in coordination at once seems important, but may understandably

have been left as secondary to organizational scholars. Leadership is important because coordination has been defined as the "management of interdependencies" (Malone &Crowston, 2000), and calls for the examination of coordination at the managerial level of analysis were made over thirty years ago (see Van de Ven, Delbecq, & Koenig, 1976). On the other hand, the role of supervisors, managers and leaders may be readily downplayed in coordination research given the decreasing importance of hierarchy in modern work organizations that rely more on virtual collaboration and networked designs. However, even the more recent accounts of coordination that examine post-bureaucratic, less-hierarchical organizational contexts, hint at the role of those in senior management positions concerned with "different groups of people with different skills, backgrounds, and experience, education, career expectations, expectations about what their work day will be like" (Kellogg, Orlikowski, & Yates, 2006: 26). In a similar context, the CEO of a modern design firm was aware of how important it was to "pick two people, with different experiences and maybe even different training and put them together and you’ve got that kind of a synergy, an exchange of ideas" (Hargadon & Bechky, 2006: 489). Thus, the fluid self-organization of organizational actors that took place in these contexts was at least partly overseen and understood by someone in a managerial or leadership role. Accounting for the mutually-reciprocal influence between those who must lead groups of people interrelating their actions, and those performing coordination should enhance and make more robust our explanations of how coordination works and why it might sometimes fail.

Some exploratory theoretical and empirical work begins to describe how leaders may be involved in the coordination of workgroups. First, while Weick and Roberts' (1993) description of how coordination occurs through heedful interrelating focuses primarily on how individual crew members relate their efforts, they also describe how the bosun, or the ship's central coordinator envisages the work of the collective. They describe how the bosun thinks "about the kind of environment he will create on the deck that day, given the schedule of operations...he represents the capabilities and weaknesses of imagine crewmembers' responses in his thinking, when he tailors sequences of activities so that improvisation and flexible response are activated as an expected part of the day's adaptive response" (Weick & Roberts, 1993: 370). They continue: "the bos'n does not plan specific step-by-step operations but, rather, plans which crews will do the planning and deciding, when, and with what resources at hand."

This picture of a leader's involvement in coordination suggests that he or she would be responsible for designing and being continuously aware of the mental map of the group's operations. Such knowledge would be based in situation awareness, where actors are mindful of the elements in the environment within which they are coordinating, e.g. the actions and needs of others (Endsley, 1988; Weick, Sutcliffe, & Obstfeld, 1999). In the course of performing coordination, this situation awareness is based on dynamic mental models of the state of the group, which is continuously updated based on the changing needs and actions of group members (Rico, Sanchez-Manzanares, Gil & Gibson, 2008). While a ship's bos'n may tend to check on the progress of tasks as they are completed, an example from another unique case of collective work - a choir and its conductor - better describes how the leader continuously guides and re-presents for the group the state of its coordinated activities. In an exploratory ethnographic study, the conductor was observed to plan out the sequence of actions in a rehearsal, and to modify the musical notation prescribed for each vocal section (Stephens, 2010). The conductor's gestural and verbal expressions that accompanied the choir's performance not only guided the tempo, volume and pitch of performance, but also helped individual singers to recognize whether their interrelation of sounds was beautiful or not. Unlike the bos'n, the conductor served as a continuously accessible source of feedback for the entire group as its members coordinated and not just before or after the performance of coordination.

Out of the myriad theoretical perspectives on leadership found in the organizational studies literature, these examples of leaders in coordination within groups are best linked to social identity perspectives on leadership. Such a perspective is most relevant since it explicitly deals with leadership as a quality of group membership, rather than as a quality of the individual traits a leader might possess (Hogg & Van Knippenberg, 2003). In short, these perspectives describe how, when the salience of group membership is high, individuals emerge as leaders who seem to possess the qualities that are most desirable or prototypical of the group, such as aspirations, values, and behaviors. The social attractiveness of these characteristics makes others readily conform to the behaviors and beliefs of these individuals (Hogg, 2000; Hogg & Terry, 2001). However, in coordination, leaders must be simultaneously representative of the multiple divisions of labor under their purview, be they firefighting, mechanics and cargo rigging in the case of a bos'n, or singing the notes for soprano, alto, tenor, and bass sections in the case of a conductor. These individuals would not be effective leaders if they were not adept at developing the "syntax" needed to communicate effectively across multiple boundaries (Kellogg, Orlikowski & Yates, 2006). This quality of leadership is important since the context of coordination causes members of various sub-groups to encounter each other raising the salience of their unique memberships (Dougherty, 1992; Heath & Staudenmayer, 2000); the research so far would suggest that an effective leader needs to knowingly represent the superordinate system to each individual sub-group or specialty in order to circumvent bias and discrimination.

This brief review suggests multiple questions ripe for exploration. First, we do not know about the generalizability of this perspective on leaders in coordination: are managers and others in leadership positions generally concerned with effectively representing the system to various sub-groups? Second, we do not know how this representation would occur: while a bos'n may possibly assign tasks for the day via verbal or written orders, and a conductor uses speech, gesture (and even writing) to communicate the quality of the group's coordination, are these the only effective media, and when are they best employed?


In this paper, I will present data from in-depth qualitative interviews with leaders of performative groups, viz. orchestral and choral conductors, and leaders of formal work organizations, viz. managers and team leaders. Large musical ensembles present unique contexts in which mechanisms of coordination are readily accessible for study. Research on orchestral conductors suggests that their involvement in coordination is readily apparent (Marotto, Roos & Victor, 2007), since “expressive signs which fail to communicate a sum total of information which allows members to engage in lines of action and interaction can have little, if any, authoritativeness within the orchestra” (Faulkner, 1973: 150).

Potential contributions

This research can potentially make at least three main contributions to our understanding of leadership and coordination. First, the current study takes a different stance from a relational view of leadership in which there is reciprocal interrelating between workers and managers regarding what is to be done and how best to do it (Gittell & Douglass 2012). Rather, instead of having the responsibility of leadership shot through the entire group or organization, the current perspective explores the extent to which a leader can encompass the entire group in her thoughts and actions. Second, this study should add to our understanding of the role of leader as boundary spanner in coordination, and the role of communication. Those in managerial roles may find themselves as boundary spanners, but this research suggests that developing an aptitude for communicating clearly across multiple groups (and not just between two) is especially important for coordination. Finally, this research re-specifies the applicability of social identity-based theories of leadership to organizations. Successfully embodying the entire system or organization for various kinds of group members would involve being most representative of multiple groups simultaneously, which would require unique skills and contextual factors.

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