Leadership as a Relational Dynamic

By Nick Wright

Updated Over a Week Ago

Minute Read

Philosophically and practically, I find myself conflicted over the current preoccupation in leadership development as a relational dynamic.

On the one hand, I’ve seen and used competency frameworks for leadership assessment and development purposes. On the whole, they did serve well as a useful touchstone for these purposes.

They provided a helpful basis for awareness-raising, focused conversation, critical reflection, and practical action. Pragmatically speaking, competency frameworks can be useful tools.

On the other hand, there’s something about analyzing leadership competencies that can feel reductionist.

That’s where my underlying discomfort lies.

The Rose

I’m reminded of a philosophy lecturer during my theological studies who introduced the idea of a beautiful rose.

A poet tries to capture and express the rose’s beauty in colorful, creative language. It’s about its intangible qualities – beauty, essence, spirit, and impact.

Perhaps, by analogy, we might experience this phenomenon in leaders as personality, character, charisma, or X factor.

The important point for me is that beauty isn’t just about some abstract objective quality of the rose. It’s about how I subjectively perceive, experience, and respond to it.

It’s not just what I see; it’s what I attribute to it, what it represents in my culture, and what I feel and do as a result.

By analogy, I wonder if what I regard as ‘good leadership’ in a particular time and context is really the result of a complex combination of personal qualities emerging and interacting in a particular social, political and cultural environment.

Leadership Qualities

Leadership Qualities

It’s influenced by what I notice (and don’t), what I attribute success to (and don’t), and what happens when a leader interacts with a particular people’s history, culture, values, and expectations.

This may explain why different leadership qualities prove successful in different contexts.

For example, I once led a highly successful youth group in the North of England, and yet when I tried applying the same leadership style and approach with a different youth group in the South of England, it was a terrible failure.

I’ve also noticed how, in the same situation, different people respond to the same leader’s leadership differently.

A leader may speak in a staff meeting, for instance, and one person is inspired, whereas another person sitting next to them feels bored or disengaged.

Each person experiences the leader subjectively. As with the rose, there’s some kind of dynamic interplay between stimulus and responder.

This makes me wonder which, if any, leadership qualities are universal and which, if any, are contingent on relationship and context.

Defining Competencies

Staying with the rose analogy, a scientist may dissect a rose in order to understand and explain it.

This form of inquiry can reveal important information about the rose at a basic biological and structural level. But it will kill the rose as an entity, and it certainly won’t explain why people buy roses for their partners.

For me, defining competencies can feel more scientific than poetic.

There’s something about dissecting and analyzing the parts that risk missing or diminishing the quality of the whole.

I’m reminded of Edwin Nevis’s seminal work on Gestalt consulting, ‘The whole is more than the sum of the parts, as the arrangement of the configuration of the parts is what gives an object its unique quality. In the case of singling out a tree in a park, the object is perceived almost immediately as a tree, even if our attention is drawn to some parts more than to others. Studying only isolated, single parts of the tree (trunk, roots, branches, leaves, etc.) does not allow one to experience that which we call a “tree.’’ (Organizational Consulting – A Gestalt Approach, 1987, p6).

Inspirational Dynamic

I wonder whether we would be better inquiring into what factors are making the difference in a specific real-time context rather than focusing on distilling and codifying generic leadership qualities or capabilities ‘out of context’.

In other words, should we pay more (or equal) attention to evaluating leadership on the basis of what happens, what is achieved, what its effects are, and which values are safeguarded rather than the simple qualities or capabilities of the leader?

Perhaps leadership isn’t primarily something that lies within the individual. It’s an expression of an inspirational dynamic that sometimes takes place between people rather than, first and foremost, a description of the intrinsic attributes or behaviors of a particular person or people.

It emerges, sometimes unexpectedly, when people interact with one another in a specific relational and cultural environment.

It’s a mysterious dynamic that sparks and sustains desire, movement, and transformation.

Spiritual Dynamic

Spiritual Dynamic

In this sense, leadership is essentially a social and contextual phenomenon, not an individual abstract one.

As a Christian, I wonder if this dynamic between people, emerging in the creative space generated through relating and relationship, implying connection and synergy at some deep interpersonal level, is also a dynamic inhabited and energized by the leading and liberating presence of the spirit.

It’s about leading between and leading within. The potential for a spiritual dynamic opens up a much wider conversation.

A friend once commented, “I wonder if leadership isn’t always recognized at the time but is construed as leadership after the event, particularly by the follower more than the leader. As a follower, I am the only one who can legitimately apply the label leadership to what I experienced as a result of what you, the leader, did, how you were, and what happened between us. If you, the leader, use the term leadership, all you can apply to it is a set of behaviors or competencies which may not have landed with me as leadership.”

Social Interaction

A church minister speaks in a church meeting and evokes a positive response from those present that we may attribute to the minister’s leadership qualities. If they spoke the same words in a very different context (e.g., in an environment hostile to Christian beliefs), it would evoke a different response.

Does that mean the minister exercised leadership in the former environment but not in the latter, or is what we experience as ‘leadership’ actually the product of social interaction within a specific social, cultural and political context?

It’s a Difficult Question

What results do we attribute to the leader, and what do we attribute to other causal or contributing factors?

It poses questions and challenges for leadership development: whether it’s possible and, if so, what we are trying to develop and how best to go about developing it.

Should it be as much about understanding and developing the kind of cultural environment that will lead to the outcomes we hope for as defining and developing the competence of individual leaders?

How is Leadership a Relational Dynamic?

If you have ideas that you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

Would you like to contribute a post?

Nick Wright
Nick Wright
Nick Wright is a qualified and experienced psychological leadership coach and organisation development (OD) consultant who works in the UK and internationally. He is an experienced leader and a Fellow of the UK’s Institute of Training & Occupational Learning. Check his site at nick-wright.com
  • Nick Wright says:

    I would be very interested to hear any feedback, ideas or experiences on this topic, including from people living and working in very different cultural environments. With best wishes. Nick

  • Leigh Ann says:

    Loved your article! I so agree with the dilemma and our attempts to define, characterize, and dissect in efforts to teach leadership.

    Thank you!

  • Avril Brikkels says:

    The rose is a great analogy. Leadership is about people and people are complex, unique and different. It takes a special kind of person to identify how every individual should be led and intuitively understand and blend environment, background, culture, experiences, capabilities and strengths and integrating this dynamic is what makes business and personal performance rock. A very high EQ, self awareness and Social intelligence and a general sense of care are essential, notwithstanding experience in the business you are running.

  • Nick Wright says:

    Thanks for the encouraging feedback, Leigh Ann. With best wishes. Nick

  • Nick Wright says:

    Hi Avril and thanks for the response. I guess a question it begs is whether leadership is a product or expression of the qualities and capabilities of a special person, or something that emerges between people that we sometimes attribute to the leader. With best wishes. Nick

  • Bob Curry says:

    I fully agree with your commentary. I find that there is lot of discussion about leadership routed in a functional approach with a lot of emphasis on skills and knowledge and lesser discussion on behaviours and attitudes. What I then find alarming is the reliance on competences or frameworks and rarely do I hear people discussing how they should develop a leadership style that is appropriate to the needs of the staff. Too often actions – styles and behaviours – are derivative of a market analysis or of a business plan.

    What I have seen in the voluntary sector is that both HR and marketing are seen as functions rather than as strategic strands of the organisation both from a sense of creating direction and managing the pathways to achieve that. Mentoring is helpful but often insufficient as the underpinning must be a belief and valueing of the staffing.

  • Nick Wright says:

    Hi Bob and thanks for the feedback. I like your contrast between a functional approach and one rooted in beliefs and values. The former can feel mechanistic, the latter humanistic. I often ask leaders, ‘what do you believe about those people you hold responsbility for’ before, ‘what do you need to be competent at to lead them effectively’. It shifts the focus from skills to a deeper sense of relationship and connection. With best wishes. Nick

  • Jon Matsuo says:

    Nick that was a wonderful discussion –quite daring. I wish we could sit down and chat but these are a few thoughts on your themes.
    I think ultimiately leadership has to be judged by the results that it produces, rather than attributes or style, or even “skill”. Creativity in dealing with unknowns and differing personalities and needs is a skill to be sought after and acquired, through love and patience.
    You can’t always engage everyone in meetings, but it sure helps when people understand that the topic is their success. The trick is to help them make that connection.
    The depth of a spiritual connection is a great goal. It can result in NOT feeling “led” but feeling like a partner, and not noticing that ‘leadership’ was even present. The accomplishment is a true win win for both parties.
    Regardng the church minister example, I feel that the leader is sometimes the inspirer, but more often is the teacher. He creates the opportunity to help his flock by creating the trust and confidence in a positive way, creating a sense of hope, and faith. He gently leads their thinking down paths toward success and happiness. He does this by helping them to see that their present outlook and habits are not helping them, thereby creating a hunger for the better way. Without creating ths hunger, it becomes selling. By creating hunger, and then offering the solution, you see gratitude rather than skepticism or resistance.

    I think that unless a leader is relying on motivation, he will not be able to tap into the creativity, energy, learning, happiness, and problem-solving that is within each person. The servant leadership model is a great way to tap into that.
    Thank you for the ideas!

  • Roland Katak says:

    Thank you Nick. This is a great article. For me it, in many respects, summarises the types and contexts for the many articles that have been posted on this site, thanks to Dr. Whitaker. Some articles are the leadership that are trees, some even specific leadership tress, in the forest while others are just the opposites. I’m someone from a developing country (Papua New Guinea)with over 800 languages and this means the same number of cultures and traditions and if some of the leadership articles I’ve read from this site are any indication, different leadership styles! No. And you are correct, at least for me in that “…’good leadership’ in a particular time or context is really the result of a complex combination of personal qualities emerging and interacting in a particular social, political and cultural environment.” and this “explain(s) why different leadership qualities prove successful in different contexts” as …each person experiences the leaders subjectively.” My 20 years experience with international donor partners from the UN system to donors such as the EU, the Chinese and Japanese, AusAID show that leadership must be “contextualized” within the meaning of your article and not imported. For donor funded development in PNG, when leadership was imported and imposed ownership of development efforts were seen for what it was–external and imposed; but when donors started to recognise the need to “create” the universal leadership by identifying commonalities and PNG leaders playing a greater role then development efforts started to belong inside rather than from the outside.

  • Sohaila Rastan says:

    Have had a quick look at your v interesting article, much of which I agree with. In particular I agree that although many words are written on the subject it remains elusive and the more one tries to analyse and deconstruct the concept the more it evades one. I also agree that leadership is essentially an operational definition – we know when we have felt we have been led/inspired and we also know when we haven’t. When someone is trying to do “the leadership thing” by a set of rules it always feels a bit forced, laboured and phony. I think leadership comes from the heart of an inspired and convinced person and, as you say, the dynamic between them and their audience/followers. Genuine passion and conviction communicates itself to others. It can be a dangerous quality though: Hitler was an astonishingly inspirational and effective leader. Who was it who said “the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity”…..

  • Nick Wright says:

    Hi Jon and thanks for the encouraging feedback. I found your comments on leadership ‘judged by results’ interesting. A friend sometimes talks about leadership as an echo…i.e. the evidence lies on what happens in the group when the leader is no longer there. I also liked your emphasis on motivation, influence and servanthood. With best wishes. Nick

  • Nick Wright says:

    Hi Roland. Thanks for your affirming feedback and sharing your insights from such a diverse cross-cultural environment. Having worked in the INGO sector for the past 15 years, I can certainly identify with the issues you describe around the risk and temptation of imposing leadership models and approaches from outside rather than working with local people to explore what works and is considered valuable and meaningful in that environment. It’s as if external agencies can inadvertently superimpose their own cultural paradigms without awareness of understanding the implications, especially for relationships and sustainability. With thanks again and best wishes. Nick

    Hi Sohaila and thanks for the note. I agree with your comment that, ‘When someone is trying to do “the leadership thing” by a set of rules it always feels a bit forced, laboured and phony’. When I think of people who have truly inspired me, it’s hard to separate out that person…who they are personally and, more specifically, who they are to me…from the skills and capabilities they may display. I agree with your comments about genuine passion and conviction too. The dangers of influence are real, as the recent TV series called ‘The Dark Charisma of Adolf Hitler’ demonstrated, interestingly also drawing on a powerful and mutually-reinforcing dynamic between leader and led. With best wishes. Nick

  • Hi Nick

    Loved the article and it so resonates with my experience of leadership. I have “led” so many meetings where different people have reacted in different ways. I think you are right that it is a dynamic between people and that dynamic is changing all the time.

    Is it possible for one person to lead all of the people all of the time, given the vast diversity of personalities and environments, or do we need to accept that in different situations we can and should lead as the dynamic dictates or “as the spirit leads”? I find this quite exciting and liberating.

    I so loved the analogy of the rose and also Julie’s comment about the 5 yr old’s definition. In our church, we say “If you look behind you, and people are following you, you are a leader. If they are not, you are not.”


  • Amy Barnes says:

    Hi Nick, thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. I agree with you about the importance of context and, building on and integrating what you’ve written into a simple model we use called the ‘Sweet Spot’, leadership resonance and effectiveness is a combination of the person, their relationship with others within a given situation. These three sets of factors are interdependent and relational.

    I was particularly interested in what you wrote about Spirit. I am a Buddhist and a gestaltist and I am in an active inquiry about spirituality in leadership, facilitation etc. My current thinking is that in that place of deep connection, we are guided by an energetic flow. I am not sure whether there is such a thing a ‘leadership’ in these moments because we are so close to what is naturally wanting to emerge that we are simply moving or flowing with. I used to think it is the difference between doing and being. Now I think that when we are one with spirit, we are on being-doing edge.

  • Ramdeo Choudhary says:

    Great article on leadership which has been articulated from various angles and coments received also great. There can not be any established conclusions as every human being is unique, conditioned by family, social and religious culture and therefore the approach will be different in different situation but quality will be uniform and a mixture of both doing and being. Imagine a duck in a particular pond as a leader having all ingredients lying around her at different approachable distances. With the flexibility of her necks movement she will pick up the ingredients from different directions and distances all around her and in doing so keeping her afloat also. This means that flexibility of approach as per situations must be in place which may be called as contextual, but the art of this applicability without getting drowned is something which can only be acquired from inner awakening of consciousness I.e. From within which is a greater perquisite for an effective and composite leadership.

  • Nick Wright says:

    Hi Bridget and thanks for the thought-provoking comments. I like your question about whether it’s possible for one person to lead all the people all the time. In my experience, leadership as a phenomenon ebbs and flows between different people in a group, even as a conversation progresses. Sometimes one person takes a lead, sometimes another person steps into that space. Perhaps that’s a good reason for the leader to act as servant or facilitator, enabling the wider leadership process to emerge within the group naturally. I liked the expression from your church. 🙂 With best wishes. Nick

  • Nick Wright says:

    Hi Amy and thanks for your thoughtful comments.

    I liked your comment about being ‘so close to what is naturally wanting to emerge that we are simply moving of flowing with.’ My sense is that sometimes diads or groups develop their own dynamic which carries those involved forward, sometimes into unexpected, emergent places.

    Even within a group when people are sharing ideas and new synergies emerge, it’s as if the ideas themselves can carry the group forward as much as any one person within the group. I sometimes asked in leadership and group situations, ‘What is this moment or situation calling for?’ in order to tune into and go with the flow.

    I really liked your final comment that, ‘when we are one with spirit, we are on being-doing edge’. It’s a mysterious, uncertain place where all kinds of exciting things can happen.

    Hi Ramdeo and thanks for the note. I really liked your analogy of the duck in a pond. It reminded me of notions of figure and ground in Gestalt psychology and the need to be aware of context in order to navigate it successfully. I was interested in your comment about ‘inner awakening of consciousness’. It reminded me of being tuned into who we are as well as tuned into our environment and, in my frame of reference, tuned into God. With best wishes. Nick

  • Clive Bacon says:

    Thought provoking as usual Nick. What came to my mind is that different conexts and different situations require different leadership. So a team like Blackburn fighting relegation need one kind of leader and Stoke City quite happy in mid table need another. The key for organisations is to match leaders to the context & situation of the organisation or team. Meanwhile the leader needs to adapt their style and method to the context and situation. We come unstuck because organisation’s often recruit leaders in the image of the chairman’s own leadership style or the style of the leader of a successful rival organisation. Previously successful leaders sommetimes fail because they don’t recognise that the new context/situation demands a different leadership approach.

  • Nick Wright says:

    Thanks for your kind feedback, Clive. I think your football team example is a good illustration of how what we regard as effective leadership is contextually influenced. It’s as if in any specific set of circumstances, those regarded as followers will only respond positively to certain qualities in those they regard as leaders. In this sense, followers could be said to empower their leaders to lead, although not necessarily consciously so. As a friend in Asia commented yesterday in conversation, ‘Leadership is a gift from those who follow you. Be a good steward of this gift.’ With best wishes. Nick

  • Hello Nick,

    I like your rose analogy but I do think we have to be careful about stating leaders should not be evaluated, especially by their own staff. If we continue to think through the artists point of view in looking at the rose, the artist (perhaps more especially a visual artist) does have to come in close to really view the rose and what’s happening. They need to closely look at a single petal and how the light is reflecting off it, see the depth of color, its shape and outline. However, its also very important that an artist take a step back and see the rose at different distances in order to make sure each petal is in proportion with one another and that the rose fits into its background. My point is, in my opinion, looking at the individual parts only enhances the character of the whole, assuming of course you are willing to always go back and see the whole rose and its context. By looking at the individual pieces of our leadership, we allow them to grow stronger in their strengths and weaknesses and allow ourselves to grow as well.

    I also think its really rare to find… but the most inspirational leader can read his audience and change his style at the drop of the hat based on his audience. Part of this is based on skill and being able to pick up on individual and group dynamics and cues as well as taking the time before hand to research and really begin creating that relationship before you get there so one is not starting from scratch.

    Thank you Nick.

  • Nick Wright says:

    Hi Chelsey and thanks for such an inspiring challenge. I loved your vivid description of how the visual artist approaches and explores the rose, especially the emphasis on reflected light, proportion and background. I also found your comment interesting and helpful that, ‘looking at the individual parts only enhances the character of the whole, assuming of course you are willing to always go back and see the whole rose and its context.’ I guess the point I was emphasising was the latter aspect…perceiving the whole and the context and not, to shift the metaphor slightly, missing the proverbial wood for the trees. With thanks again and best wishes. Nick

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