Leadership Theories: Relationship Theory 4

Leadership Theories: Relationship Theory

George Barnes 26th October 2021

Spearheading any successful organisation is a great leader who is followed by an inspired team. However, not one leader is the same and every manager differs in their approach to lead. In fact, discussion has not yet ended on what characteristics make the best leaders, or what the most successful leadership style is. There are many different leadership styles that managers can employ and a lot of the time they are based on the specific group they are leading and what industry they are in. In this blog we will be looking into the relationship theory, a popular leadership style, and delving into the impact it has on the employee and wider society.

What is Relationship Theory?

The relationship theory of leadership, on the surface, is largely self-explanatory. These leaders base the focal point of their leadership style surrounding interactions, or relationships with others. They tend to act as mentors for their employees, working with them to meet their needs. Leadership today tends to be discussed from the perspective of the followers; “followers, not the leader, and not researches, define it” and this is an important factor of relationship theory. By creating a positive work environment built upon personal relationships a leader can encourage their employees to want to work for them.

An example of relationship theory would be a manager who takes a new employee under their wing. They would help the employee understand how they fit within an organisation, encourage openness and risk taking. Wise leaders transform the quality of relationships within organisations. They ask what we are able to create together and it is this shared responsibility that makes employees feel valued. The Chinese philosopher Lau Tzu says, “to lead people, walk behind them” and in essence this is what the relationship theory of leadership is trying to achieve, the empowerment of the workforce through positive relationships.

“To lead people, walk behind them”

Lau Tzu

Characteristics of Relationship Theory

Relationship theory is built around the emotional impact of leadership, the connection between employee and leader. A lot of the time the employer is not buying into the success or efficiency of the organisation, or how it operates, but the charisma and compelling attractiveness of the leader. These charismatic relationships are not built on legitimacy or logic but rather the personal power of this heroic figure and the follower submitting to their imperious demands.

Emotion is key when looking into the relationship theory of leadership. It has been proven that some of the most successful charismatic leaders in history use more emotional expressions, words and images than others. For example, Martin Luther King said, “I have a dream,” and not “I have an idea”[1]. Arguably an idea is less emotive than the power of a dream. The relationship theory taps into the emotive notion between the leader and the follower and this larger emotional presence is a key element in a leader’s influence.

The 3 types of Relationships

It is commonly understood that there are three types of emotional relationships that may exist between leaders and followers: regressive, symbolic, and developmental.

  1. Emotional relationships are not always progressive, sometimes they can be regressive. A possible consequence of a traumatic experience is the significant decrease of differences between people, for example in age, education or social attitudes. What this can lead to is the growth of charismatic leaders who are perceived as saviours when usually they are not due to a post-traumatic lack of rationale by the survivor. An example of a regressive emotional relationship would be a case of Stockholm Syndrome.
  2. Symbolic relations grow when a leader is expected to represent and/or emphasise certain messages, ideologies and values. For example, the Allied Powers went to war in 1939 to fight against Nazism and fascism in the name of democracy, and Winston Churchill was the embodiment of British values at the time. Churchill is best remembered for his awe-inspiring speeches and gestures that have become symbolic of Allied victory over Nazi-Germany to this very day.
  3. The regressive or symbolic explanations for leader-follower relations are more characteristic of descriptions of political or social leaders. The leadership style that best reflects the relationship theory between manager and employee, including a charismatic and emotional element, is the type known as developmental leadership. This leadership style is characterised by the emotional influence of leaders to encourage employees to be a better version of themselves than they were before their relations with the leader.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Relationship Theory

The advantages of relationship theory are quite apparent. Employees feel confident in their leader, they admire and seek comfort in them. A lot of the time this inspires employees to be good leaders themselves. Developmental leadership, specifically the mentorship approach, provides significant opportunities to foster personal growth in employees. This sense of being valued promotes less employee turnover and encourages them to stay at the organisation for a longer period. Most of the time when employee satisfaction levels are high, successful output also grows. Finally, there are relations built on a remarkable moral foundation that can be attributed to the influence of the leader, as in the case of Nelson Mandela for example, that still inspires many around the world.

Despite there being many advantages of relationship theory, the disadvantages seem more complex. Sometimes emotionally invested leaders let relationships get in the way of work, favouring people they are fond of over productivity. Regressive relationships with a leader can be severely detrimental not just to oneself but to greater society. The sheer emotional dependence can lead to extreme pathological cases, for example the cult led by Charles Manson in California during the 1960s and 70s. Furthermore, many see leadership relations as a form of falling in love. Although this may seem quite rare, it does happen. Relationships that take this path usually fail to see one another’s faults and mistakes due to a blanket of romanticisation deluding their rationale. Of course, this can lead to misjudgements in crucial leadership decisions.

[1] Leadership as Relationship. Micha Popper. P., 111. Leadership as Relationship – POPPER – 2004 – Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour – Wiley Online Library