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We can all relate

Four steps toward becoming a relational leader

5 min read


We can all relate


As I’ve grown as an educational leader, I’ve come to realize that one element of our work can never be overemphasized. We simply can never allow ourselves to forget that first and foremost we lead for people, and as such, our leadership moves must be made with relationships as the guidepost we follow.

Leading with relationships as the driver, or relational leadership, requires us to adhere to the Rule of the 3 P’s. In a post I wrote for Smartbrief in June 2016 I spoke about this simple rule. The idea is we have to decide first for people, then for the process we are undertaking, and finally for the product. This is important, because so long as we think about implications for people over anything else, then we know that if nothing else, we’ve made our decisions as a relational leader would.

While I’m still a long way from completing the journey towards serving as a relational leader at all times, I’ve come to realize a number of important steps towards moving in the right direction. Below I share four of these steps. I would love to hear feedback on whether you think these are as important as I do!

Welcome Give and Take. A truly difficult lesson for me to learn was that relationships, all of them really, are built on give and take. Every relationship we form occurs because we want things from others and because we can give things to those who need what we have. There is something that at first seems wrong about this view. After all, shouldn’t relationships form without the hope of receiving anything in return? As I’ve learned over time, this isn’t wrong, but rather, realistic. Think about this: In every relationship we’ve formed (often even the ones we’ve been born into), give and take plays a pivotal role in how the relationship develops. This transactional nature of how we bond with others is as natural as it is necessary in order to get to know people and to get good work done. Rather than shy away from the give and take, we must embrace it. The best relational leaders understand that wants and needs power all that people do, and by adhering to them, we become more capable of supporting those we serve.

Listen Closely. Shhhh…did you hear that? How regularly do we stop speaking and silence our thoughts, in order to really pick up on what other people need? Relational leadership is about listening more than speaking; we certainly can’t hope to understand the needs of others if we spend all our time spouting the needs of ourselves. To push towards more active listening, we should take time before we speak; sometimes by forcing ourselves to do so. For instance, when asking a question to others, we should welcome the quiet that ensues, rather than attempting to fill the space with our own words. We can also ask others to write more regularly; jotting down notes and ideas through “I-Time”, or individual reflecting time. It can make us all more comfortable with the silence that follows when we think deeply. There is also another positive to listening regularly. We are much more apt to pick up on new ideas, and truly get to know others, when we allow thoughts from different minds to flow into our own.

Question Before We Answer. In Design Thinking for School Leaders, Alyssa Gallagher and Kami Thordarson share some great food-for-thought: In the fast-paced world of education, many of those occupying leadership roles become excellent problem-solvers at the expense of under-developing their problem-finding abilities. I used to wholeheartedly believe that my measure as a leader in education was tied directly to my ability to always provide the answer. Yet, as I’ve learned, my measure as a leader is more closely tied to how capable I am of generating interesting questions and letting others discover ideas and answers. No answer I give is ever worth as much as an answer others generate for themselves!

Let Others Decide. Leaders often have to make difficult decisions. However, we never have to make them alone. While leadership can be lonely, it doesn’t have to be. When we recognize the strengths that others bring to the decision-making process, the steps we take are likely to be much richer, better developed and more agreeable to others. When we give others voice, we give ourselves more leverage to continue the great work. Decisions made by one are rarely decisions made for all.

My work on the pathway to relational leadership continues. Too often I get lost in the process, or my mind is clouded with the end result. I have realized, though, that when I allow myself the opportunity to keep others as the primary focus in the work that I do, I end up being much happier with the end result (and others do too). And that is something we can all relate to.

Fred Ende (@fredende) is the assistant director of Curriculum and Instructional Services for Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Fred blogs at, Edutopia, ASCD EDge and SmartBrief Education. His book, Professional Development That Sticks is available from ASCD. Visit his


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