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A relational view of leadership

Esko Kilpi
Aug 18, 2018 · 3 min read

Our attention is a result of the filters we use and our actions are results of our sense making. The filters can be a mix of habits, access to media and the usage of intelligent tools. Increasingly, and most importantly, these filters are social. They are the people in our network who we recognize. Our most valuable guides to useful bits of insight are trusted people, people whose activities we can follow to help us advance and make sense.

There can hardly be a follower without a leader. A lot of management research has focused on the leadership attributes of an individual and the hierarchical organization. Leading and following in the traditional sense have seen the leader making people follow him or her through motivation and rewards. The leader also decided who the followers should be.

Leading and following when seen as a two-sided and more symmetric relationship, not as attributes of individuals, follow a very different dynamic. Leading in this new meaning is not a generic capability or position, but highly contextual.

Leading, then, is not position-based, but recognition-based.

People, the followers, decide whom to follow, why and when. The leader is someone people trust to be at the forefront in the area, the context, which is temporally meaningful for them. People recognize as the leader someone who inspires, energizes, and enables them. Another difference from traditional management is that because of the diversity of contexts people necessarily link to, there can never be just one leader. Thus, an individual always has many people she follows as a default state. You might even claim that from the point of view taken here, it is highly problematic if a person only has one leader. It would mean attention blindness as a default state and a single point of failure in the system one is part of.

We are now at the very beginning of understanding leadership in the new contextual, relational framework. The interactive processes of leading and following should be seen as temporal and responsive, not only on Twitter, which, actually, is more about new leadership than information logistics, but also inside organizations.

These relational patterns can be restricting or enabling. Knowing in the brain is a set of neural connections that correspond to our patterns of communication. The challenge is to see all the filters and linkages as communication patterns that are either keeping us stuck or opening up new possibilities.

Following is at best a process of creative learning through observing and replicating desired practices. Leading is doing one’s work in a transparent, reflective way. Every human relationship serves as a model for what is possible. As we observe others we incorporate their actions into our own repertoire. Learning is the fundamental process of socialization.

As we engage in relationships we are creating new potentials for action and sense making.


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