Relational leadership: why relationships are the secret to success


There is something in the human nature that loves to collect things writes Matt Bird. I have friends who collect stamps, cars and charity boards. I must confess, I’m no different. I have a large collection of hardback biographies and autobiographies. The books look fantastic, as their spines line the shelves of bookcases in my sitting room like a who’s who of modern history.

My interest in the collection is more than simply aesthetic pleasure; I’m intrigued by the leaders secrets of success. I’ve read, reread and studied the lives of successful leaders, in the hope of finding the keys to my own success and those I help. The biographies present the stories of ‘self made’ men and women, who regardless of their inherited privilege, present themselves as the secret of their own significance and success.

I’m not denying the truth that significance and success are as a result of exceptional self-leadership, however there is also another secret to their success. I use the word ‘secret’ intentionally because I’ve not read a biography yet that is explicit about this key to success. The secret to leadership success is relationships.

As I look back through my life to date and all the amazing things that have happened to me, I can name a person that has made each thing possible. My first job, my first business, my first keynote speech, my first book, my first blue chip client, my first million pounds raised for charity; each milestone was achieved through a relationship with someone who made it possible. This is true for every leader for whom a biography has been written.

Relational leadership recognises that the secret to significance and success is the quality of the relationships you build. The quality of your relationships not only within your organisation, colleagues, customers/clients and suppliers, but also your relationships in the wider world which provide you with access to new ideas, resources and opportunities.

Relational leaders therefore invest time, energy and resources in building quality relationships, because they recognise that there is nothing more likely to increase their significance and success. As a relational leader I have developed a threefold strategy for being intentional about relationship building.

The first feature of relational leaders is that they collect relationships. They leverage referrals, which is one of the most powerful ways of collecting new relationships, and they make targeted and specific introductions at a time and point of need. They are often good in crowded room events building meaningful relationships one by one, unlike the ‘networkers’ who love meeting everyone, the ‘survivors’ who have learnt to manage in these settings, and those who would simply rather be at home. They can be strong at collecting relationships through social media, where you can focus engagement on particular sorts of people, and at some point take the connection offline. Finally, relational leaders trust in serendipity, as they go about life they just see who happens to cross their path. If you are open to surprises it’s amazing whom you can bump into.

The second feature of relational leaders is that they keep relationships. Once they have connected with someone, they follow through, because unless they plan to follow through, they plan to fail and may as well have stayed home and saved themselves all the trouble. For example, they recognise that if you give out 100 business cards, the vast majority of people will not follow through by contacting you afterwards. Less than 5% of people are initiators and will take the trouble to contact you.

Once relational leaders have connected with someone they build rapport, they find some things that they can talk about together and keep track of each other. They don’t have to be world-changing subjects, but they are meaningful.

The third feature of relational leaders is that they grow relationships. With a minority of people, you become what are described as ‘fast friends,’ which is an experience when you build rapport and trust with someone very quickly (or certainly more quickly than you normally do). In the majority of relationships it takes an investment of time, energy and resources to build interpersonal rapport and trust. Relational leaders know that trust is based on professional competency and consistency, as well as upon personal chemistry and care about the other person, and not just what they can do for you. Once trust starts to grow, relational leaders recognise things happen, it is commonly accepted that 2/3 of jobs, contracts and board positions are never advertised because they are given to people already known, liked and most importantly, trusted by the employer, client or chair of the board.

If you desire to create positive change, to achieve significance and success, the most important thing you can do is to be a relational leader who collects, keeps and grows relationships. As former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt said, “The most important single ingredient in the formula of success is knowing how to get along with people.” Where could you apply the collect keep grow approach in order to achieve positive change and business growth?

About Matt Bird

Matt Bird is the creator of Relationology, which is a unique approach to achieving business growth through the power of client relationships. He is a speaker, author and entrepreneur.