Relationship-Based Leadership: Be More Than a Boss

Steve Mazza, PhD
March 2019
ACES

Imagine that today is your pre-camp leadership meeting, and you are sitting for the first time with your team in preparation for the upcoming camp season. Although your recruitment efforts have helped you choose competent staff, directing them won’t be without challenges.

To your left is Kevin, a charismatic division leader well known for his camp spirit and somewhat unwieldy bravado. To your right is Fiona, a timid but skilled counselor who is stepping up as leadership staff for the first time this summer. Across the table sits Jeff, a camp veteran with plenty of experience but a questionable work ethic and a tendency toward complacency. If your leadership team is like most in the camp world, you are surrounded by colorful personalities with distinct talents. How might you best lead them this summer? And, as a result, how will they lead their staff in turn?

The Three Types of Leadership

I have observed three prominent leadership styles play out in various contexts, including camps, classrooms, families, businesses, and most settings involving a power hierarchy.

Power-Based Leadership

Power-based leadership is utilized by supervisors who leverage their authority to motivate staff. In this form of leadership, compliance is engendered by exercising hierarchical power. This can be accomplished by scolding, threatening punishment, or giving commands with little consideration for the employees’ thoughts, feelings, and interests. Asserting power is perhaps the simplest way to lead because it requires merely title and authority; it does not necessitate self-reflection, self-restraint, or personal investment in employees.

Most supervisors fall into power-based leadership now and then. It becomes problematic, however, when doing so develops into a habit. Exasperated leaders may rely on power-based strategies out of desperation, and when used excessively, they increase anxiety and frustration among staff. Furthermore, leaders who regularly take advantage of power differentials tend to breed resentment. Overreliance on this approach can actually motivate staff to oppose their leader. Overall, power-based leadership is an easy habit to fall into when we feel that our hands are tied, but the long-term, pernicious consequences make it wrought with complications.

Incentive-Based Leadership

Incentive-based leadership, on the other hand, is characterized by the provision of benefits in exchange for services from staff. In short, incentive-based leaders motivate performance by offering rewards. This is how most businesses in a capitalistic economy operate. When staff members are primarily driven by money, recognition, or procurement of additional privileges, they are acting under incentive-based leadership. This is perhaps the most common form of leadership, because providing incentives is conventional, pragmatic, mutually beneficial, and effective to a degree. However, if incentives constitute the primary motivation for staff to perform well, the quality of their performance is limited by the value and frequency of the reward.

If you have ever had a job or boss you disliked, but a paycheck that kept you engaged, you have experienced incentive-based leadership operating suboptimally. Incentives certainly help encourage employees to “get the job done,” but they may not be sufficient to motivate staff to go beyond what will be rewarded. This is not to say that incentives — including prizes, shout-outs, and awards — are not helpful or beneficial to a camp community. These can be remarkably effective tools. However, the potency of these rewards is often contingent upon the quality of the relationship between the leader and staff.

Relationship-Based Leadership

Relationship-based leadership, I believe, is the most effective leadership style. Relationship-based leadership is grounded upon a leader’s genuine investment in the personal and professional development of their staff members, regardless of performance outcome. This form of leadership is fundamentally different from the other approaches because it does not leverage power or incentives to achieve a specific end goal desired by the leader. A relationship-based leader harnesses the power of earnest and meaningful connections with staff to motivate growth.

The goal of a camp director or division leader should not be circumscribed to running a smooth camp operation. On a deeper level, a relationship-based leader’s mission is to empower staff members to develop into the people they themselves yearn to become. Stephen R. Covey, a renowned leadership expert and author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, defines leadership as “communicating to people their worth and potential so clearly that they are inspired to see it in themselves” (Covey, 2013). This is an undoubtedly lofty goal, but when made salient, the earnest intention of helping staff members live up to their potential can fortify relationships and catalyze improved performance.

Covey greatly influenced my thinking on this matter. He refers to the fable of the goose and the golden egg, in which the owner of the goose abuses it to accelerate gold production but, in the process, leaves it destitute and sterile. Covey advocates for nurturing the “goose” as a primary goal of leadership, which in turn naturally yields an enduring production of high-quality “eggs” (Covey, 1991). This analogy is easily applicable to camp, where a vested interest in employees’ personal development can lead to lasting changes in their self-efficacy, work ethic, interpersonal effectiveness, and overall performance.

In sum, relationship-based leaders nurture their employees and see them not as they are, but as they can be. They use the relationship as the context through which to communicate potential and inspire self-actualization. I have witnessed several staff members develop reputations as “problem counselors” under one division leader, but then earn recognition as “rising stars” under the aegis of a relationship-based leader. A universal principle of human behavior is that all actions are governed by the context in which they occur (Romanerö & Törneke, 2008). Effective leaders create a relational context that promotes growth and self-discovery instead of impeding it.

Develop ACES by Building Strong Relationships

Now take a moment and think back to Kevin, Fiona, Jeff, and the other members of your leadership team. You have a staff to lead this summer, and not every counselor starts out as an ace. Although it’s important to be strategic, remember that relationship-based leaders see their employees in terms of their potential for growth. In other words, cultivating aces is part of the gig. This is why I use the acronym ACES to explain how to build relationships that inspire your employees to flourish both as people and professionals. You will accomplish this by engaging in advocacy, cultivation, empowerment, and service (ACES) with your employees.

Advocacy

Advocating for staff involves supporting them, protecting them, and championing their ideas, goals, and needs. Advocacy is the bedrock of a strong relationship. In psychological terms, the advocate provides a “secure base” (Bowlby, 1988) from which an employee can take risks, explore their talents, express vulnerability, and entreat feedback and guidance.

Invest genuinely

To be an effective advocate, you must invest genuinely in your staff. When staff feel that their supervisor is earnestly invested in their growth, this leads to the experience of safety, support, and trust. As a litmus test for genuine investment, ask yourself what matters more to you: the goose or the egg? If you answered “goose,” you’re on the right track. Examples of genuine investment include taking your staff out to dinner, learning their interests and passions, and helping them achieve their goals (more on this later). In short, genuine investment is about everything that is not in the job description.

Create a culture

A meaningful culture is central to advocacy because it promotes a sense of responsibility toward one another. Do not confuse culture creation with the practice of team building, which often involves group bonding activities experienced in isolation. Instead, culture creation requires the practice of daily habits that ignite advocacy through cohesiveness and camaraderie. Brainstorm and implement morning cheers, team mantras, zany traditions, or inside jokes, and let them unfold organically when possible.

Make good on your word

Advocates use their connection with their employees for the purpose of fostering employee growth, not to actuate their own agendas. If a leader is using smooth interpersonal tactics and “talking the talk” merely as a method of persuasion and influence, people will see through it. When leaders turn their back on their word, advocacy implodes, and the team cohesion collapses. Be prepared to follow through on promises, to defend your employees, and to show them with your actions that you “have their backs.”

In short: Mean what you say, say what you mean, and always make good on your word.

Cultivation

Cultivating your staff’s development involves taking actions that promote, facilitate, and reinforce employee growth. An effective cultivator interacts skillfully to motivate and reward behavior change in staff.

Seek first to understand

Always “seek first to understand, then to be understood” (Covey, 1989). Covey’s fifth “habit of highly effective people” describes an important communication strategy called “validation.” To validate someone, first you must listen carefully with an open mind. Then show that you understand their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Express that you hear them and that you get it. By demonstrating your understanding, you open the gateway to cultivation. Keep in mind that validation is entirely different than approval; you can validate someone’s experience even if you disagree with their actions. This is important because only after feeling heard and understood will an employee be fully open to receiving your feedback.

Facilitate goals

Ask staff to create personal or professional goals for the summer. This sets the expectation for growth and shows that you are invested in nurturing their talent. Aligning with an employee and working together toward goal achievement will solidify the relationship while benefiting the individual and the camp. Examples of goals set by my staff include building assertiveness, developing leadership skills, and making more money. Note that it’s important to get behind their goals, not just your goals for them.

Praise effectively

Know how to tailor your praise and apply it strategically. Acknowledge every effective employee behavior that you can, and do so publicly with a shout-out when appropriate. Utilizing “labeled praises” increases the likelihood of a specific behavior occurring again. For example, saying “I love the hustle you just showed” is more effective praise than simply saying “good job.” Making eye contact and speaking with conviction helps drive these points home. Also, encourage your employees to “give snaps,” shout-outs, or labeled praises to each other during team meetings.

Empowerment

Empowerment provides employees with the inspiration and self-confidence necessary to fuel growth. It gives employees the opportunity to impress themselves, which some contend is the keystone of confidence building. Empowerment requires an optimistic outlook on others, the courage to have candid conversations, and a stomach for delegation.

Expect the best

See your employees as the people they can be, not as they are or as they currently view themselves. Buying into employees’ self-perceptions will lead you to behave in ways that perpetuate their status quo. By expecting the best of employees, you motivate them to rise to the occasion. In fact, high expectations from supervisors have been positively correlated with employees’ creative involvement at work (Cameli & Schaubroeck, 2007). Your faith in their potential is more powerful than you might realize.

Give candid feedback

Bob Ditter, a camp expert and longtime mentor of mine, asserted the importance of having “critical conversations” with staff members (Ditter, 2018). These conversations clarify how employees have failed to meet expectations or how they can play their strengths more effectively. By acknowledging these concerns in a supportive but straightforward manner, you provide employees with an opportunity for self-reflection and self-improvement. Candid conversations are sometimes difficult and uncomfortable, but they are essential for change.

Entrust the team

L. David Marquet, captain of the USS Santa Fe, wrote that “those who take orders usually run at half speed, underutilizing their imagination and initiative” (Marquet, 2012). Marquet would recommend that you imbue your staff with motivation by making them responsible for creating solutions. The act of delegating these responsibilities demonstrates your faith in your employees’ capabilities. Entrust your team to collaborate in solving problems, and then make them accountable for executing the solutions. This will promote creativity and initiative while building leadership among staff.

Service

Service to employees authenticates the intentions of a relationship-based leader; it is the act of “nurturing the goose.” Service includes teaching by demonstration, working in the trenches, and requesting feedback.

Model the method

Psychologists have known for decades that individuals learn from observing the behaviors of others, especially people of prominence (Bandura, 1978). Thus, if you want to increase your staff’s enthusiasm and spirit, unleash your own passion every day. If keeping your camp clean is important to you, model picking up trash wherever you walk. Supervisors tend to talk a lot, but talk is cheap. My advice for leaders is to talk less and model more. Exemplify the qualities and behaviors that you want to see in your employees.

Get your hands dirty

One of my leadership maxims is to work harder than your hardest-working employee, and make it visible. During my days as a division leader, I regularly dashed from group to group, both to model the hustle I expected from counselors and because I genuinely wanted to arrive sooner to be more helpful. A second maxim is to never ask your staff to do something you’re not willing to do yourself. On the coldest days of camp, I made sure to jump in the pool first to demonstrate this willingness for my counselors. Similarly, when my younger campers had messy bathroom accidents, you bet that I “got my hands dirty” to assist my staff with the cleanup!

Ask how to help

Lastly, it is oft forgotten but critical to ask for feedback about your leadership. Routinely inquire about grievances your team may have, how you can be more helpful to your staff, and how you can improve their experience at camp. Requesting feedback from employees is an opportunity for them to teach you; this requires humility and vulnerability on your part. On a related note, if you get wind of staff members frequently grumbling or complaining to each other this is a sign that employees have not recently been provided an open, safe forum for their opinions to be expressed and addressed.

With this information in hand, think back once more to Jeff, Fiona, Kevin, and the rest of your leadership team. How might you advocate for them, cultivate their talents, empower them, and serve them this summer? Reflect on it for a moment. By investing in your employees genuinely you will facilitate stronger relationships, improved staff performance, and a better camp experience for everyone involved. This summer, practice relationship-based leadership to develop ACES within your team. Be more than a boss, and your staff will see camp as much more than a job.

References

Bandura, A. (1978). Social learning theory of aggression. Journal of Communication, 28(3), 12–29.

Bowlby, J. (1988). A secure base: Parent-child attachment and healthy human development. New York, NY: Basic Books

Carmeli, A., & Schaubroeck, J. (2007). The influence of leaders’ and other referents’ normative expectations on individual involvement in creative work. The Leadership Quarterly, 18(1), 35–48.

Covey, S. R. (1991). The 7 habits of highly effective people. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Covey, S. R. (2013). The 8th habit: From effectiveness to greatness. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

Ditter, B. (2018, March). Courageous honesty: Critical camp conversations. Camping Magazine. Retrieved from ACAcamps.org/resource-library/camping-magazine/courageous-honesty-critical-camp-conversations

Marquet, L. D. (2012). Turn the ship around: How to create leadership at every level. Austin, TX: Greenleaf Book Group.

Romanerö, J., & Törneke, N. (2008). ABCs of human behavior: Behavioral principles for the practicing clinician. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

Steve Mazza, PhD, is a camp consultant, staff trainer, and postdoctoral fellow in clinical psychology at Columbia University Medical Center.