Kansas State University


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Social distancing during COVID-19 does not mean we abandon the activity of relational leadership

In this special blog series, Staley School of Leadership Studies faculty members Brandon W. Kliewer and Trish Gott will consider how our academic framework, research agenda, and the associated leadership studies literature can contribute understanding and support the exercise of leadership during the COVID-19 outbreak.

If you’ve been in our classrooms, engaged in our programs, read our blog or our Tweets, you know the Staley School curriculum, research, programming and ethos includes the assumption that leadership is an activity done in relationship with others. We didn’t invent this – in fact, there is an extensive body of research literature that considers how leadership emerges through people’s communication patterns and interactions in various real-world contexts. (See the footnote for additional resources.)

This approach to leadership can carry with it a major and often unexamined assumption: that relational leadership activity requires a material and physical closeness. Social distancing is already — and we would assert appropriately — understood as physical distancing and is a required and appropriate response to COVID-19. Prevention and reduction of groups from forming in person is required so that each of us can help to flatten the curve of this pandemic. The contemporary moment feels like an unprecedented time, and it is not clear how this outbreak will be resolved. But, times of crisis and uncertainty require leadership activity. The moment deserves reflection on how COVID-19 and social distancing practices impact the ways in which leadership will be exercised.

Below you will find a series of leadership insights and questions that are informed by the larger leadership studies literature. These insights are organized by how they pertain to exercising relational leadership in a time of social distance at the level of self, community, and system. And, we hope that you’ll do more than just consider these questions. Advance these as points of discussion in your family, community, organization, and as you consider how to adjust your practices to lead in this uncertain time.

Relational Leadership Model

Exercising leadership in self during social distancing

Taking account of self might include thinking about your thinking. In times of stress and uncertainty, it is easy to let your understanding of self slip into unhealthy leadership patterns. The practice of examining, understanding, and becoming aware not just of self, but your own identity surfaces in your practices, beliefs and values is part of the process of leadership. When our fight or flight response is activated, slowing down to account for self becomes more challenging and remains necessary for intentional leadership. Leadership activity, from a relational and socially emergent perspective, requires an awareness of how your understanding of self is situated in relation to others and larger leadership challenges. Making sense of how self is situated within larger networks and systems shifts leadership activity from the individual actions of one person to the complex relationships and interactions of organizations and systems.

Questions to consider:

  • How are you taking account of “self”? How are you managing yourself?
  • How are you checking in with how you make sense of your leadership challenge?
  • What thoughts, ideas, routines, practices, or habits might you have to let go of in order to manage self in times of COVID-19 uncertainty? For instance, if face-to-face meetings are your “go to” for navigating difficult negotiations, what practices will you let go of and how will you change them in this time of social distancing. Or, if the movement you lead requires groups to gather, what can you do virtually to sustain presence and advance the movement?

Exercising leadership in community during social distancing

In a relational orientation to leadership, we recognize that the possibility of social action is held by and advanced through groups of people. Leadership challenges from this frame require us to think about how interpersonal, process and structural conditions of community can be reframed in ways that mobilize an ever-expanding sphere of community to engage in leadership work. For instance, we have already seen incredible acts of leadership through social media, online classrooms, and by leveraging technology.

We have also seen moves made to go low tech this semester – another admirable approach to navigating change and leading by returning to what we know works, and is required, to support people in times of change.

Questions to consider:

  • How has social distancing changed how my community functions?
  • What connection(s) within my community might require more intentionality during social distancing? What new connections may I need to make now and what resources can be leveraged through my community?
  • What technologies are required to communicate and coordinate community action? Who might not have access to the necessary technologies to remain engaged in community leadership work?

Exercising leadership in systems during social distancing

Leadership, understood as a relational activity, allows us to situate social action within Complex Adaptive Systems. From this lens, leadership work moves from the traits, actions, and behaviors of one person that holds formal position and leadership authority. Instead, we begin to understand leadership by accounting for our complex systems, our  communication processes, and through our relationships with people. Systems without intention tend towards atrophy. Said differently, there is no such thing as a broken system; Systems produce the outcomes as designed. Therefore, if leadership is required to change the outcomes of systems, then our activity has to respond to complex scenarios. We must see our leadership challenges in the context of our complex systems.

Questions to consider:

  • How is our system being stress-tested by the COVID-19 pandemic? Consider not just our micro-systems — your household, faith-organization, office, or community — but also what you see on a macro-level in healthcare, economics, business, and so on.
  • What are the outcomes of the current system during times of crisis and what do the outcomes of the current system tell us about what we assign priority and importance?
  • What can we learn about our commitment and capacity to advance equity and inclusion by examining this system? How is the system(s) distributing goods, resources and opportunities during crisis?
  • Where in the system(s) is leadership activity required?



Below you will find a short list of resources for further exploration:

  • Alvesson M and Spicer A (2012) Critical leadership studies: The case for critical performativity.
    Human Relations 65(3):367-390.
  • Carroll B, Levy L, and Richmond D (2008) Leadership as practice: Challenging the competency paradigm. Leadership 4(4): 363-379.
  • Cunliffe AL and Eriksen M (2011) Relational Leadership. Human Relations 64(11): 1425-1449.
  • Denis JL, Langley A and Sergi V (2012) Leadership in the plural. The Academic of Management
    Annals 6(1): 211-283.
  • Uhl-Bien M and Ospina SM (eds) (2012) Advancing relational leadership theory: A dialogue among perspectives. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.
  • Raelin J A (2007) Toward an epistemology of practice, Academy of Management and Learning
    Education 6(4): 495-519.
  • Tourish, D (2014) Leadership, more or less? A processual, communication perspective on the role of agency in leadership theory. Leadership 10(1): 79-98.

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