Why Leading with Relational Authority Is More Effective Than Positional Authority

When Brian built his first company, he realized that he wasn't thriving as a leader. He needed a change. So he shifted from positional to relational authority, and the results were exceptional.

When you own the company, you tend to lead from positional authority — at least by default. I found myself in this role at the first company I built.

I was deeply involved in operations, giving directives and focusing narrowly on results.

But it wasn’t working for me or the company.

At one point, when we had around 100 employees, I walked into the office and looked at everything on my calendar with a deflated feeling. They were all important meetings. A meeting with HR about a new compensation structure and a meeting with our controller on budgets. But I didn’t want to do any of them!

I loved building that business, and I started to reflect on why it required so many things I didn’t enjoy.

I wanted to focus on building relationships, on mentorship, on collaboration. In the years since, I’ve realized that this is when I started moving toward a relational authority style of leadership.

This shift opened up space for my team and my company to grow.

We divided the company into six areas and appointed managers to lead each autonomously but with support from the company at large. I went from handling the day-to-day management tasks that I didn’t enjoy to working shoulder-to-shoulder with our leaders to help them grow.

In a few short years, we scaled up our revenue and grew to over 300 employees.

Positional Authority Vs. Relational Authority

We all have our individual leadership styles, and they generally fit one of two buckets: positional authority or relational authority. Let’s break down some of the key traits of each:

Positional AuthorityRelational Authority
Provides direction and directivesBuilds relationships and teams
Implementing policies, assigning tasksMentoring, empowering, and building teams
Requires structure roles and ranksRequires emotional intelligence
Focused on results through directivesFocused on results through collaboration

Any leadership style should be committed to delivering results. The difference is whether you do it through telling people what to do the majority of the time or whether you seek input and insight from others to accomplish goals. 

In my experience, leading with relational authority is much more effective in growing and scaling a team and an entire organization.

Why Relational Authority Is a Gamechanger

When you abuse positional authority, you lose credibility with your people. It becomes more about your role and your rank than about your ability to influence. You establish yourself as an order-giver focused on the results rather than developing those around you.

Leading with positional authority also creates bottlenecks in your business because it limits the number of people who can make decisions of substance.

When you shift to leading with relational authority and focus on developing and empowering others on your team, you’ll notice that it changes the culture of your organization. Your people begin to provide input. They’ll work hard, going above and beyond to deliver results because they feel they’re part of a collaborative team.

Leading with relational authority means your title becomes irrelevant. You become influential. You’re seen as a leader because people want to follow you. You help your people develop into leaders and empower them to make game-changing business decisions. And your organization scales.

Have you leaned into relational authority in your own leadership journey?

I’d love to hear about your experience. Let me know over on LinkedIn.

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