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Relation-Based Leadership for the 21st Century

Today's world can be volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous with globalization and technology dramatically evolving, impacting every industry. How do leaders manage their organizations and teams to create a safe and productive space that thrives?

From a strategic leadership standpoint, today’s world can often be characterized as volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (aka, VUCA). In a rapid space of time, globalization and technology are also dramatically altering the vast majority of industries we rely on. Organizations vying to compete in this precarious and ever-changing environment would be remiss to assume they can rely on 20th century leadership models for organizational design, human resource, and professional development processes. Instead, heads of organizations could greatly benefit from shaping and developing their culture to include leadership initiatives aimed at ensuring that stable, secure, collaborative and, most importantly, authentic relationships exist between managers and team members.

Challenging the paradigm that leaders must project high levels of steely confidence, strength and toughness at all costs, research and experience actually show that when humans, and leaders alike, are authentic and transparent in their communications about how they genuinely feel, and remain consistently available to those around them, that virtually unbreakable bonds of trust can develop through the vulnerability and openness shared. As a result, human attachment theory is now being seriously considered for its application to the workplace, since our most basic of needs has always been for safe and reliable connection to another.

Emotional responsiveness, availability and engagement are already known to be critical to the quality of the personal relationships that exist in our lives. In psychological terms, a regular lapse in any of these will eventually result in what is deemed an insecure attachment that, by default, will ultimately create unproductive human coping responses aimed at “solving” the insecurity and lack of safety one feels. The hardwired panic which ensues is then actually quite predictable, since all mammals recognize that their survival and safety rely on their belonging and importance to a group and its hierarchy. When the human brain detects a lack of responsiveness, by another (which, by default, includes a detached peer or an aloof, distracted, or inaccessible organizational leader), and when this pattern is maintained over an extended period of time, emotional dysregulation will, without fail, follow. At this stage, fear and anxiety will quickly set in for any employee or team member who, while already contending with VUCA, simultaneously feels isolated or disconnected from a group or its leader. As a means of coping with a lack of connection during perceived threat, unhelpful human behavioral response patterns will mobilize. In the workplace, these fight, flight or freeze reactions will often manifest as apathy, aggression, withdrawal, or, at their worst, sabotage of an organization’s mission. Additionally unhelpful to the workplace are the numerous emotional responses that can ensue. High levels of frustration, irritation, distrust and downright despair felt by team members can ripple across an organization and spread, not unlike a fast-replicating disease. Unfortunately, for many organizations these overt and covert emotional responses will often go undetected, and thus, remain an invisible enemy working against its identified goals at the very time increasing levels of engagement, energy and creativity are required to remain competitive and relevant.

Leadership in the 21st century will greatly benefit from drawing upon our growing understanding of attachment theory, considering it is humans with emotions that are our greatest organizational asset. Progressive leaders will understand the need for the creation of warm, authentic and reliable bonds within and between management and staff that include a “felt” sense of support, accessibility, engagement and responsiveness. Those who succeed will remain keenly aware that while processes are important, it is emotion that drives behavior in organizations, both positive and negative. Any aloof avoidance or disengagement detected among the ranks, the kind that can easily develop from the unrelenting pressure and workloads managers and employees commonly face, is immediately addressed by the 21st century leader. In its place, he or she instead regularly models bonding conversations and interactions that include both emotional and physical availability, with the goal of creating trusting and secure attachments within the settings they oversee. Similar to securely attached members of a marriage or couple, challenges are then more effectively managed and the agility and flexibility required to adapt to changing circumstances is achieved. Whether relationships are personal or professional in nature, all humans must remain confident that, in the face of distress, they are solidly bonded to those they rely upon.

The ever changing and often threatening VUCA backdrop should not be underestimated, given its ability to create a sort of “collective group anxiety” that can propel an organization’s members into unhealthy and perpetual states of fight, flight or freeze survival patterns. Studies indicate that the most successful teams are those who are emotionally connected, and this makes perfect sense when the concept of “safety in numbers” is considered, which is essentially the need for humans to know that, without hesitation, they are never, ever, alone while in distress. Those at the top of organizations who demonstrate secure, authentic leadership that includes human vulnerability aimed at connection are essentially creating safe havens where colleagues and teams can thrive. The higher levels of mutual trust and respect that follow, directly lead to reductions in turnover, enhanced organizational commitment and improved employee attitudes which benefit organizations and employees alike.


Evelyn Booth, M.A., earned her degree in clinical psychology from Pepperdine University and is a licensed Marriage & Family Therapist with specialization in the area of attachment theory and its impact on relationships.

Jonathan Silk, M.B.A, M.A is a Ph.D. student in the Global Leadership and Change program. His research interests are Leader and Team attachment styles and Team Psychological Safety. He is an Army Veteran, with combat deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, and served as a faculty member at the United States Military Academy member at West Point, NY.