Relational Leadership: A Biblical Model for Influence and Service – Book Review

Relational Leadership: A Biblical Model for Influence and Service
Author: Walter Wright
Publisher: Authentic Media
ISBN-13: 978-1606570258

Review by Edward Pilling

“Leaders hold something very fragile in their hands – the hopes and dreams and ideas and contributions of their people.  These must be held gently with respect, not crushed in the fist of power.” (p59)  This quote (Griffin 1993 p53) reflects the aspiration of the author’s own leadership over several decades and sets the prevailing tone for the book which chronicles his leadership journey.

Wright begins by establishing a biblical basis for servant leadership and highlights five twinned leadership themes: influence and service, vision and hope, character and trust, relationships and power, dependency and accountability.   The book is widely sourced using a number of authors from varying traditions and includes changes in current organisational culture.

Specific attention is given to a ‘contingency’ leadership model developed by Hersey and Blanchard that describes leadership as a “relational continuum with four distinct styles of leadership behaviour tied directly to the specific follower” (p36) that encourages the leader to adapt to the maturity of the followers.  This model is modified to be consistent with a biblical understanding of leadership and applied to ministry in the local church.  The original ‘task behaviour’ model becomes an ‘empowering curve’ that identifies the relationship between the leader and follower in a local church context.  Leadership teams rather than individual leaders can make a positive contribution in ensuring a diversity of skills are released to followers who are at varying stages of maturity.  The willingness to modify current leadership theory is to be commended although it is unclear how the original model conflicts with biblical principle.  The modification seems to be contextually rather than biblically focussed.

Wright concludes with practical applications for organisational leadership. These include recruitment and training of volunteers, performance review, values statement, handling of conflict and a planning model, which are developed using the criteria of relational leadership.  The applications are so specific to the author’s experience that whilst it makes interesting reading, the challenge of the book for the reader is to separate the principles from the applications and then to re-apply them in their own context.

The author addresses a primary issue for any leader needing to correlate the purposes of an organisation (mission, goals and objectives) and the values of an organisation (culture and beliefs).  He is right to conclude that both should impact the strategy and operational plans and it is the role of the leader to harmonise the two.  Personal and corporate values are significant in contemporary leadership literature and are sometimes referred to as ‘ethics’.  Northouse writes of ethical theories that “stress the consequences of leader’s actions and those that emphasise the rules governing their actions” (2007 p132).  Morgan points out that there may be “different and competing value systems that create a mosaic of organisational realities rather than a uniform corporate culture” (2006 p 132).  Decisions are allowed to be based on expediency with values that are relative rather than absolute, but for Wright the values of a leader are shaped in their relationship to God and are crucial to effective relational leadership.  The contrast of relativism in secular thinking and the non-negotiables of a biblical mandate are seen clearly in ethical dialogue.

Forgiveness, received and offered, is an essential characteristic of leadership (p199).  Over the six pages devoted to this topic five illustrations are developed but no practical application is given to clarifying the nature and practice of forgiveness.   It encourages a high empathy but little help for the leader struggling to forgive or be forgiven.

Walter Wright was President of Regents College, Vancouver, when he wrote ‘Relational Leadership’.  He is currently Executive Director of the De Pree Leadership Centre.  Two observations are of note, the first is self confessed, that the majority of illustrations are personal examples taken from his presidency of the college and are narrow in their application.  Secondly, Max De Pree was his mentor throughout his tenure at Regents College and there are an excessive number of quotes from De Pree’s writings.

The author communicates one of his own principles of leadership by his refreshingly transparent honesty.  He shares from his mistakes and successes.  The book left this reader concerned at the narrowness of illustration and application, but with an increased sense of conviction that relational/servant leadership is biblical and looks to the welfare and development of people as significantly important as well as to the aspirations of the organisation.

Griffin, E. (1993) The Reflective Executive, New York: Crossroads
Hersey, P. and Blanchard, K.H. (1998) Management of Organisational Behaviour, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall
Morgan, G. (2006) Images of Organisation, California: Sage Publications, Inc
Northouse, P. G. (2007) Leadership: Theory and Practice, Fourth Edition, London: SagePublications, Inc.
Wright, W.C. (2000) Relational Leadership: A Biblical Model for Influence and Service, Carlisle: Paternoster Press

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