Relational Leadership Theory (RLT)

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Relational Leadership Theory: this article describes the Relational Leadership Theory (RLT) in a practical way. After reading you will understand the definition and basics of this powerful leadership theory.

What is the Relational Leadership Theory (RLT)?

In 2015, Megan Reitz, a professor specialising in leadership, wrote the book ‘Dialogue in Organizations‘, in which she describes the Relational Leadership Theory (RLT) that further explains the social processes of leadership within organisations.

She investigates how relationships at work affect people and how this helps and hinders people in their ambitions in becoming the people they want to be. It is a philosophical concept in which she focuses on Martin Buber’s I-Thou theory.

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This theory will be briefly explained later in this article. Reitz wonders how different contact with people is established within the workplace, and how an empathic connection is created between manager and employee.

She is always looking for dialogue between people and indicates that people-to-people contact is unavoidable. In her book, Reitz writes that she is convinced that mutual relationships between employees and managers can ultimately lead to an increase in the performance of each individual.

Central Question

In her book, Reitz focuses on the following question: ‘To what extent does Martin Bubers’ I-Thou dialogue correspond in theory and practice with that of relational leadership?

By applying new research methods like cooperative research in which Reitz—in collaboration with others—came to conclusions, has drawn up a concept that describes the ‘space in between’ where leadership comes about. In her research, she has made use of non-hierarchical but similar groups (peer-setting).

She indicates that Relational Leadership Theory focuses on leadership processes and relational leadership practices.

Nevertheless, it is also about the quality of management, which affects the relationship with employees. Conversely, the relationship between employee and manager also influences the quality of leadership.

I and Thou

It was the German theologian Martin Buber who, in his book ‘Ich und Du‘, described a new way of looking at communication between individuals. ‘Ich und Du‘ eventually became internationally known as ‘I and Thou‘, where ‘Thou’ is the old-fashioned word for ‘You’.
Buber indicated that within his concept, communication is not based on individuals alone, but on relational attitudes between two beings.

He talks about two ways of communicating which he categorises into two primary pairs of words: ‘I-Thou’ and ‘I-It’. He believes that these two basic pairs of words are essential for understanding how one person reacts or communicates with the other.

There is constant switching between people and one is able to reposition oneself in relation to others. People do not exist in a vacuum; people take on a form based on their relationship with elements outside himself and/or other persons. The other one is seen as the complete ‘Thou’ or the more objective ‘It’.

In Buber’s theory, ‘Thou’ refers to the presence of uniqueness and wholeness in a person, as a result of real listening and responding. The I-Thou relationship is two-sided when both individuals enter into a conversation and are open with their unique selves.

This relationship is reciprocal, but also short-lived and always takes place in the present. I-Thou relationships arise both consciously and unconsciously.

They are conscious at moments of real dialogue and unconscious when people pass each other on the street and there is almost imperceptible eye contact. An I-Thou relationship makes someone completely human. In such relationships, there is a close bond that stems from a natural association.

‘I-It’ considers others as objects, with which one interacts to gain knowledge or experience. The relationship is one-sided and there is control, with the focus on the conceptualisation, manipulation, and inflection of things.

Where an I-Thou relationship takes place in the present, I-It focuses on a world of experiences that lies in the past where one can imagine a situation and feel something.

The I-It relationship addresses the needs of the other and includes a world of first-hand knowledge.

Relational Leadership Theory: two perspectives

Relational Leadership is a relatively new term in leadership literature and can be interpreted in different ways. One can look at the entity perspective on the one hand and at the relational perspective of the Relational Leadership Theory on the other:

  1. The entity perspective focuses on identifying the attributes that managers need for entering into interpersonal relationships with their employees.
  2. The relational perspective sees leadership as a process of social construction, through which certain conceptions of leadership are established among both the manager and the employees.

Although the two approaches differ, they can also complement each other. By examining both perspectives, one can create an overarching framework for the Relational Leadership Theory.

Leadership is a process of social influence, which is achieved through, among other things, social and hierarchical order and changing values, norms, attitudes, and behaviours.

It is interesting to investigate how leadership relationships are established within RLT, which context plays a role in this, and which relational dynamics one has to deal with. Both the present (I-Thou) and the past (I-It) play an important role in this.

According to Reitz, this is how the Relational Leadership Theory explores the relational dynamics of leadership.


Dialogue leads to better leadership in politics, society, and business, where there is room to discuss differences and contradictions well and clearly with each other. In organisations, executives often have deep-rooted assumptions.

Through the dialogues being conducted, it is possible to discuss cultural norms that have become entrenched and to gain a better understanding of each other.

According to Reitz, this is what Relational Leadership Theory is all about: stimulating effective dialogue in organisations in order to bring people together. This benefits management quality and gives everyone the opportunity to be actively involved in processes.

Mutual relationships form the communication, so that coordination takes place in a positive or negative sense. The stronger the ties between employees and their managers, the better the results and performance they will deliver.

These include results in the form of quality, efficiency, customer involvement, resilience, loyalty, and openness to innovation. According to Reitz, dialogue leads to productive discussions between one another.

Conclusion Relational Leadership Theory

Interpersonal communication is sometimes very complex. In order to stimulate interpersonal encounters, Reitz encourages people to have a real dialogue with one another. This benefits relational leadership. It is also important to consider the reason why people meet in the workplace and need each other.

On the one hand, this has to do with an organisational aspect; the task of a manager is to train, motivate, and control an employee. In addition, an employee will have the task of following up on the instructions of a manager. On the other hand, people also visit each other because of the interpersonal contact.

That explains why colleagues want to work together, have lunch together, and so on, while other colleagues avoid each other on every level. Nevertheless, Reitz considers it important that organisations try to find out how people meet each other.

People will always be looking for justification behind what they’re doing. Without room for dialogue, employees will work much more individually and will be less inclined to want to work together.

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It’s Your Turn

What do you think? Recognize the above practical explanation or do you have any additions? What are your experiences with the Relational Leadership Theory (RLT)?

Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.

More information

  1. Buber, M. (2012). I and Thou. eBookIt. com.
  2. Reitz, M. (2015). Dialogue in organizations: Developing relational leadership. Springer.
  3. Uhl-Bien, M. (2011). Relational leadership theory: Exploring the social processes of leadership and organizing. In Leadership, gender, and organization (pp. 75-108). Springer, Dordrecht.

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Mulder, P. (2019). Relational Leadership Theory (RLT). Retrieved [insert date] from Toolshero:

Published on: 10/14/2019 | Last update: 05/21/2022

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Patty Mulder
Article by:

Patty Mulder

Patty Mulder is an Dutch expert on Management Skills, Personal Effectiveness and Business Communication. She is also a Content writer, Business Coach and Company Trainer and lives in the Netherlands (Europe).
Note: all her articles are written in Dutch and we translated her articles to English!


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