The Value of Relational Intelligence

A new way for leaders to understand the people around them

Note: This article has been excerpted from Relational Intelligence: How leaders can expand their influence through a new way of being smart, by Steve Saccone.


Although Carly and I had been in 8th grade together, something changed when I saw her in 9th grade. When she walked into the room, it seemed that every teenage boy had his eye on the girl I thought was the prettiest one at school. But there was a big obstacle to asking her out: her beauty intimidated me.

After a couple months, I stopped allowing my fear of rejection to stifle my pursuit. I devised a scheme to ask her out that guaranteed a response of yes. It was a simple strategy, one that many others use when they're young and infatuated (and even when they are adult men with perceived courage and strength). I decided to ask her friends if she "liked me," while ensuring that she wouldn't find out that I liked her. To my surprise, I discovered that Carly had a little thing for me as well!

She agreed to go out with me, but for 14-year-olds, what is dating anyway? I wasn't even old enough to drive. The only money I had was from my parents for taking out the trash and washing dishes. For me, dating involved seeing each other at lunch and at our lockers between classes. Of course we also talked on the phone at night, which was often filled with uncomfortable silence. But isn't awkwardness the teenage modus operandi? I decided to move forward anyway.

Two weeks into our "dating relationship," I took Carly on our first date. That is, I asked to see if her mom could drop her off at my house on Friday night—and she did. After she met my parents, they went into the next room and left us by ourselves. I was nervous about whether we could make conversation for two hours; after all, I was a teenage boy used to having entire conversations consisting of grunts and comments on bodily functions. But in an effort to avoid this dilemma, I had rented a romantic comedy. After the movie, I was hoping we would have only a few minutes before her mom came; although I really liked her, I didn't know what to talk about.

But I tried.

"How did you like the movie?" I asked.

"It was good. How did you like it?"

"I thought it was good, too."

That's about the extent of the conversation.

As we sat on my couch, I wanted to connect so badly, but didn't really know how. So I came up with a seemingly brilliant solution. I decided to take our relationship to the next level. I slowly put my arm around her and started rubbing her shoulder. Then my clammy palm grasped hers as I looked into her big brown eyes and attempted to create a meaningful moment. The next thing that came tumbling out of my mouth was, "I love you."

Pure silence.

She just sat there looking at me with a blank stare. It was not so much the look of affection and adoration I was hoping for, but more the look of someone standing in the middle of the road about to get hit by a Mack truck. Saying, "I love you" in that moment was the verbal equivalent of someone jamming a stick into my bike spokes while going 30 miles per hour.

After what seemed like an eternity, Carly managed to get out two words: a confused "Thank you?" Of course she had no idea how to respond. What else could she say? It's no surprise that our relationship ended shortly thereafter. In an effort to take our relationship to the next level, I had said something completely foolish, and it produced the opposite effect from what I wanted. Instead of bringing us closer, it broke us apart.

A New Way of Being Smart

I didn't know a name for what happened that night, but the fact is, I didn't have any relational intelligence. I tried to create a meaningful moment without doing the work of cultivating the relationship. I attempted to force something that the relationship wasn't ready for. My motives were selfish, and my awareness of her emotions and own desires was not even considered. Not to mention that my approach was awkward, insensitive, and foolish.

My lack of relational intelligence in that moment reflects a bigger reality that has a profound impact on leadership, for better or worse. As leaders, our capacity for relational intelligence can be the cause of both our failures and our successes. One mistake can do enough damage to dissolve a relationship. In one instant, we can destroy what's taken years to build. If you have experienced what it feels like to be the victim of someone else's lack of relational intelligence, you know exactly what I mean.

For instance, instead of trying to resolve conflict appropriately, maybe someone verbally attacks you, and as a result your relationship implodes. Or maybe someone makes you believe that he or she is trustworthy, but then violates that trust and wounds you deeply with harsh or inappropriate words. Or maybe you follow someone's leadership because you believed in the person, but when you needed him most he abandons you and leaves you to fend for yourself, thus breaking up your relationship.

In contrast, a person with a high level of relational intelligence knows how to resolve conflict in a healthy manner that fosters the strength of a relationship rather than breaking it down; she earns your trust and is able to sustain it by being a person of integrity and love, and she appreciates your faithfulness to her and in turn is faithful to you when you need her.

As leaders, our intentions are often sincere in wanting to help people move forward, or take a team or group to the next level. But sometimes we don't know exactly how to accomplish our goal. We want to create meaningful moments, but we sometimes end up saying or doing the wrong thing, even when our intentions are good and sincere. As we push people to make progress and pursue a greater purpose, sometimes we find that we're too impatient to do the work of cultivating the relationship that will help them succeed. As leaders, we can sometimes see relationships as simply a means to an end, and this inevitably short-circuits the process needed to apply and implement relational intelligence in our everyday lives and leadership.

What if cultivating smarter relationships became a more integral part of how we approach leading others? What if we focus on the quality of our relationships, which sometimes can be the harder way, but trust that this is also the better way? What if we learn how to create meaningful moments more effectively with others by engaging relational dynamics differently than we have previously done, building trust and credibility that lasts?

Our ability to forge healthy relationships is increasingly critical to our leadership effectiveness. In the past, authority and credibility were built on status, power, or position, but in today's world it's built on relationship and trust. To be relationally intelligent, we must shift from a positional authority mindset to the crucial leadership mindset of relational authority. If we want to move forward in expanding our influence, we must ensure that the foundation of relational intelligence is built. And then we'll be on our way toward cultivating a new way of being smart.

—Steve Saccone serves as a catalyst in an international faith community in Los Angeles known as Mosaic. Article excerpted from Relational Intelligence, by Steve Saccone (Jossey-Bass, 2009); reprinted with permission of John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

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