Relationship-first leaders set their teams up to underperform. Sounds callous, but it’s true.

Strong leadership begins with setting clear, actionable goals and then leveraging relationships to enable each team member to achieve their top potential.

I am thinking about this because of a recent LinkedIn Post with almost 215,000 likes that read:

“Leadership is not about being in charge; it’s about taking care of those in your charge.”

Comments on the post read mostly along the lines of: “Great lesson,” “Profound,” “Absolutely,” “The core of servant leadership.”

My reaction – the post is dead wrong.

A focus on taking charge or taking care are each self-centered forms of leadership. Both start with a focus on the leader and what makes the leader most comfortable.

Good leadership is not about taking care nor about taking charge. It is about enabling those in your charge to reach their full potential as an employee and as a human being.

I’ve worked with hundreds of CEOs as well as sales, marketing, and customer success leaders.  

I see three things that typically happen in a relationship-first leadership culture: (a) underperformance, (b) more complaining, and (c) higher levels of team conflict.


A relationship-first leadership style unintentionally encourages a fixed mindset. “I am taking care of you” and “our current state is good enough” quickly become synonymous.

Expectations to grow in a role and grow in a team relationship are viewed as impositions.

I know I am dealing with a relationship-first leadership style when I present constructive feedback or a growth-oriented opportunity and I get responses like:

  • “I hire for experience. My team knows what they are doing.”
  • “I don’t want to interfere. I trust they will figure it out.”
  • “We are too busy to take that on.”

A better alternative is an authentic leadership style that puts agreement on goals and performance first, relationships second.  

Goals and relationships are both important, but the order matters. An authentic leadership style says: “I expect you to grow to the next level and I am here to help you.”

I know I am dealing with an authentic leadership style when I present constructive feedback or a growth-oriented opportunity and I get responses like:

  • That’s an interesting question. I’ll ask my team to think about it and respond.
  • That’s a helpful direction. I’ll ask my team to evaluate what we have already implemented and what additional steps might be value-added.

The most authentic leadership style starts with a focus on the growth of those in our charge – What are our and their expectations to grow? And how can we enable that achievement?