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Aspirational vs. Relational Leadership: Time to 'Cowboy Up'

Children are hard-wired for struggle. Brene Brown

I got my first horse when I was six. My earliest memories growing up on a ranch were Dad, ranch hands, and neighbors riding horseback as they rounded up cattle for branding, vaccinating and such. More than anything, I wanted to be a part of that. Eventually, Dad bought me this 18 year-old (very old) Paint – blind in one eye and the perfect “un-spirited” horse for a six-year old. About a week later Dad told me we would be gathering the cattle over the next several days. I was so excited I could hardly sleep – my first roundup.

Early the next morning we saddled our horses and started to the first pasture. Problem was, this old nag I was riding was slow and could not keep up. Dad motioned for me get my horse to move faster, I tried but could not get the Paint to obey. Finally, Dad sent me back to the house as he and the others proceeded to herd cattle from a 500-acre pasture. Back at the house, as I tied up my horse, Mother came out and asked what was wrong. I was bawling as I told her Dad had sent me back because I could not keep up with the other herders. I was crushed – I had flunked my first roundup. It was time to learn the meaning of “cowboy up.”

Aspirational vs. Relational Leadership

I reflected on this episode recently as I read Greg Lukianoff and John Haidt’s excellent book, The Coddling of the American Mind that deals with the crucial role of struggle in our development and how “over-protection” can retard it. The authors distinguish among three categories:

· Fragile: things that break easily and cannot heal – like a dropped china tea cup

· Resilient: things that can withstand shocks – like a dropped plastic cup

· Antifragile: things that require stressors/challenges to learn, adapt, grow – like immune systems, muscles, and kids

The authors drive home the point that learning to handle adversity and struggle are crucial elements in the development of children and adults. We are most defined by what we overcome.

For leaders, the key question is, what can we do to foster resilient and even antifragile relationships with key stakeholders? Whether employees in business or kids in our family – how do leaders ensure their charges can survive and thrive amidst their predictable struggles, conflicts and setbacks, disagreements and division?

It is worth pointing out that business leaders surveyed by Bloomberg recently named ‘Coddling’ the best book they read in 2018. I believe the book has resonated because these leaders are really struggling with how to be simultaneously “relational” – treating others with respect, being collaborative, engaging and supportive – and also “aspirational” in a way that stretches for improved levels of performance and growth.

Two leaders recently in the news provide extreme examples of a highly relational approach that treats others well versus highly aspirational, demanding leadership that pushes hard for improving performance.

The recent passing of President George H. W. Bush reminds us of a truly decent, highly relational leader who worked well with leaders on both sides of the aisle and on both sides of the globe. He was known for his congenial style even in defeat – many were touched to read the note he left in the Oval Office for President Clinton, his political opponent and successor: “I am rooting hard for you.” He was known for his self-effacing style and hundreds of personal notes to those with whom he interacted. Little ego, high respect for others and for the office of President. Yet, he was defeated in his reelection bid, struggled with the “vision-thing” and was at times seen as aspirationally weak.

At the other extreme is Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, one of those obsessively driven, visionary leaders who demands perfection – and the impossible. He is known for pushing people to be their absolute best and has a genius for viewing things in unconventional ways that sparks great innovation. Yet he is described as extremely moody, unpredictable, impulsive and even a little crazy. His tweet announcing that he had financing to take the company private (he didn’t) caused Tesla’s stock price to gyrate, cost him his chairmanship and Tesla $20 million in fines. The company has experienced massive turnover lately and has what some consider to be a toxic work environment. Wired magazine described Musk’s relational lack: “prickly when others do not show deference, robotic lack of empathy and odd interpersonal mannerisms.”

While Bush vs. Musk might represent the extremes, each of us as leaders must assess where we currently reside on the aspiration/relational scale and where we want to be.

Today’s Challenge: Relational Leadership That is Aspirational

Perhaps never in history have leaders – CEOs, teachers, parents, managers – received so such scrutiny of how they treat people. Much of this stems from leader actions now seen as unfair, insensitive and even abusive. Mistreating aggrieved stakeholder groups – women, racial minorities, the poor, Millennials – that now often function more like tribes, has never been so costly. Just ask the former CEOs at Uber, CBS, Pappa John’s, to name a few. Leaders are struggling to win highly contested talent wars in a tight labor market, to keep workers engaged, and to meet the demands of diverse stakeholder groups – all while delivering results.

Much of the discussion about treatment of workers or other stakeholders is in a context of persecutor vs. victim that too often glorifies victimhood. While the pressure to eradicate bullying and oppressive behavior is much needed, we are neglecting a crucial part of the solution which is developing stronger relational resilience and antifragility that prepares our kids, our employees, and team members to face an imperfect, unfair and challenging world. Our coddling culture is robbing its citizens of the development and joy of coping and overcoming. We have become the offended society that withers under criticism, struggle or long-odds.

Van Jones, former Green Jobs czar under President Obama, nails the challenge and the opportunity:

But there’s another view that is now I think ascendant, which I think is just a horrible view, which is that “I need to be safe ideologically. I need to be safe emotionally. I just need to feel good all the time, and if someone says something that I don’t like, that’s a problem for everybody else, including the [university] administration.”

I don’t want you to be safe ideologically. I don’t want you to be safe emotionally. I want you to be strong. That’s different. I am not going to pave the jungle for you. Put on some boots, and learn how to deal with adversity. I’m not going to take all the weights out of the gym; that’s the whole point of the gym. This is the gym.

The gym is an apt metaphor for today’s leadership challenge.

Leadership Keys to Set Your Course

Leadership is about moving from where we are, to where we aspire to be. Relational leadership is more than just being liked or being nice. It is also about moving stakeholder relationships to become stronger, more productive, more resilient and even antifragile.

One of my client CEOs recently raised the question: How do I elevate the aspirations or standards of my team while being relationally supportive. It is a question we all face. I believe there are three keys to walking this fine line of becoming relationally and aspirationally stronger.

1. Commit to an Aspirational Vision: a compelling, aspirational vision performs some of the heavy lifting in stretching and growing your people. If your vision is not pulling people forward, it can make leader demands seem arbitrary, disrespecting and unwarranted. A strong, compelling vision provides the “why” that is both fuel and lubricant for moving forward.

When my father sent me back to the house, it was relationally uncomfortable. I was hurt. Yet his vision of what it takes to be a “productive cowboy” was crucial to my eventually assuming a leadership role on the ranch and elsewhere. The very best leaders lever a strong vision to help others stretch, grow and develop.

2. Champion Performance Development as a core value: Moving your organization and its stakeholders forward to stronger performance means committing to the development of team members. It means facing uncomfortable discussions and decisions about performance, pushing members to lift their game, and taking the time to deliver tough feedback. It also means hearing and acting on tough feedback coming back to the leader about obstacles to the vision that must be removed.

In sending me back to the house, my father acted on his vision by taking a tough development step by addressing where my performance fell short of the vision. To paraphrase Anne Lamott, “He loved me just the way I was, but too much to let me stay that way.” It means confronting the challenge and choosing longer-term gain over short-term pain. Years later, in my own company we had a saying: Confront no matter what.

3. Let them know you are on their side. Top leaders genuinely pull for team members to grow and succeed – and they show it. Vision that stretches and tough feedback can leave people too wounded to hear uncomfortable news. The great lubricant for this friction is trusting that a leader is pulling for you. It helps us take our medicine. Relational leaders – just like parents – are constantly working to translate frustration with poor performance into constructive feedback and encouragement for growth that builds trust.

Remember the age-old truth: They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. No matter how tough he was, I always felt Dad was “rooting hard for me.” It is a fine line: pulling for others but not letting those feelings undermine the mission of individual and organizational development.

When I was a senior in high school, I was being recruited to pitch for a top college baseball program. When the college coach, known for this toughness, came to see me pitch, he said, “Son, how you pitch tonight will determine whether or not I offer you a scholarship. Every time you look in for a signal, you will see me sitting right behind home plate. I want to see how you handle the pressure.” By then I had learned the meaning of “cowboy up” and I excelled that night. In looking back, I am reminded – and grateful – for my dad sending me to the house.

This essay can be found on LinkedIn at:

Robert’s latest book, “This Land of Strangers” is now in paperback. A “recovering CEO,” he has authored 150 published articles and his work has appeared in The New York Times, Forbes, The Huffington Post, The CEO Magazine.

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