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How to Tell If You're an Organizational or Relational Leader (And Why It Matters)

A friend of mine from seminary days told me that every leader has a number on his (or her) back.






His theory? Basically everyone has a natural number that reflects the size of organization (or area) they’re capable of leading.

I wish he wasn’t right. But what if he is?

Here’s a perplexing question. What if you have a number but don’t know what it is?


Some Clarity

Fast forward to earlier this week. I was having a conversation with Lane Jones, one of the six founding staff members of North Point Church (and a voice you might recognize from the Andy Stanley Leadership Podcast) .

I was explaining this ‘every leader has a number’ idea to Lane when he said “Oh, you mean the difference between organizational and relational leadership.”

Bingo. That’s it.

Some of us are organizational leaders, and some are more relational leaders.

You might be able to push your number higher through skill acquisition and hard work, but can a relational leader with a capacity of 100 really lead an organization of 10,000? Probably not. We might be able to double our number (from 200 to 400), but to stretch far beyond it might be too much for most of us. And it might never have been God’s plan for us in the first place.

Before you dismiss this as some kind of corporate leadership idea opposed to faith, think through it.

Moses embraced this kind of distinction between leaders when he reorganized a nation around leaders of tens, fifties, hundreds and thousands. And, I suppose he was the leader of hundreds of thousands.  You could argue Jesus followed a similar instinct when he organized disciples into groups of 70, 12, 3 and ultimately 1 (Peter).


Your Problem (and Mine)

Your problem (and mine) happens when an relational leader tries to fill the role of an organizational leader. And to a similar extent, when an organizational leader tries to fill a relational role.

The culture we live in raises the tension because:

We assume that bigger is better

The conferences we attend and books we read are written by leaders of large movements and organizations

We’re caught up in constant comparison and feel inadequate if we’re not moving toward the ‘next stage’

Add to that the outward thrust of the mission of the church and many leaders find themselves in a position where they are trying to lead in a way that pushes past their natural number.

You may dream of leading a big organization, but your wiring keeps pulling you back to a small one.

So…what are you? A relational leader or an organizational leader?


Relational Leaders

Here are some characteristics of relational leaders I’ve observed. Relational leaders:

1. Are fueled by direct contact with people

If a day behind the computer screen or in meetings drains you, it might be a sign that you’re a relational leader. You don’t care who you’re meeting with as long as you’re meeting with someone.


2. Hate not knowing who’s in the room

A relational leader feels an innate sense of panic if they don’t know everyone in the room. They want to find out who’s who, catch up, and make sure they’re ‘known’ by everyone in their organization.


3. Stay up to date on the details in people’s lives

Because of the desire to know everyone, relational leaders will often want to know all the details at play in people’s lives.

Who got a new job.

Who’s sick and who’s healing.

Who’s in love.

Who got accepted to which college.

Who’s thinking of moving or a new job.

Who’s expecting.

They just want to know. They can’t help it. And they care. Deeply.


4. Think systems drain energy out of a great community

There’s a world of difference between bureaucracy and systems, but a true relational leader struggles with systems. The can’t imagine an organization where they don’t know most people, and the idea that ‘systems’ can care for people chafes at their core.


5. Struggle to develop other leaders

Because of a relational leader’s desire to be known and to know others, relational leaders always struggle with developing other leaders.

Some might see other leaders as a threat. But some simply can’t imagine the idea of being in an organization larger than their personal span of care.

For this reason, most relational leaders will never lead an organization larger than 200 people. (I also wrote about this from several other angles in this post on 8 Reasons Why Most Churches Never Break the 200 Attendance Mark

An exceptionally gifted relational leader might be able to grow an organization or ministry area to 400 or even 500, but after that, they burn out and the span of care breaks down. This isn’t bad; it’s just true. You end up trying to be someone you’re not.

I’d love to hear from some relational leaders on the tension, struggle or blessing you feel from being a relational leader. Leave a comment! As you may have guessed, that’s not my style. I’m wired more as an organizational leader.


Organizational Leaders

By contrast, here is how organizational leaders think and operate. Organizational leaders:


1. Are fueled by systems that help people

An organizational leader doesn’t have to care for people directly; he or she is content that people are being cared for well (by others). They think about how the system or organization can be improved to care for more people.

Again, it is very easy to characterize relational leadership as ‘Christian’ and systems as ‘non-Christian’, but that’s just not true. Read Acts 6 for more on how systems expanded the early church’s capacity to care for more people. No side can claim the moral high ground here. 🙂


2. Have no deep desire to know everyone in the room

An organizational leader realizes by instinct that if the mission is going to grow, it’s going to mean their personal span of care is limited.

They are more excited that people are being reached by the mission than they are energized by knowing the people who are being reached personally. That doesn’t mean they don’t care, it just means they realize that a system that is going to reach hundreds or thousands demands that they not play a personal role in every aspect.


3. Track closely with people within their direct circle

Instead of trying to know a lot of people, an organizational leader will go deep with a few.

Strong organizational leaders will have an excellent relationship with 5-12 people who report to them or to whom they report. They are not people who simply sit behind a keyboard all day, because any great organization (even large ones) are always driven by people and healthy relationships.

Rather than being there for everyone, organizational leaders are there for the hospital visits, life celebrations and every day moments of a few of their closest and highest capacity leaders.

It doesn’t mean they never step outside that span of care to help others, it just means that inner circle of their closest leaders receive 80-95%% of their relational focus.


4. Are comfortable with the reality that systems are key to a growing community

Organizational leaders have a heart for scale and systems because they believe that effective systems create capacity to care for even more people.

While being ‘organic’ and ‘authentic’ and ‘decentralized’ sounds more romantic, the truth is the most effective organizations that change the most lives (even for good) are the result of careful systems. The reason the device on which you’re reading this post works (or doesn’t work) is directly dependent on the system that produced it.

Ditto for the quality of your Disney vacation, or the organic food you’re eating for dinner tonight (assuming you didn’t pull it all from your garden today…and even if you did, you would need a minimal system to ensure it didn’t rot and the rabbits didn’t eat it all.)


5. Love developing other leaders

Organizational leaders realize that as the organization grows, they have to develop and release more and more leaders. So they develop and deploy them.

Although in some respect that creates more distance between them and others in the organization (and sometimes that’s sad even for the leader), they understand it’s part of how growing systems work on this side of heaven.

Further more, they find considerable pleasure in watching other people develop their God given gifts and leading areas that they themselves used to lead.

While there can be a tendency to think releasing others to do what you used to do can make you less valuable to an organization, ironically it makes you more valuable.

Those are some key difference I see between relational and organizational leaders.

I hope this helps you figure out which you might be and where you might best fit within an organization. At least, I hope it helps you address a tension many of us face when we try to figure out why things aren’t growing as fast as we had maybe hoped (again…not that growth is a goal for every leader…it just is for me and many others given the mission we’re on).

What do you see? Leave a comment!

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  • Nathan Beebe

    So is it easier for a relational leader to learn organizational skills than a organizational leader to learn relational skills?

  • Great article, Carey! I started off as a relational leader because that was all I had ever seen modeled or taught in Bible school. Thankfully I was coached by a pastor that called out the organizational leader in me. He modeled for me the “rancher” style of leadership, which has served me well ever since.

    Your article is an excellent way to approach the main difference in pastoral leadership styles. I see that many pastoral resignations/terminations are the result of differences in expectations between the pastor and the elders, Board, members, etc. Even though the pastor may try to be crystal clear in communicating his/her strengths and weaknesses, it’s difficult for a church that is used to a relational style of leadership to turn the corner toward an organizational focus. Neither one is wrong… it’s simply how we’re wired or what a church has come to expect.

  • JP

    Wow, I have often felt guilty for the way I’m wired. Like I am not compassionate enough, or that I don’t care when deep down I really do… This was helpful and encouraging. Thank You!

  • clark

    reading the comments it seems like everyone affirms these narrow categories. I wonder how the dynamics of our fallenness impact leadership motivations. Could the organizational leader as you describe be a common way of protecting tendencies to isolate and control? Offering that as a legitimate form of Christian leadership would then add fuel to the bigger is better ideology. Does a Trinitarian Theology even allow for leaders to NOT be relationally oriented?

    • Hey Clark. Thanks for your feedback. It’s not that organizational leaders have no relational skills. In fact, the best ones have a great relational skills. It’s just that their leadership style scales too much bigger level. Hope this helps clarify things.

      Sent from Mailbox

    • Aaron Scantlen

      And they ARE being highly relational… to a few leaders! You can’t relationally reach everyone if you reach a certain size, but you can relationally reach a few leaders who are reaching everyone in their sphere. So everyone is relationally reached, but not all by the one man. BTW, this is releasing many more to do the work of the ministry (Eph. 4:11) than just the “pastor” doing it all.

  • Luke

    I am a relational leader, and proud of it! I think not only are there relational leaders, I think there are relationally communities that have a character unto themselves that break down over the same number of 200. For a church I think the most awkward number is 300-400. At this point you are no longer a relationally driven church, but you are not a big church with the resources to be highly organizational, it can be a no man’s land for leadership if you don’t want to grow and fear shrinking. I am at a church of 120 people and we are characterized by our loving relationships, I think if we grew too much we would lose some of that character in which people come in and feel right away. Our church has been a place of refuge for people needing community. Big churches have their niche as well, so we need all types of leaders.

    • Luke…that’s a very eloquent explanation of why most churches are below 200 in attendance. And you are 100% right. The dilemma of course, only comes in, if and when you want to reach more people. Thanks.

      *Carey Nieuwhof, Lead Pastor *
      *Connexus Church*
      *546 Bryne Drive, Unit E Barrie Ontario L4N 9P6* * * * *
      *facebook & twitter cnieuwhof*
      *instagram careynieuwhof*

      *Sent from my personal email account. **If adding others, please use to include me in the conversation. Thank you!*

  • Aaron Newell

    I wonder, is it possible for a relational leader to surround him or herself with people that will allow them to grow beyond their in ate capacity to lead between one and two hundred? Being the big idea person I tend to miss relational cues if I’m not redirected by my wife, however I do not like to hurt others and attempt to remedy those missteps when they are pointed out…of course I’m not really able to judge what time and trials have done to my leadership style as of yet, working with 12 people in Baltimore can be challenging. I am looking forward to seeing how growth happens and what road in end up traveling down.

    • Aaron. I think you’re right on. Absolutely. I’m the organizational guy with relational people around me to help me see my blind spots. My assistant is extremely relational and she helps me avoid landmines all the time. Great point!

      *Carey Nieuwhof, Lead Pastor *
      *Connexus Church*
      *546 Bryne Drive, Unit E Barrie Ontario L4N 9P6* * * * *
      *facebook & twitter cnieuwhof*
      *instagram careynieuwhof*

      *Sent from my personal email account. **If adding others, please use to include me in the conversation. Thank you!*

  • Nithin Thompson

    I feel like I don’t fit completely in either category. While I enjoy being with people, and working one on one making disciples, I really like developing leaders and systems. What are ways that I can figure out where I fit?

    • Thanks for the question Nithin. I think if you look at the size of group you lead, that will tell you. If it’s under 200, you’re likely a relational leader.

  • ringfinger

    Carey… excellent post as always. From what you’ve written here… I see that I’m an organizational leader. Did you also explore how to begin seeing what the “number on your back” might be? -Aaron Kunce

    • Hey Aaron…so good to hear from you! I haven’t explored that question. But the short answer (at least how I think about it) is look at what you’ve accomplished so far, figure out what your growth caps might be (be sure to ask others), and forge ahead. Chances are it’s bigger than where you’re at now.

  • RainahNess

    ARE WE ASKING THE RIGHT QUESTION? (If I’m out of line posting, as a non-pastor, by all means, delete this post, but here’s my question): Some of the posters in response to this article are wondering whether or not relational leaders and organizational leaders *can* work together. Would the question better be asked, “How do I stand in faith on the belief that the whole body can work together? Might that require a miracle? Might that require God remaking me? If so, in what ways?” I’m not into the idea that ‘follow me’ will look the same for everyone…… I’m very much into the idea that ‘and I will make you’ means that we can’t change each other, but He can……. And since we are each here to serve the body somewhat differently, that might look somewhat different from person to person, and even pastor to pastor… All should be based on similar principles – all should be based on Biblical truth – but not all should look the same when He is polishing some facet of us that is actually being made in His image…….. (so says an organizational leader who thinks that, being gifted as an organizational leader, she could work behind the scenes, not as a ‘leader/leader’ – but as an aid to leaders…….. but hey, I have always attended rather conservative churches……… and wonder what my limits are anyway……. – are they only ‘offsite’ here?)

    • Welcome to the conversation! So glad to hear from a non-pastor. 🙂

      I think the body takes all kinds of leaders, but in a larger congregation, the senior leaders should be organizational leaders. So yes, everyone is needed. But positioning is critical.

  • Mark

    It seems to me that most pastors start off in small churches in which people, be they board members or not, view the pastor as someone whose “job description” includes doing relational types of things (visitation, follow up of visitors, etc.). How does an organizational pastor function in such a setting without alienating the people he is called to serve? Any ideas?

    • Great question Mark. I had those exact dynamics. I decided I needed to do those things at first but immediately start sowing the seeds to become a larger organization and change the way I lead. I outlined the steps in a post here on the blog called 8 Reasons Churches Fail to Break the 200 Attendance Mark. Your question might just be the biggest issue in church growth today.

  • MSK

    I like this information. It helps me see something that I haven’t considered and helps me frame my struggles. Honestly I am not sure but I think I am more of a relational leader vs organizational leader. I have tendencies in both but more so in the relational side. I have so struggled trying to become something I am not, it has wrecked me in many ways to the point of just giving up bc feeling I will never measure up. As “lead” pastor it makes me wonder if I’m in the wrong seat? Sucks to not know who you are, please pray for me.

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  • Bweez

    I’m definitely relational. This helps me understand why I almost blew a gasket when I was asked to place my fliers for a “small” Bible study at a community function! haha! I’m 4 out of 5, because I feel a responsibility to encourage and mentor future leaders. Of course, it’s the nature of my “calling.” Small Bible study leaders can’t stay small if they don’t branch off. I appreciate this information and will be forwarding it to my pastor. Thanks.

  • Jon

    Is it possible for a super strong relational leader to surround himself with some strong organizational leaders in such a way as to make the team one that leads 1000s?

    • That’s a great question Jon. I think maybe (I’d love other opinions). Except I think ultimately organizational leaders are looking for other organizational leaders to push and challenge them. I’m leaning toward “no” but I’m open to others who can figure out how this might work or who have seen it work.

    • Bweez

      Just a thought… rewording the question a little… could a relational leader “co-partner” with an organizational leader to create a team etc. etc. etc.?

  • Scott Douglas

    Wow this is really good! What great insights into how important it is to have the right people in the right seats on the bus, as Jim Collins might say.

    • Scott thanks for your honesty. I think the key is to find our place in life. When we operate from that we find more joy. Trying to be someone God never designed you to be can be a tough way to live.

  • Jonathan Holcomb

    This is really good stuff Carey. I think this post highlights the importance of an organizations hiring process. So often organizations don’t ask the question, “Why type of leader do we need for this role?” and end up hiring a person that cannot perform because they are an organizational leader in a relational role or vise versa.

    I think it all goes back to self-awareness. If you are aware of how you naturally lead you cannot only harness the strength, but also understand where your gaps are as a leader.

    • So good Jonathan. Self awareness is so critical on so many levels.

  • Rich Grof

    Great article Carey. You are right that each of us have an existing “leadership level” that usually limits or predicts our success in the church and our everyday lives. I’ve discovered that there is a very good reason for this and believe you would concur. There are different leadership skills that are required at each level. So even if you are fantastic at relationships, there is a capacity to how many people you can lead. That’s why churches grow to a certain level (usually 150-300 people) then plateau. Ironically, the very skills that helped someone to be successful at the Relationship level hold them back from growing into the organizational level. Making the jump from relationship skills to organizational leadership skills is a difficult thing to do. The challenge of letting go of what you know works to a new set of skills that you are unfamiliar with and just learning can be overwhelming. My encouragement to those who want to make this leadership shift is to research what skills you will need as an organizational leader. Then set a plan into action well before you need them to practice and develop your core skills. That way you will only have to deal with the effects of change on the congregation.

    • Rich…as always (from you), this is great advice. Thank you!

  • I’m also an organizational leader. I can relate almost perfectly to all 5 of your points here. The positive I see is there is still a relational aspect for those of us in this group of leaders. We tend to be very relational and close with our team members. The struggle for me is the level of ‘type-A’ that is in me. I am a systems and rules guy by nature. I’m constantly reminding myself that flexibility and some grey lines are essential in ministry. And in those times when I don’t feel like bending is necessary, relationship must lead the way in communicating the ‘why.’ Love this post, Carey.

  • This was extremely validating to read. I grew up thinking that being in ‘leadership’ in the local church meant doing all the relational things you wrote about. But I never saw any examples of people who had a passion for the organizational things, so I never felt like I fit in the church world. It was only after starting my own business that I realized there was a place for people ‘like me’. Reading this is validating because you did a great job showing that the organizational things are not less ‘spiritual’ than the relational things.

    • Love that this helped Anthony. Leadership and Apostleship are two spiritual gifts that bear much in common with what we’ve described as organizational leadership. They are indeed gifts from God. So lead with all diligence. 🙂

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  • Gary Davis

    Carey, you mentioned Jesus, not sure you landed on where you would place Him in this discussion. Interested. Enjoy reading your perspectives.

    • Great question Gary. I think he was both. Extremely, deeply relational with those around, but ultimately highly organizational as well. I think you could argue that the truly great organizational leaders also have strong relational skills but understand how to scale those skills to reach far more people.

      • Ben Zabel

        I think this is what I was struggling with. The description in the article seemed to e an either or, placing relational an organizational on opposite ends of the spectrum. I was torn because I didn’t feel this acknowledged that some people are gifted at both. Thanks for this idea of “scaling back relationship” breadth in order to “reach more people”!

  • I really like this, especially if we’re advocating developed well-balanced teams instead of well-rounded individuals. As a proponent (and facilitator) of the DISC behavior style inventory, I’m trying to figure out how this might plot on the DISC quadrants. Any thoughts from others?

  • I love it!!! Fantastic post Carey. This is what I’m wrestling with now as I continue to see opportunities open up – how do I navigate between the good and focus in on the great? This distinction between the two types of leaders helps with this discernment process 🙂

    • Glad it helped Daniel. Both styles demand great skill sets. One just has a much higher capacity than the other. Love your desire to grow as a leader.

  • Ellen Wubbels

    We were drawn to our church when it was relational. The senior pastor was organizational, but the associate pastor filled the relational role well. As the organization grew, the relational pastor left and the organizational pastor couldn’t/wouldn’t agree to well-trained/developed (not that they had to have arrived, but seasoned, shall we say – pastor/leaders being brought in. Instead, he had the church hire his brother to design a program to “develop” leaders from within. But, “developing” leaders and “developed” leaders are two very different things. Not that developing leaders is bad, but one seasoned organizational leader cannot meet the needs of 2500 people and those who are “developing” were, for the most part lay leaders who could not devote the time and energy necessary for depth of training or to fully invest in their “ministry” area. Those who were brought on staff often needed time and mentoring to develop and without that, there can be casualties. I commend those churches with senior leadership that have the vision to bring alongside themselves those who are able to fulfill the role for which they are not equipped.

    • Ellen, thanks for this. Guiding an organization through all the stage of growth is a highly complex skill that only few have. I feel for your senior pastor. That’s a tough tough journey!

  • Ben Zabel

    Is this maybe a false dichotomy that become a self-fulfilling prophecy? What if we saw these two types of leadership as separate spectrums?!?! We could then talk about a persons Relational Leadership Quotient an their Organizational Leadership Quotient. Might this give us a more complete and freeing self-awareness?!

    • This is an interesting thought. Perhaps the difference between being an organizational and relational leader might be better if different language was used? I do like the thoughts Carey makes though.

      Organizational leadership as per strategic leadership and relational leadership as per emotional intelligence are definitely two different spectrums that everyone has a level in…

      • I’m loving the comments around this post. Thanks! I think emotional intelligence is a separate issue. High EI makes both relational and organization leaders more effective. To me, the distinction is more about our defaults toward systems that benefit people or toward people. Bring a highly developed emotional intelligence to each style of leadership makes both kinds of leaders stronger. Does that clarify things a bit?

        • Yap. That makes sense Carey! Thanks for the clarity