Teaching savoir-relier or ‘relational intelligence’: A leadership approach developed by Valérie Gauthier

MIT Sloan Visiting Associate Professor Valérie Gauthier

As the global business community becomes more interconnected by the minute and big companies adopt a hyper-specialized model, today’s managers are caught in the middle. They feel a constant tension between the need for agility to move in this fast-paced and changing world, and the quest for purpose, direction, and meaning. This tension often leads to irrational and erratic behaviors.

To remedy this, business schools must develop new leadership methods to help aspiring managers strike a better balance between the rational and the sensitive. They must also train established managers to combine analytical and intuitive ways of thinking.

I’ve developed a management approach called savoir-relierä, roughly translated as relational intelligence. Savior-relier* is defined as the capacity and resolve to build sensible, positive, and trustworthy relationships between entities—people, ideas, jobs, cultures, generations—that are inherently different, opposite or antagonistic. Unlike egocentric, charismatic leadership models, savoir-relier is a category of leadership that is marked by humility and intuition.

The approach, which has been a foundational structure of the curriculum at HEC, where I teach, helps managers develop a spirit of innovation and a culture of sensibility within their organizatons. Sensibility is often perceived negatively because it is associated with sentimentality. But sense and sensibility are fundamental to who we are as humans: hearing, touching, seeing, and experiencing the world around us.

The more we move toward a service society, the more human capital becomes the source of corporate success. Developing savoir-relier requires realizing the importance of human relationships and the value of differences as a means to instill innovation and change for collective performance in organizations. The approach helps managers use their innate sense to make connections and find common ground between all sorts of things: workers of different races and ages, workers in different functional units, or in different regions.

Some leaders come by savoir-relier naturally. Gandhi and Neslon Mandela are two that come to mind. There are examples from the corporate realm, as well. Take Ben Verwaayen, the CEO of Alcatel Lucent, the telecoms company, for instance. He has an impressive ability to build alliances within different parts of the company to connect ideas and bring out innovative initiatives from individuals across the organization. Steve Jobs, the creative genius who was behind Apple, is another example. Despite recent reports of personal peccadilloes, he was able to “connect the dots” and form rich, productive relationships between engineers and designers, computer programmers and artists to bring constant innovation in the company.

There are also examples of companies that have a culture of savoir-relier. Pernod Ricard, the world’s second largest wines and spirits company, is one. Even with a highly decentralized structure, Pernod Ricard succeeds because of its core values: entrepreneurship, trust, and a sense of ethics. The signature of the brand is “créateurs de convivialité,” which translates to “the creators of conviviality.” That tagline truly captures what savoir-relier is all about. L’Oréal is another example: the company’s line is to make beauty accessible to all, “because you’re worth it”. That is the driver, the common denominator that connects all of L’Oréal’s businesses and brands across the world.

Other leaders and companies do not have innate savoir-relier, but with training, they can cultivate it. Leadership is an act, and it can be learned and developed. Once leaders are trained in savoir-relier, they are often able to instill it in the culture of their organizations as the learning process opens to the ability to mentor others.

My three-step training process helps managers and leaders learn from others’ differences and about themselves at the same time. The savoir-relier method involves an in-depth introspective self-portrait, interpersonal exercises including work on reliance, resilience and sense, and the creation of a leadership action plan to bring this newfound understanding into day-to-day decision making.

To spread this relational approach throughout their organizations, leaders must accept that they are unable to control everything. A task easier said than done. But once they give in to the idea, once they are able to promote differences, find strength in them, build confidence, they can help individuals work together, inspire them, and build a strategy for the future.

Valérie Gauthier is a visiting associate professor at MIT Sloan School of Management, and an associate professor at HEC Paris.

* Growing your leadership with savoir-relierä (translated and adapted from the chapter  « Savoir-relier «  in Les 7 clés du Leadership, Editions L’archipel, 2010.)

Read more about Prof. Gauthier in the Financial Times

Share your thoughts


  1. Ukobong u. Inyang
    Posted April 6, 2012 at 5:50 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Am a graduate of pharmacy. Wic course is okay for a second degree in MIT

  2. Posted April 20, 2012 at 8:16 am | Permalink | Reply

    Yes, Ghandi and Mandela are fine examples… jazz musicians do this daily. They bring together disparate instrumental sections, blend the music of multiple nations and bring to stage a coordinated or ensemble sound.

    You are correct, this can be learned. Surely most will not have the time to invest in the painstaking process of developing musical expertise but trainings that advance the culture of jazz can, like the program you’ve shared, instill habits such as resilience and collaboration/active engagement into the leadership process. These practices help encourage innovation by teaching skills to manage volatility; after all, change is a constant. Humility is part of a jazz musician’s human fabric.

    I admire your effort to help people bring their whole selves into the workplace and to lead from a position of integrity.


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  1. […] familiar, it’s a herding mentality that provides psychological comfort through homogeneity. Valerie Gauthier notes managers in today’s globally interconnected businesses “feel a constant tension between […]

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