Leadership Relationships - Part 1: Commensal

Updated: Aug 5, 2020

All successes and failures can be linked to the quality of relationships. Was a relationship built and maintained? Was a relationship neglected or broken? The answer to these questions will generally determine the outcome of a situation.


There are three basic types of relationships: commensal, parasitic, and symbiotic. We will look at each one in a three-part blog series.


Let’s first look at a commensal relationship. According to Dictionary.com the first definition of commensal is, “to eat together at the same table.”


In ecology, this refers to two organisms living with, next to, or in each other without harm to either party.


In sociology, this refers to an individual or group occupying the same space as another individual or group without competition, even though they may operate differently or hold different values.


I experienced this early on in my leadership career. I had just been promoted to a director position in admissions and marketing at a university. I wasn’t the only one in this position, as there were others across the institution who were responsible for different programs.

We talked and communicated while we were on the road attending grad fairs and even enjoyed a meal or two together each travel season.


I didn’t know things could get better, because we were all amicable colleagues and I felt I was doing my best to accomplish my job.


And then it did.


The VP became intentional about bringing this group together. One of the first conversations was about what we all bring as “swag” to grad fairs to give to prospective students.


Almost everyone took some type of writing device with their own division listed from the institution.

It was proposed that we decide on one pen for the entire institution that everyone could use and receive bulk discounts.


That marked the beginning of what I realize now were the “golden years” in that position.


We were given the permission and tools to work together, save money and resources, and look like we were a coordinated institution.


It was so much easier to be successful in my position! I was one of the smaller outfits, yet I now had the support and shared knowledge of the team and the ability to share resources.


Commensal relationships sound like a positive situation because there is no conflict, but let’s think it through from a leadership position.


Leadership, by definition, is to guide and direct a group of individuals. This process requires foresight, growth, and vision of a better situation.


If the only type of relationships around a leader are commensal, everyone is doing their own thing and using their own resources.


There is no team mentality of pulling together toward the same mark.


There is no sharing of resources.


No bulk purchase benefit.

Minimal growth potential.


An authentic leader works to be with their team and those around them for the betterment of all. Not to simply be commensal.


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