Leadership as an Encounter of Adults on Par with Each Other

Lead­er­ship is a mat­ter of stance. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, lead­er­ship is still defined in terms of pow­er and sub­or­di­na­tion. The rela­tion­ship between lead­ers and those being led is usu­al­ly asym­met­ri­cal: the boss has more expe­ri­ence, more infor­ma­tion and more pow­er than his staff. The employ­ees are there­fore more depen­dent on their boss than, con­verse­ly, the boss on them. His­tor­i­cal­ly, this atti­tude stems from Tay­lorism, where the man­ag­er was actu­al­ly the one who under­stood the work­flows best and could struc­ture them into sim­ple steps for his most­ly unskilled peo­ple. How­ev­er, these times are long gone. Since then, the nature of work and the edu­ca­tion­al lev­el of employ­ees have changed rad­i­cal­ly. What has remained in many cas­es is the famil­iar depen­den­cy between boss and employ­ee. Peter F. Druck­er coined the term knowl­edge work for this changed world of work as ear­ly as 1959 (far ahead of his time). He rec­og­nized the fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ences ear­ly on and called for lead­er­ship to be under­stood as a coop­er­a­tion of adults on par with each oth­er. That is pre­cise­ly why the fifth the­sis of the Man­i­festo for Human(e) Lead­er­ship says: “Grow­ing lead­ers over lead­ing followers.”

Their rela­tion­ship, in oth­er words, is far more like that between the con­duc­tor of an orches­tra and the instru­men­tal­ist than it is like the tra­di­tion­al supe­ri­or-sub­or­di­nate rela­tion­ship. The supe­ri­or in an orga­ni­za­tion employ­ing knowl­edge work­ers can­not, as a rule, do the work of the sup­posed sub­or­di­nate any more than the con­duc­tor of an orches­tra can play the tuba.
Peter F. Druck­er, Management’s New Par­a­digm, 1998

The rela­tion­ship between leader and knowl­edge work­er is more like that between con­duc­tor and musi­cian in an orches­tra. Obvi­ous­ly in terms of skills, but also in terms of pow­er and depen­den­cy: The bal­ance of pow­er between the knowl­edge work­ers and their lead­ers is com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent from that between the read­i­ly inter­change­able work­er and his boss in the age of Tay­lorism. A knowl­edge work­er can sab­o­tage his supe­ri­or just as eas­i­ly and effec­tive­ly as a musi­cian can sab­o­tage an auto­crat­ic conductor.

Knowl­edge work­ers can­not be man­aged as sub­or­di­nates; they are asso­ciates. They are seniors or juniors but not supe­ri­ors and subordinates.
Peter F. Druck­er, Management’s New Par­a­digm, 1998

Even fifty years after Peter F. Druck­er invent­ed the con­cept of knowl­edge work, this insight has still not arrived in prac­tice. So we have less a prob­lem of per­cep­tion than a prob­lem of imple­men­ta­tion. Admit­ted­ly, the rela­tion­ship between man­age­ment and employ­ees has changed sig­nif­i­cant­ly in recent decades. Many man­agers have mean­while adopt­ed a more parental atti­tude towards their employ­ees. The ten­den­cy is thus cor­rect, but the rela­tion­ship of depen­dence remained so far most­ly unaf­fect­ed. Like chil­dren, employ­ees remain depen­dent on their par­ents. And while chil­dren in dif­fer­ent phas­es more or less fer­vent­ly claim their inde­pen­dence and equiv­a­lence, employ­ees remain well-pro­tect­ed chil­dren forever.

Lead­ers don’t cre­ate fol­low­ers, they cre­ate more leaders.
Tom Peters

Lead­er­ship today is only legit­i­mate if it is aimed at the self-lead­er­ship of the employ­ees entrust­ed to it. Götz W. Wern­er has thus summed up what an appro­pri­ate rela­tion­ship between lead­ers and those being led should look like. It’s not about being supe­ri­or or sub­or­di­nate, it’s about work­ing togeth­er on par as adults. Lead­er­ship is an equiv­a­lent­ly impor­tant func­tion that makes oth­ers suc­cess­ful. That is why the fifth the­sis of the Man­i­festo for Human(e) Lead­er­ship, allud­ing to Tom Peters’ quo­ta­tion, says: “Grow­ing lead­ers over lead­ing fol­low­ers.” Lead­ing depen­dent employ­ees is one thing and cer­tain­ly still an impor­tant skill today. But the oth­er and much more impor­tant thing is the under­ly­ing stance, which must be to lead the employ­ees out of their depen­dence and make them lead­ers — at least of their own lives and their entire capabilities.

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By Marcus Raitner

Hi, I'm Marcus. I'm convinced that elephants can dance. Therefore, I accompany organizations on their way towards a more agile way of working. Since 2010 I regularly write about leadership, digitization, new work, agility, and much more in this blog. More about me.

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