Leadership is Relationship

Leadership takes place in and through relationships - leadership is relationship. We determine whether these are filled with fear or with equal dignity, the counter-proposal to the authoritarian education of the Danish family therapist Jesper Juul, which can very well be transferred to other leadership relationships.

The Roman emper­or Caligu­la became the epit­o­me of the auto­crat­ic tyrant with his mot­to oderint, dum met­u­ant (in Eng­lish: Let them hate me as long as they fear me). For­tu­nate­ly, there are not so many auto­crats of this rad­i­cal kind any­more. Nev­er­the­less, fear is still the unspo­ken theme in many hier­ar­chi­cal orga­ni­za­tions. And it will become even more so as the call for strong lead­ers gains momen­tum because of the com­plex­i­ty and uncer­tain­ty orga­ni­za­tions are con­front­ed with today. 

Fear is the path to the dark side … fear leads to anger … anger leads to hate … hate leads to suffering.


Lead­er­ship takes place in and through rela­tion­ships between peo­ple. You can fill these rela­tion­ships with fear inspired by Caligu­la, but then you can­not expect more than sub­mis­sive obe­di­ence. On the sur­face only, of course, because in the back­ground plans for the next regi­cide are being pre­pared dili­gent­ly. And fear is con­ta­gious, because crawl­ing to the big­wigs is only bear­able if you can bul­ly the under­lings to bal­ance the sit­u­a­tion. Just like Diederich Heßling, a nation­al­ist fol­low­er and con­formist who is sub­ject to author­i­ty, in the nov­el “Der Unter­tan” (lit­er­al­ly “the sub­ject”, trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish under the titles Man of StrawThe Patri­o­teer, and The Loy­al Sub­ject) by Hein­rich Mann.

Dri­ve out fear, so that every­one may work effec­tive­ly for the company.

W. Edwards Deming

While this cul­ture of fear leads to obe­di­ence, it is poi­so­nous for the per­son­al respon­si­bil­i­ty and cre­ativ­i­ty that are need­ed today more urgent­ly than ever. So much so that W. Edwards Dem­ing felt it nec­es­sary to make the fight against fear in orga­ni­za­tions one of the 14 points of his key prin­ci­ples. And Peter F. Druck­er, too, not­ed that fear leads to cor­ro­sive antag­o­nism with­in the orga­ni­za­tion, where it should actu­al­ly be pulled togeth­er powerfully.

Equal Dignity

In a way, fam­i­lies are already more advanced than many orga­ni­za­tions. The strict­ly author­i­tar­i­an edu­ca­tion based on fear, which was the norm a few gen­er­a­tions ago, is now reject­ed by the major­i­ty. Even if authors such as Bern­hard Bueb tire­less­ly advo­cate obe­di­ence with his book “Lob der Diszi­plin” (in Eng­lish: “Praise of Dis­ci­pline”), rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the edu­ca­tion­al sci­ences agree on the harm­ful­ness of this back­ward-look­ing and unre­strained total­i­tar­i­an black pedagogy.

Instead, the cre­do of the Dan­ish fam­i­ly ther­a­pist Jes­per Juul is “edu­ca­tion is rela­tion­ship”. For this, fam­i­ly rela­tion­ships need a very spe­cif­ic qual­i­ty, for which Juul coined the term equal dig­ni­ty, which he him­self describes in this way:

Equal dig­ni­ty means both “of equal val­ue” (as a human being) and “with the same respect” for the per­son­al dig­ni­ty and integri­ty of the part­ner. In an equal dig­ni­ty rela­tion­ship, the wish­es, beliefs and needs of both part­ners are tak­en equal­ly seriously. 

Jes­per Juul: Was Fam­i­lien trägt.

Equal dig­ni­ty inten­tion­al­ly dif­fers from equal­i­ty in that it does not ini­tial­ly address equal rights and oblig­a­tions. It rather refers to the atti­tude of rec­og­niz­ing the oth­er mem­bers of the com­mu­ni­ty in their indi­vid­u­al­i­ty and their sub­jec­tive needs and desires instead of degrad­ing them to mere objects. The task of lead­er­ship and the respon­si­bil­i­ty remains clear­ly with the par­ents (and is not del­e­gat­ed in the style of lais­sez-faire or demo­c­ra­t­ic approach­es), but with the clear goal of the inde­pen­dent lead­er­ship of the (then adult) children.

Not only edu­ca­tion is rela­tion­ship, but in gen­er­al lead­er­ship is rela­tion­ship. Lead­er­ship always takes place in and through rela­tion­ships between peo­ple. In our orga­ni­za­tions, too, we should there­fore pay atten­tion to the qual­i­ty of the rela­tion­ships and shape them not with fear but rather with equal dig­ni­ty accord­ing to the Man­i­festo for Human(e) Lead­er­ship.

The Good Word

For Father Anselm Grün the most impor­tant virtue in deal­ing with peo­ple is humil­i­ty. This does not mean mak­ing one­self small, but rather the courage to face one’s own imper­fect human­i­ty. Who­ev­er leads with humil­i­ty can­not place him­self above oth­ers, but meets peo­ple with respect and friendliness.

Deci­sive for this encounter in humil­i­ty is the good word in the sense of Eph­esians: “Let no cor­rupt­ing talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for build­ing up, as fits the occa­sion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” (Eph 4,29). In rela­tion­ships of equal dig­ni­ty peo­ple grow and pros­per. They are built up and not repressed by fear. The good word awak­ens life – in peo­ple and in the web of equal dig­ni­ty rela­tion­ships through­out the organization.

He who leads oth­ers must above all mas­ter the art of praise. Praise means: to speak well to a per­son (lat.: benedicere), to say good things about him and to him. Who­ev­er speaks to the good in a per­son, will also lure it out in him. He moti­vates the per­son more than by crit­i­cism and control.

Anselm Grün: Men­schen führen – leben wecken

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