Cult of Presence Narratives: The Captain Belongs on the Bridge

With the first loosening of the exit restrictions, in many offices the ramp-up back to the pre-Corona cult of presence begins, because real work can only be done in the office and only under supervision.

In times of cri­sis, char­ac­ter is revealed. And for some man­agers this is rather an oath of dis­clo­sure by ask­ing the more or less open­ly asked ques­tion “How do I con­trol whether my employ­ees real­ly work in the home office? Although this pan­dem­ic is forc­ing com­pa­nies into a dis­trib­uted, dig­i­tal and remote-first work mod­el as nev­er before, and although this mod­el works sur­pris­ing­ly well and some­times even bet­ter than in an open-plan office for many employ­ees, too few are yet ques­tion­ing the first dog­ma of the cult of pres­ence: Real work is only pos­si­ble in the office and only under supervision.

There­fore, only a present employ­ee is a good employ­ee. A pop­u­lar nar­ra­tive of this cult of pres­ence is this one: The cap­tain belongs on the bridge. And because pro­mo­tion in many hier­ar­chi­cal orga­ni­za­tions has a lot to do with vis­i­bil­i­ty, the offi­cers, sergeants, and those who seek a career, nat­u­ral­ly want to be in no way infe­ri­or to him in their zeal for pres­ence. A boss who defines and dis­tin­guish­es him­self through pres­ence attracts the career-ori­ent­ed part of the crew through his role mod­el and for the rest the Erlkönig knows advice: “And if thou’rt unwill­ing, then force I’ll employ.” A cap­tain on the bridge with­out a crew on board would­n’t make much sense anyway.

The cap­tain of a ship actu­al­ly belongs on the bridge. Even if many man­agers enjoy see­ing them­selves as such, their work is still very dif­fer­ent. Or at least could be dif­fer­ent with a dif­fer­ent con­cept of lead­er­ship. Chess requires con­stant pres­ence and con­cen­tra­tion of the grand­mas­ter—with­out him noth­ing moves on the board. For the expe­ri­enced gar­den­er, on the oth­er hand, a mind­ful tour is enough, which also serves more to enjoy the flow­ers and fruits than to con­trol them.

The temp­ta­tion to lead as a chess mas­ter, con­trol­ling each move of the orga­ni­za­tion, must give way to an approach as a gar­den­er, enabling rather than directing.

Stan­ley McChrys­tal, 2015. Team of Teams (Ama­zon Affil­i­ate-Link)

Lead­er­ship and espe­cial­ly lead­er­ship at a dis­tance needs con­text not con­trol. To hold all the strings tight and to keep the reins short has not been the appro­pri­ate con­cept of lead­er­ship in a world that was already described very apt­ly by VUCA (volatil­i­ty, uncer­tain­ty, com­plex­i­ty and ambi­gu­i­ty) before COVID-19. Rather, it is the task of lead­er­ship to pro­vide a prop­er set­ting for self-orga­ni­za­tion, just as a gar­den­er looks after his gar­den with care and patience.

The fifth thesis of the Manifesto for Human(e) Leadership
The fifth the­sis of the Man­i­festo for Human(e) Leadership

Reed Hast­ings there­fore makes as few deci­sions as pos­si­ble as CEO of Net­flix and David Mar­quet also stopped giv­ing orders as cap­tain of the nuclear sub­ma­rine USS San­ta Fe. And this is pre­cise­ly why the Man­i­festo for Human(e) Lead­er­ship states “grow­ing lead­ers over lead­ing fol­low­ers”. This atti­tude makes all the dif­fer­ence in the office as well as in remote work.

It doesn’t make sense to hire smart peo­ple and tell them what to do; we hire smart peo­ple so they can tell us what to do.

Steve Jobs

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