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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