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Good Leadership Makes Itself Unnecessary

Leadership no longer means command and control. It is no privilege, but rather a service. And this service is to empower and enable people to lead themselves independently in the sense of the whole and thereby make those people successful. The transformation to new leadership necessarily begins with the individual and his assumptions about human nature. But this transformation inevitably irritates the organization and its culture. This new understanding of leadership, as described in the Manifesto for Human(e) Leadership, will be dismissed as laziness, incompetence or irresponsibility, as it aims at making itself unnecessary and thus challenges the grasping and sometimes frantic activity of traditional management.

Even though leadership in organizations today is increasingly supportive and protective and less punitive and frightening, it still sticks to the paradigm of dependency. Expressed in terms of Transactional Analysis, the traditional manager acts from the position of the (criticising or nurturing) parent while the employee remains in the position of the (rebellious or adapted) child. Leadership between equal partners, however, requires independent adults. Not really a new insight, as a quick glance at Peter F. Drucker shows.

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

Just as parents must make themselves unnecessary in the sense that their children become independent adults, good leadership must make itself unnecessary. Good leadership empowers and enables self-management and autonomy and thus yields self-discipline instead of blind obedience. A good leader can be recognized by how the place performs when he or she is not present, as Reinhard K. Sprenger aptly puts it. This insight, too, is not new, but more than two thousand years old, as this well-known paragraph from the Tao Te Ching proves:

A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.

Laozi. Tao Te Ching.

So we do not lack knowledge and the Manifesto for Human(e) Leadership makes a modest contribution in refreshing it. But despite all this knowledge, we still have a problem with implementation. Where leadership is confused with either micromanagement or overprotection, servant leadership, which makes itself unnecessary, is misinterpreted somewhere amid laziness, incompetence and carelessness. Measured by the standard of classical management, this new leadership is suspiciously passive and not particularly heroic. And after all proper leadership requires proper heroes who energetically engage and get down to it. Isn’ it?

As long as you need heroes or culprits to explain a situation convincingly, you haven’t understood it yet.

Gerhard Wohland

New: The Book on the Manifesto for Human(e) Leadership

On the occasion of the first anniversary I published a detailed version of the Manifesto for Human(e) Leadership on Leanpub. I am looking forward to feedback and impulses on the one hand and, of course, to broad dissemination on the other. Please spread the word!

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Filed under: Leadership


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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