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

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