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

Get the Manifesto for Human(e) Leadership as Paperback

Manifesto for Human(e) Leadership: Cover of English paperback The Manifesto for Human(e) Leadership is also available in a detailed version as a paperback at Amazon (also as an e-book). Since I have published the book independently, I am always delighted to receive word of mouth recommendations to colleagues, friends and acquaintances.

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