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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