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Interpersonal Leadership

A basis for contemporary leadership thinking

Peter Pröll

An article by Peter Pröll
Special thanks to Niels Pfläging, Silke Hermann, and Ernst Weichselbaum
for your thought impulses and insights.

Reading time approx. 9 minutes


There are few terms in the business world of such high importance as the term leadership: Be it in the context of personnel management, where there is too little understanding of whether and how meaningful it is to lead people. Or in the field of "new work" and the agile context, when we want to achieve self-management and self-organization and stumble over old patterns of thought. Here, the understanding of leadership is elementary - as the basis for organizational design and a company's success.

We live outdated leadership paradigms from times of predictable, stable markets and try to transfer our experiences into the now, a time of highly volatile, complex markets. Optimization of traditional paradigms, instead of new thinking based on the changed context, dominates the daily events. In the following, I would like to take a closer look at leadership and invite you to rethink it.


The classic approach: expersonal leadership

The approach which shaped us, and we grew up with, is classic management. Our entire language "thinks" in this way. Search Google for "leadership" or search for synonyms. The chances are good that you had only thought in this context when the topic of leadership was discussed. A framework characterized by the fact that there is always one active and one or many passive parts. Examples of this - in decreasing extremes:

  • Manager and subordinates
  • Leaders and followers
  • Servant leaders and supported followers

I propose a new term for this type of classical leadership:

I call this kind of leadership "expersonal leadership" - originating from a person.

It should serve as a differentiation to "interpersonal leadership", which I will discuss later.

The historical background of expersonal leadership is enormous. Expersonal leadership is based on a power differential. The leading, active person has professional or personnel responsibility and uses it to control the people to be led.

Steering of people and the exercising of power and control has - in addition to the ethically questionable aspects - certainly fulfilled a clear and meaningful task in the past. In the context of the management, standardization and alignment were vital elements to achieve efficiency. Individuality and thinking were not required or even undesirable.

A passive, rather change-prone behavior is the human reaction to any expersonal leadership. What makes humans different from computers, robots, and algorithms is suppressed by expersonal leadership. Thinking along with others, taking the initiative, assuming responsibility, and creativity are reduced. As a result, the human being resembles more and more a thing in his behavior. The common terms of human resources, personnel, and personnel management fit perfectly. The MIT professor and researcher in social economics Douglas McGregor described this effect in detail as early as 1961 in his work "The Human Side of Enterprise".

Confidence ennobles man; eternal custody inhibits his maturing.

(Johann Gottfried Frey, Prussian civil servant, 1762-1831, created the foundation for local self-government)

Expersonal leadership is always based on developing or maintaining a power differential. Nowadays, this claim to power is usually based on missing confidence. Steering and control are the necessary consequences of this attitude. And yes, I classify "servant leadership" in the category of expersonal leadership because servant leadership leads to comfortable behavior as a consequence. A behavior that responds to the subtle, subtle control and can be led passively.

Servant leadership is undoubtedly the crown of optimization of expersonal leadership and, thus, the maximum of what can be achieved within management in hierarchically controlled companies. It is a long road from strict, dictatorial command & control to servant leadership. But this is where the road ends. Consistent self-management (as in self-organization) is unthinkable in such a context. To get ahead, optimization of expersonal leadership is not enough. We have to rethink leadership from scratch.

Contemporary leadership is interpersonal leadership

Niklas Luhmann offers help if we want to break out of the expersonal leadership prison. In his systems theory, he describes that the essential happens between people. And it is at this point - between people - that leadership can arise.

I want to introduce the term "interpersonal leadership" here - existing between people.

For this purpose, we detach the concept of leadership from the subject. It no longer needs a dedicated role or position to exercise leadership.

Preconditional thoughts about interpersonal leadership

Detaching the active role form leadership does not flatter the strive for the power of individuals. Nor does it flatter those people who have a rather negative image of humankind in general and who lack confidence in other people. Hobbes, unfortunately, strongly influences us in our notion of humankind. We consider cynical fiction à la "Lord of the Flies" to be realistic. And we are continually being reinforced in this dysfunctional perception of humankind by our upbringing, society, language, and the media. People only behave in a "civilized" and common sense if others guided them, and if there was a "civil corset", so the thesis. All unselfish behavior would basically be a facade. If it fell, we would live like savages. Hence the expression "facade theory". It can be said that under the Hobbesian premise of facade theory, only expersonal leadership is conceivable, and tayloristically structured decision hierarchies are the only alternative.

To prove the facade theory - and since Hobbes, all attempts have been unsuccessful - suspicious experiments have been conducted, which, when viewed scientifically, refute this same theory with flying colors! Rutger Bregman has taken up this topic and compiled the human image's scientific aspects in his work "Humankind." I highly recommend this book as an essential work for understanding society and human beings. One can also scientifically approach this topic by studying Luhmann and McGregor or going back to the beginnings of social psychology and reading up on Kurt Lewin. Indeed, success stories a la Svenska Handelsbanken, Toyota, Southwest Airlines, dm-drogerie markt, and many other companies would be unthinkable under the premise of a facade theory. Under this premise, agile work, self-organization, self-control, and democracy are perceived as a danger that would have to lead to anarchy and chaos. The facade theory is a plea against complexity. It demands and requires planning, steering, standardization, and control.

In short: facade theory is not appropriate to reality - neither to human nature nor to the existence of a complex market! Instead, human nature, which is aware of the importance of community, is appropriate. Natural human behavior is not selfishly motivated but is strongly oriented towards the needs of its community.

Leadership without leaders

When I refer to Luhmann's system theory, I will start with a warning. Luhmann's texts are not easy to understand. Luhmann does not want to make life difficult for the inclined reader. Rather, his claim is based on the fact that our language is not very suitable for putting his theories into words. Our sentences consist of subject, predicate, and object: The team leader (subject) leads (predicate) the team (object). Luhmann's systems theory, however, is essentially subject-free - just like the concept of interpersonal leadership. There is no subject, which leads the object.

The popular variant "the team leads/determinates/manages/organizes itself" is a misleading simplification. It equates subject and object and thus only excludes external control. We have not explained what self-organization in teams is, but merely clarified what it is not.

We must not stop thinking at this point. If we were satisfied with this simplified understanding, we would end up with leadership-less chaos or disguised-expersonal leadership. In the latter case, one likes to speak of informal hierarchies that form in "self-organized" teams and would make self-organization possible in the first place. This deception has nothing to do with self-organization. Because the term self-organization tempts the restriction mentioned above and simplifies thinking, I invite you to speak and think about "interpersonal leadership" instead.

Ernst Weichselbaum is a master of words reduced to the essential. I highly recommend his book "In jedem Unternehmen steckt ein besseres" (currently only available in the German language). But even he cannot put interpersonal leadership into words due to the deficit of our language. However, he uses a highly intelligent trick. He does not describe what interpersonal leadership is. Instead, he uses the concept of authority and thus turns to the source of leadership:

Authority is not a property of persons but is generated by the interaction of at least two persons. Authority is based on agreement.

Ernst Weichselbaum

He thus clearly rejects expersonal leadership. If we recall the consequences of expersonal leadership, one can only agree with Weichselbaum. Expersonal leadership is ethically questionable and leads to a passive, little engaged behavior. No company can afford this luxury anymore.

It is time to see expersonal leadership for what it is: obsolete and inappropriate to reality. Instead, we need to rely on structures and decision-making methods that correspond to interpersonal leadership because it is ethically appropriate. And in a sustainable, unpredictable world, leadership must also be complex to generate sustainable economic success.

Interpersonal leadership, on the other hand, is the prerequisite for complexity robustness and value creation, for a wealth of ideas and sustainable, economic success. It ensures diversity, promotes the individual, strengthens the community, and is the core of our democracy. 


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