Why Digital Leaders? A contribution against the grain

Dec 13, 2016
Why Digital Leaders? A contribution against the grain

Translation of the Original Article by Siegfried Lautenbacher and Alexander Klier 13.12.2016


"Self-organization and self-responsibility are the result of the fact that nobody ‘manages in’“(Kühl 2001, pg.390). Currently, the digital leader is hotly debated in the context of the digital revolution. We, on the other hand ask the question: do we still need managers after the digital transformation?

Picture: thinkpublic - Leaders on Flickr. Use under the conditions of the Creative Commons (BY-SA).

„A manager who would successfully succeed in implementing self-organization in his area of responsibility would ultimately make himself superfluous. If a manager with the claim to enable complete self-organization and complete self-responsibility for the employees, to really deliver 'total quality', he would no longer be useful as a manager" (Kühl 2001, S.390).

What Stefan Kühl wrote here (and very early) in the readable essay "Die Heimtücke der eigenen Organisationsgeschichte" can be directly transferred to the current discussion about "Digital Leadership". This blog post deals specifically with proposals which Harald Schirmer - whom we very much appreciate as a thinker – makes in this respect (here und here). However, we would like to be paradoxical and read Harald Schirmer's theses against the grain. So perhaps life comes into the shackle - in our opinion, a necessary prerequisite for a continuation in the debate.

In order to be able to act accordingly, however, we have to first characterize what the management or leaders have in themselves, because at least the leaders are attributed - i.e. awarded - a lot of properties. Such a person is agile, does not do micromanagement and is eager to learn from me (us). Furthermore, he or she carries no tie (!), provides permanent feedback and manages that I feel that I am important. Finally, it is a person who perceives my feelings and shows me the big picture (the connections). At the same time, he (still) acts at eye level and can handle diversity. If this is not even Superman.

As might be expected of us, we proceed our analysis with Hegel, by distinguishing the leadership in itself, so as a building block in the organizational structure and the leadership of itself, so their (expected) properties. Finally, in order to be able to see and characterize a "come to itself" leadership in and of itself. Or was not it rather a leadership task or even a management work? We'll see.


The Leadership in itself

The question of digital executives is in vogue at the moment, and seems to some as the royal road of the digital transformation. Harald Schirmer speaks with many others in this context of a paradigm shift from management within the meaning of management towards "Leadership". The strong emphasis on the necessity that executives are so important for the digital revolution, even if they currently do not do justice to this importance, lets us look back on history. More precisely on the development history of modern factories and enterprises. The work organization here is still characterized by the spirit of a "scientific management" as a control form. This form of control means, above all, a separation of manual and intellectual work(ers) and, with it, an assumed or even wanted "knowledge expropriation" of its employees. From the point of view of control technology (that is, from directing and steering), this knowledge development leads to the assumption that the planning of both the strategic objectives and the necessary work processes can only be organized by managers who are specifically responsible for this. For example, because only these people have the appropriate knowledge - or can at least acquire it. The consequence of these considerations and the resulting blueprint is clear: the "simple" employees have to be subordinated to the instructions of the resulting line hierarchy. This, in turn, is "realized" and implemented by the executives. In this sense, executives are a socially necessary condition for Tayloristic organizations. To put it more simply: "In itself", the leadership is a tool.

Because of the fact that this organizational principle is generally at the disposition, the question of leadership in digital and networked organizations is paradoxical, if not "Jack and Joe" (as synonymous with "normal" employees), when networked, are capable of leading. Or would they at least be able to, if they could work in the appropriate structures and be equipped with the necessary social competences? In this case, that is, if the structures (the blueprint) are designed in such a way that all persons involved in the production process or the provision of the service could lead - at least in principle - managers would actually become superfluous. What is - in our opinion, by the way - not equal at all that leadership as a task would thereby be superfluous. Leadership must continue to take place, but in a different way. So, by “the leading” opposed to the personell emphasis of the factor of leading executive. In this sense, the control of a digital organization would be "de-personalized", but not superfluous or abolished. "In order for leadership to become a self-evident component of the work of every employee, such organizations need a robust and efficient social architecture and infrastructure" (Oesterreich & Schröder 2016, pg. VIII). But back to the leaders, this time from the perspective of a description of what competencies they have to posess and how they should be "for themselves", for example as role models.


The Leadership of itself

"Digital Leaders" first would need to develop a "digital mindset", whatever exactly that is supposed to be. We have already mentioned the basic characteristics attributed to them above. As leaders "of themselves", however, further characteristics are added. For example, the fact that digital leaders grow, motivate, and ultimately lead virtual communities, and that they are authentic and acknowledged for their abilities, that they have a mission, that they have solved the question of why for themselves and are communicating that. And finally that they connect people. Looking at the properties of these characteristics, then it very quickly becomes clear that they are the conditions of successful collaborations.

In order for these conditions to manifest, they must be carried out. It is not enough that they are only declared or you somehow show that you know about them. The execution itself cannot be done abstractly, but is (and has to be) an integral part of the daily workflow in a collaborative context. In other words: Only when Leaders act as collaborative employees, they display all the qualities, which are attributed to them as digital necessary properties within the context of the current discussion (or they do not, if they do not have these). The paradox in this view is that the Leaders become a part of the cooperating people in the execution. And thus they have to be "simple" employees on eye level in the common project, in order to be able to show the properties as digital leaders. Possibly, they have a particular competency in a specific aspect that they (can) bring to the task. Then they are recognized in this and receive – in regards to this property - the recognition and the mandate of the other employees.

The most important consideration we conclude is that this task of leadership can no longer be understood as a position, which is assigned to certain people based on qualifications, such as training or simply on the basis of (power) relations, but that they must be "roles", which are flexibly obtained through a mandate, which is then filled by a joint decision (of the persons involved). Flexible means, depending on the property, which is necessary to implement the task at hand in the best possible way. Both the competencies and the mandate are awarded by the circle of those who are involved in the execution of the task, i.e. those directly concerned, not by an external person or even by the boss.

The Leadership in and of itself

At least, according to the idea, you can consider Leadership as a leadership qua structure or process. Then, of course, the question arises as to who or what could be the „process owners" of such a process. Within the framework of agile concepts, there are quite specific proposals and different tools. We further believe that - taking both aspects together - one can deduce from the evolutive strength of the people in the sense of collaborative collaboration and common intentionality (Michael Tomasello), that changing leadership tasks based on the specific role and qua mandate, represent the original and more efficient form of cooperation. If we sum this up further, it is clear to us that leadership is not a person at all, but a special social-technological approach and process, that allows for leadership and control in digital organizations. "We believe that we as a civilization are still at the beginning with this leadership and organizational paradigm and that the era of the network economy is just beginning" (Oesterreich & Schröder 2016, S. VIII). 

The longing for the ideal digital leadership, which is expressed in the current discussion with the attribution of very diverse characteristics, reveals a deep longing, for example, a "policy competency" in a world perceived as outrageously complex. There must be specialists who are knowledgeable and are able to give the appropriate instructions. This is comprehensible, but inadequate and not infrequently even hindering because it has a structure-conservative effect. That is, instead of aiming at changing the behavior, skills, and needs of people as leaders, we should focus on the system, analyze the processes, and strengthen the collaborative work context. A backward shifting of the process control into the corresponding teams and groups simultaneously means an increasing inner complexity of each organization.

By increasing the self-organization ability and consequently change the conditions - so to speak, the "social conditions" for work – the VUCA world cannot be managed (an illusion that just made many consultants to a promise), but the respective organizations can at least react aggressively to the challenges and counter complexity with their own complexity. The paradoxes we have addressed, which are precisely the result of putting them on the table, is at the moment the most exciting thing that the discussions about digital transformation and the future of work have to offer. We look forward to further discussions.


Used literature:

Stefan Kühl (2001): Die Heimtücke der eigenen Organisationsgeschichte. Downloadable at http://www.uni-bielefeld.de/soz/forschung/orgsoz/Stefan_Kuehl/Eigene%20Publikationen/Kuehl-Stefan-2001-Die-Heimtuecke-der-eigenen-Organisationsgeschichte-.pdf

Bernd Oesterreich & Claudia Schröder (2016): Das kollegial geführte Unternehmen: Ideen und Praktiken für die agile Organisation von morgen. Publisher Vahlen

Harald Schirmer (2016): What makes a leader a „digital“ leader? Blog at  http://www.harald-schirmer.de/2016/12/06/what-makes-a-leader-a-digital-leader/ and Slides at http://www.slideshare.net/haraldschirmer/digital-leadership-vs-leadership-in-the-digital-age