Why does leadership fail? 

October 4, 2022 | Leadership and Organizational Development, Leadership und Organisationsentwicklung

I don’t know about you, but lately I’ve been meeting people more often who tell me: “I’m having more and more difficulties with leadership, Mr. Krause,” because contradictory demands are being placed on managers. On the one hand, they should enforce rules and, on the other hand, grant freedom and encourage creativity. And on the extreme end, they are told that leadership will be of little importance in the future world of work anyway. But before we rashly deny the necessity of leadership, let’s first ask ourselves: What causes leadership to fail? 

One answer is: the inherent paradoxes of leadership. This refers to irreconcilable opposites (“dualities”) that present executives with a dilemma. Leadership dilemmas arise because a duality places fundamentally conflicting demands on the leader that are perceived as irreconcilable, and each leadership situation then requires a situational resolution for these contradictions. These pairs of contradictions become clear whenever the goals – and the resulting demands – are logically contradictory for employees. These contradictions are addressed below. Let’s start with the first paradox: 

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Leadership guides the transition between standards and change 

Without standards there is no improvement, is a much-quoted phrase. The dialectic behind the claim is illustrated by an analogy. Change is like friction: very few people want it, and yet we need it to move around the world. 

Standards stand for stability, reliability and freedom from errors. However, if the standards are no longer changed, improvement cannot take place. Change initially creates instability, unreliability, and susceptibility to errors. Our brain (and psyche) functions in an energy-efficient manner. Change means effort – one reason why we don’t like to relearn things. Change, when in doubt, threatens our identity. Therefore, we do not like to deviate from standards. Nevertheless, externally driven stimulation to improve standards is necessary. Because progress is only possible be doing so. 

Leadership is the organization of change. Organizing change means consciously alternating stable and unstable phases. Thus, it makes no sense to want to opt only for change or only for preservation or consolidation. Both phases must be alternated, and each organization must find its own rhythm. 

Leadership supports self-determination and external determination 

“Have the courage to use your own reason!” With these words, Immanuel Kant once challenged people to free themselves from their self-inflicted immaturity. He promoted a life of self-determination and the courage to take responsibility for it. Experiencing self-determination and self-efficacy is a universal basic psychological need*. If we follow this, we find that we are able to successfully overcome challenges. Everyday work is characterized by the tension between self-determination (autonomy) and heteronomy. It starts with signing an employment contract. Here, employees relinquish some of their autonomy. Formal and informal rules provide the framework for cooperation and prevent transaction costs. Still, managers want employees who think productively against the grain, not mere “yes sayers.” Loyalty is demonstrated here through critical fidelity. The rule is: as much autonomy as possible, as much heteronomy as necessary. 

Leadership enables learning, although learning is often not fun 

The fact that managers are expected to take on multiple roles is nothing new. Acting as a mentor when explaining something to employees or guiding them during a thought experiment, can often cause discomfort on both sides. When was the last time that a manager and employee had such an intensive discussion that they both learned something? Learning is not (only) the ability to accumulate knowledge. This would be more of a testament to one’s memorization and absorption capacity rather than one’s ability to understand a subject. Learning is preceded by a mistake. But who likes making mistakes? Who feels good after a mistake is made? How does a person become aware of their incompetence? Nobody likes to be wrong – especially not if the environment registers it immediately. When people are confronted with their own incompetence from others, there is rarely any joy involved. But the rule applies: We only learn from mistakes. Here, too, the contradiction becomes apparent: on the one hand, we know that mistakes are necessary, but on the other, we do not want to experience it. So don’t be surprised if your employees don’t enjoy the fact that they should be exposed to being wrong.  


This is because leadership defines itself as responsible mediation between system interests and individual needs – and in doing so, it possesses an excess of power.

Frank Krause
Senior Partner, STAUFEN.AG

Leadership works through closeness and distance 

The relationship between supervisors and employees is a contradiction between human closeness and professional distance. The physical distance between the two parties is less important than the way in which managers and employees talk to each other. How this contradiction is resolved is determined by communication. Closeness is created through communication when we give meaning to others through our words and are personally interested in them. If, on the other hand, we make it clear through communication that we only see their usability – even unconsciously, then the relationship becomes more functional than personal, and distance is created. No one wants to be reduced to their usability and just be a “wheel in the gearbox.” Appreciating someone on a personal and functional level is therefore equally important. 


Let’s return to the assumption we made at the beginning: Will leadership be of little importance in the future world of work? The answer is no! On the contrary! The new trend that leaders should hold themselves back in providing orientation to the team, which occasionally even culminates in the assertion that managers no longer need to know exactly what is going on, that autonomous employees know better and should best decide for themselves, is particularly dangerous in times of crisis. This is because leadership defines itself as responsible mediation between system interests and individual needs – and in doing so, it possesses an excess of power.

For mentors, the following especially applies: If you want to invite and encourage your employees to learn, you should be interested in them professionally and personally and be able to assess how they learn best. 

Those who absolutize the right to autonomy and self-direction ignore the fact that all employees are integrated into a (corporate) system and thus may have conflicting interests. Balancing these interests requires a representative. You guessed it, and you’re right: the manager takes on this task. 

* Edward L. Deci, & Richard M. Ryan (2008): Self-Determination Theory: A Macrotheory of Human Motivation, Development, and Health, p. 183. In: Canadian Psychology 49, 182–185. 

Author RGB

Frank Krause

Senior Partner

STAUFEN.AG

Texts are never created when you’re alone. Your own thoughts are also always the result of external stimulation.

The following authors serve to inspire me and accompany me on my path to insight: Tom DeMarco, Peter Drucker, Ulrike Herrmann, Gerald Hüther, Daniel T. Jones, Stefan Kühl, Rupert Lay, Jeffrey K. Liker, Michael Löhner, Fredmund Malik, Hans A. Pestalozzi, Richard D. Precht, Marshall B. Rosenberg, Mike Rother, Friedemann Schulz von Thun, Reinhard Sprenger, Frederic Vester, Harald Welzer, and James P. Womack.

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