Certainties and structures in the environment of organizations are rapidly dissolving, internal organizational worlds appear more complex and segmented, fleeting, uncertain, more ambiguous. Leaders as well as followers are increasingly lacking orientation in their role: they are thrown back on themselves, on their relationship to one another, on fundamental questions of existence; to fearlessness and fear, finitude and senselessness, connectedness and loneliness, authenticity and doubt, freedom and responsibility. There is a great longing for an existential anchor. And established as well as modern management concepts appear increasingly questionable. – We take these findings as a starting point to shed light on the essence of leadership and to illuminate the consequences for leadership and counselling practice. The essence comes into view as soon as leadership drops the mask of emotional management, shows its face in the encountering dialogue and responds to questions of being human in organisations. – That is the aim of our »Existential Leadership« project.
Georg Martensen: Companies and other organizations waste gigantic budgets year after year on the development of personnel and, above all, executives. The results are poor and disappointing: Employees, executives, HR managers and top management have been frustrated for themselves and collectively for years. – That is the central result of the »Global Leadership Forecast« studies by the DDI: Almost two thirds of managers describe the range of development measures as ineffective at best. Only one in four HR managers classifies the leadership quality in their own company as high. Method training and behavioural training devour resources and create a stagnation in leadership ability that has persisted for years and has been exhausting for everyone: »Leadership is going nowhere fast« is the summary. If you follow the relevant studies by Hays, DDI, Ernst & Young, Deloitte, GALLUP, and others, then many employees have internally resigned and feel no connection with their company. A large part of the workforce is on duty by the book.
René Märtin: And that is particularly thought‐provoking because our world is changing rapidly and we have to deal with enormous challenges: What was considered safe and certain no longer applies, traditional structures and internal organizational worlds are rapidly disintegrating. The world of work is inevitably becoming more complex and segmented, more fleeting, uncertain, more ambiguous … »What can I still hold on to« is becoming an existential question, especially in the corporate context. This question affects all areas, including the issue of loyalty.
Georg Martensen: The lip service to the so‐called employee loyalty is as loud as it goes unheard. It must be clear: solidarity and loyalty are based on the free decision of the individual. Finally, it relates to the behaviour of the immediate manager. And this is usually the decisive result of the prevailing culture. This finding has also been stable and chronic for a long time. But the lack of effective answers is just as reliable. In view of the eroding structures in the world of work, which you rightly address, the willingness and will to take on a greater degree of personal responsibility, freedom and responsibility in the company grow. But fear and the tendency to helplessness and attachment are also activated.
The simultaneity and ambivalence can be clearly seen in the study results of the »Wertewelten Arbeit 4.0«. These are simply an expression of the multidimensionality of humans. The prevailing paradigm, however, has no differentiated answers: organizations and management all too often take refuge in paternalistic reflexes and believe they are forced to make promises of wellbeing. Only the side of psychodynamic fear is answered, not existential courage. Probably because you trust each other less – or even expect them to be – than you do yourself. Ultimately, the common frustration of failure in leadership can be attributed to the phenomena of collective irrationality and self‐fulfilling prophecies. But this lays the groundwork for a spiral of mutual dependencies, which leads to delimitation, hyper‐inclusion, and self‐optimization. This then has nothing to do with voluntary employee loyalty, with personal responsibility and fulfilment in a task.
René Märtin: The subjects you mention are not part of established management concepts at all. Nobody likes to admit that existential issues have a direct impact on leadership. Or that he feels repeatedly bound and insecure within competing loyalties or diverse organizational rationalities. Am I loyal to the management – or to my closest employees? What is more decisive for business success and what do I really depend on within the organization? Many often experience themselves entangled and trapped in it. And yet they are all united by the desire for congruence, identity, and continuity within their currently very different professional roles. I experience this in my practice in such a way that leaders and those who are led are increasingly lacking orientation because role expectations are becoming more diffuse and structures are becoming fluid. Managers and employees are thrown back on themselves, on their relationship to one another as persons, on fundamental questions of existence; to fearlessness and fear, finitude and senselessness, connectedness and loneliness, authenticity and doubt, freedom, and responsibility.
Georg Martensen: Yes, there is a great longing for an existential anchor. That is why I think there is no other way: We must look at leadership issues from an existential perspective. Due to the current challenges, people are coming to the edge of their existence, have borderline experiences – especially in companies. The existential demands of the individual are increasingly taking place within the organization, not just outside. It is about seeing people in their existential need but also in their existential ability.
René Märtin: … and not only in his psychodynamics! It struck me that holistic or evolutionary organizational concepts put people back in the centre but took several wrong turns: The emphasis on feelings and sensitivities, the functionalization of the question of meaning, the total expansion of the organization on the human factor. The orientation of each employee towards a »purpose« or the team as a »family« even seems quite harmless to me. I find it more worrying that people should give themselves completely to the company in a kind of hyper‐inclusion. Some organizations want nothing less than to confiscate the entire employee, an assault that can almost be called totalitarian. Still pushed by the constant availability in the digital age.
Georg Martensen: This reductionism to feelings as sensitivities misses people in their actual possibilities and strivings. If, for example, a vacuum opens for the individual in the organization and he asks the question: »What is all this for?« if that is his existential topic first, then his question of meaning is addressed here. My question then would be: »Does this really belong here? Is the company responsible for your life issues? Is that now part of our psychological contract?« The paternalistic reflex is: »We have to make people an offer of meaning”, the economic reflex is, »because otherwise they will go off the rails«.
To be honest, I have great doubts that this can be the job of companies and other economic organizations. I think the point must be to make it clear: »What is my contribution to this against the background of the entrepreneurial concern?« – Nietzsche’s sentence, which was formulated by Viktor Frankl: »He who has a why to live can bear almost any how«, says your own decision based on your own why, we’d better say »what for«. The purpose drive, however, functionalises this »what for«. While this focuses on transcendence, for example towards a charged corporate goal, it bypasses the previously necessary step of self‐distance and thus bogs the person down in a dependency – and thus undermines his or her decision towards a free connectedness. I find that problematic. However, it shows by way of example that existential questions about being human arise in organizations and how – unfortunately – they are often answered.
René Märtin: Yes, and Wellbeing Managers should then bring the emotional balance and physical fitness in order so that the motivation to perform is also right: »What do you need to feel comfortable at your workplace? Tea kitchen, fruit basket, massages … what else can you do besides create meaning? We still have corporate volunteering on offer …«. This expresses anything but freedom, self‐determination, personal responsibility. Nobody has learned to see the existential dimension here. But that is what it must be about: To highlight the essentials of leadership and to shed light on the consequences for leadership and consulting practice. The essence comes into view as soon as leadership drops the mask of feeling management, shows face in the encountered dialogue and answers questions about being human in organizations.
Georg Martensen: That’s how I understand it, too. And that is what we want here with our »Existential Leadership« project: We describe the main features of an existentially understood leadership and organizational culture, its anthropology, and its application. And for us nothing less than the emancipated, free, and self‐reliant person is at the centre of our discussions …
René Märtin: … and respecting the autonomy of the person, using it as an »end in oneself«, not just as »being a means to an end« is the ethical foundation of personal freedom and responsibility. So, it is about an existential approach that opens up new perspectives on the people in the organization.