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Madness as Usual

Leadership – The surprising return of heroic management

  • Stefan Kühl
  • Thursday, 5. January 2023

Many organizations, whether in business, public administration, or professional associations, are now moving towards self-organization models. At the same time, the calls for strong leadership are getting louder. In some of the organizations that are, according to the business press, the most cutting edge, self-organization and charismatic leadership seem to come as a package. One sometimes gets the impression that, alongside the dissemination of ideas about self-organization, we are seeing a return of the ‘hero’ manager.

The reason for the continued appeal of strong leadership, despite all the hype around post-heroic management, is a general trend away from conditional programmes and towards purposive programmes in many organizations that are based on self-organization. In conditional programmes, a specific trigger must be followed by a precisely prescribed action. The work at conveyor belts would be a typical example for the coupling of such conditional programs. In the case of purposive programmes, the decisions being taken are based on the goals to be achieved, and the decision-makers are more or less free to choose how to achieve them.[1]

There is substantial evidence that many organizations based on self-organizing teams see levels of coordination through conditional programmes diminish. Adhering too strictly to the conditional principle of ‘If this happens, then do exactly that’ means that individual decision-makers have insufficient leeway. It seems that exerting control through the use of purposive programmes will become increasingly important, as is clear from the ongoing debates in decentralized organizations about target agreements, key performance indicators, and management by objectives.

Purposive programmes place different demands on leadership compared to conditional programmes. While programmes for routine activities determine individual actions with relative clarity, allowing management to concentrate on the control of the actions and on providing the motivations for them, the negotiation and implementation of target agreements requires different leadership qualities. Target agreements provide individual actors with considerable leeway, and therefore the problems of control that they pose for managers are of almost heroic proportions.

[1] On conditional programs, see James G. March and A. Simon, Organizations, New York: Wiley, 1958, pp. 141f.


Prof. Stefan Kühl

links in his observations the latest results from research with the current challenges of the corporate world.

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