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Making Oneself Redundant – An Ideal Type of Leadership?
FEBRUARY 2012 · 扬帆(Jan Ketil Arnulf)
Keywords: leadership, cooperation


An often-heard definition of “leadership” is “to create results through other people”.  Leadership, then, is about “creating results”, but strictly speaking, it will be “the others” who are actually creating the results by the work they are doing. From a financial point of view, leadership or management may actually be seen as a cost, if “the others” would do what is necessary to reach the results anyway. This picture is not getting better if one thinks of the leader as a correcting agent that interferes and corrects when business does not turn out as expected. In professional terms, this is called “passive leadership by exception”, and much research shows that this kind of leadership alone is actually destroying value.

So if it is actually work that creates the results (products, marketing, sales, etc…), what is then actually the output of “leadership”? Many people are indeed offering vague or pompous explanations when they are asked to explain what leadership “makes”.  “Decisions” is a frequent answer, as if leaders are walking around making decisions all the time.

“Leadership creates cooperation.”

“Managers with a more reflected knowledge about human nature know that people like challenges, they like to develop, they like to feel competent, strong, and as members of a proud community.”

A good way to understand “leadership” is to think of it as creating “meaning”. Creating “meaning” implies that the members of an organization understand how to do their work, the purpose of their contributions – and, last not least, their role in their cooperation with others. Leadership creates cooperation. Sometimes, the cooperation may create itself, and leaders may count themselves lucky if they have competent, motivated and cooperative co-workers. But competent co-workers don’t appear all as if out of a hat – they are recruited, developed, and retained.

Motivation is also no coincidental creation of the brain. The calls for incentive-based payment systems may sometimes be seen as a result of unimaginative leadership. A manager who does not understand people may erect a system of sticks and carrots and hope that people will train and motivate themselves. Managers with a more reflected knowledge about human nature know that people like challenges, they like to develop, they like to feel competent, strong, and as members of a proud community. Motivation will come to most people who face a meaningful challenge. And the goodwill towards others comes from gratitude and respect for those who invest trust and confidence. In brief: Good leadership makes managers less dependent on luck in recruitment.

Research on leadership development shows that younger, less mature managers frequently think in terms of “I” and “they”, as e.g., in “How can I make them perform better”. More mature leaders think more often in terms of “we”, as in “How can we manage to…” No-one is perfect, and leaders also make errors. But the good message to all leaders is that you may let others compensate for your shortcomings. The whole point of cooperation is to get more complete! But to do this, one needs to understand one’s own limitations and be able to recognize the talents of others. And the more people you lead, the more important this becomes. As a leader, you will be accountable for the results, but if you think you have to make them yourselves, you are on the wrong track. To make oneself redundant is a far, but ambitious goal for your own leadership development.

This should not come as a surprise to anyone in China. After all, one famous quote from Lao Zi on leadership says that “The best rulers are scarcely known by their subjects,” because “when the best rulers achieve their purpose, their subjects claim the achievement as their own.” But in China as most other places, young managers in the beginning of their careers are often seduced by the flatter of being promoted – the face improvement of more money, better title, more power. It is easy then to think that it’s all about me, when in fact, it is about the others.

“In an organization, this means that you also need to know your people, because it will be their strengths and weaknesses that determine your success.”

Not only people have their limitations, but organizations are also stronger on some points than others. We know from research on strategy that companies who can capture on what they are good at – so-called capability theory – may outperform seemingly stronger competitors, as long as you can bring your strengths into the game. This also has a foundation in Chinese philosophy, as in Sun Zi’s famous claim that you need not only to know your enemy but yourself. In an organization, this means that you also need to know your people, because it will be their strengths and weaknesses that determine your success. Knowing yourself as a leader also means to know your people. Again, it is about the others, and your ability to make their work meaningful. That will make you a bit more redundant, and they will exert their strengths.

If you now feel an unspecific urge to protest against being redundant as a leader, it could very well stem from your wish to be indispensable. But to what purpose may you use this wish? Again, as Lao Zi said, the one who recognizes his limitation becomes immune. I wish all readers the happiness of seeing your limitations completed by others.


* This is one of a series of articles which are contributed by faculty members from BI Norwegian Business School and covering a wide range of management topics. The opinions expressed herein represent the reviewers of their own.



 (Edited by Bkonline)


* The opinions expressed herein represent the author of his own.



About the author:

Jan Ketil Arnulf: Associate Professor in the Department of Leadership and Organizational Behaviour, BI Norwegian Business School. His primary research interests include leadership, communication, groups and teams.

Link: Jan Ketil Arnulf’s webpage

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