About Leaders And Followers

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Interview with Gunter Dueck


Dueck argues that you’re only a leader if the people you’re leading are followers, not mere subordinates and if you work together with them in pursuit of a vision. Asked about the role of Web 2.0 he’s rather critical and explains why Web 2.0 has yet to prove it’s scalable. In his wise and witty way, what he is demanding is nothing less than radical change in the way we lead our companies and nations.


Gunter Dueck
… is an IBM Distinguished Engineer. Before joining IBM in 1987, he was professor of mathematics at the University of Bielefeld, Germany. His fields of research include information theory, combinatorics, optimization and management theory. He worked for several years at the IBM Scientific Center as a researcher in optimization and has also managed an upcoming business in this field. He founded the Business Intelligence Services (Data Warehouses, Data Mining) for IBM Central Europe, and has spent many years working for strategic direction and cultural change. In 2009 and 2010, he led the “Dynamic Infrastructure”and “Cloud Computing” business of IBM Germany where he is now CTO.


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Ulrike Reinhard:
What does leadership mean for you?

Gunter Dueck: Work is roughly divided into two parts: “change and run”. One part – “run the business” – deals with the smooth running of commercial affairs while the other – “change the business” – deals with modernization, change and innovation. On top of this there’s also a metacomponent dealing with the way you work, manage, and bring about change, and this too is subject to transformation, especially now in the age of 2.0. Leaders are the ones who set the way forward for the company staff, innovation and transformation of work – and this is a path fraught with great uncertainty that is bound to be paved with many errors, and much hardship and trouble between the little triumphs on the way.

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For me, you’re only a leader if the people you’re leading are “followers” and not merely “subordinates”.

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To some extent, leadership always involves being a trusted “father or mother”: the people you lead are also entrusted to your care.

Ulrike Reinhard:
In what sense entrusted to your care?

Gunter Dueck: That’s the way I see it but perhaps I’m a bit old fashioned! In my view the boss also takes care of their employees, tends to their well-being and professional advancement. In the future people are going to have to take a great deal more work on board that has to do with managing networks of relationships, and for them to be able to do this, they often need coaching and leadership through example.

Ulrike Reinhard:
Are there different types of leadership models for “change and run”?

Gunter Dueck: Of course there are! Running a business has to do with experience, tradition and a mature corporate culture. So naturally people are frightened of changing things. “Never change a winning team” or “If the IT working well, leave well alone!” In his book “Anxiety. Using Depth Psychology to find a Balance in Your Life” (Die Grundformen der Angst), Fritz Riemann says that fear of change is closely related to the obsessive personality whereas “change” is the exact opposite –the “hysterical principle” frightened that everything will always remain the way it is. The one principle improves on the status quo; the other often makes a radical break with it in sheer exasperation. This is why there’s always a spiritual struggle between the up and running, the profit making and the tried and tested on the one hand, and the forces for change and renewal on the other. And the two sides are constantly badmouthing one another – it’s “air-heads who ruin everything traditional” versus  “nepotistic stick-in-the-muds who resist all that’s new”. Nowadays companies in general are much more heavily engaged in switching over to change than they used to be. At meetings you’ll find the sworn advocates of change up at the front propagating drastic transformation in which “everybody must play their part” while you usually feel a wave of chilly scepticism coming from the audience – not a surge of bright enthusiasm in answer to the call. True leaders can go beyond this divide and move things forward while also taking their people with them.

Ulrike Reinhard:
And what kind of changes has 2.0 brought about on the metalevel you mentioned?

Gunter Dueck: Don’t ask me! 2.0 fits neither into the old world of hierarchies nor the new world which constantly demands figures-based performance enhancement. Individually tailored performance targets do indeed put individuals in cages! 2.0 could establish completely new forms of the type that work well in small companies. But to do this, 2.0 must show that it’s “scalable”. And that’s by no means obvious. All small communities work well – up to say 200 people, any figure beyond that needs to be organized. This change of character when a structure grows beyond the 200 mark – which is the limit at which most people know everyone involved – is quite independent from the Internet, isn’t it? That’s what I think, at least.

Ulrike Reinhard:
How do you change employees into followers?

Gunter Dueck: There are quite a number of ways to do this. You can simply coerce them. Or you can persuade them, persuade them, persuade them. Mainly it’s done by coercion. Basically, change managers expect too much of their employees and because they’re well aware that their expectations are too high, they don’t believe that their employees will follow them willingly. So coercion is needed. And if coercion has to be applied, let it come in the form of a short, sharp shock – that’s what many of the gurus recommend. And this shock numbs employees into a state of apathy as though they’ve been struck by a catastrophe from which they emerge two days later to resume their work. By far the most difficult of all these variations is to work together with the employees in pursuit of a vision.

Ulrike Reinhard:
And who sets the vision? Or is it made collectively? Do the so-called Web 2.0 tools help in making it?

Gunter Dueck: Oh, a good vision is the first thing you need! Most people imagine that everyone can have a vision. Yes, they can but not necessarily a good one. Most people also imagine that anyone can make a vision. Yes they can if they have the power to do so but their vision doesn’t necessarily be good, must it? Most of the Amazons and Googles start with a vision that attracts increasing numbers of disciples. But the vision was there beforehand! I don’t believe that a vision can be created by a load of people. Do visions emerge from brainstorming sessions? No, they don’t! So what should be better with 2.0? But what you can do with 2.0 is to decide on which credo or code of ethics you’re going to follow; you can set the values on which a community rests.

Ulrike Reinhard:
What’s the philosophical component – if there is one at all – in your understanding of leadership?

Gunter Dueck: Philosophical component? There’s always the variants of leading people as people or leading them as subordinates. The one is about natural forms of cooperation between colleagues; the other has to do with coercion of performance results through the exercise of power, but also with remuneration models and the threat of job-cutting to make savings. These two layers have always been around throughout history. I’d like to quote here from Machiavelli’s “Prince”:

“Men have fewer scruples about offending someone who is well loved than they do about offending someone who is feared; for love hangs on a band of obligation which, given the unfortunate state of human nature, is ruptured on every occasion when their own advantage at stake while the fear of punishment is a constant dissuasion. Nevertheless, a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, at least he avoids hatred; because being feared yet not being hated is a state which is achievable and which he can achieve by keeping away from the property of his subjects and from their women. And when it is necessary for him to take someone’s life, he should only do so on proper justification and with manifest cause. But above all else, he must keep his hands off the property of his subjects, for men are quicker to forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony.”

Machiavelli was only concerned with how the prince could keep his hold on power, not with motivating his subjects so that the economy could boom through their hard work. But you can see from the quote that today’s management methods, politics, and frequently the education system too, have a lot in common with such ways of holding onto power. But are strategies for holding onto power also the best ones for earning money, realizing visions, winning elections or bringing up children? The really fine art is to be a true leader.

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Only there are a great deal more management posts, parliamentary seats and children than there are people who really understand what’s needed to move forward and be a role model.

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This is why a great many people have interiorized their Machiavelli who constantly reminds them how difficult it is to rule and be loved and how much easier it is to make yourself feared.

And the problem of our times, sad to say, is that people just pass over Machiavelli without making any real efforts to avoid being hated, a point which he was at such pains to warn against. Leaders are respected!

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