Leadership? – How can I help you?

A young man walks purposefully towards a shop. The shop is hardly recognisable as such because there is no shop window. A simple sign hangs above the entrance door. It says “Pharmacy” and in slightly smaller letters underneath it “for Leadership”. The man enters and opening the door triggers a shrill ringing. He barely has time to look around the small salesroom before an older gentleman with white hair and a dishevelled full beard appears from behind the counter.

To the friendly greeting the old man grumpily replies with a brief nod of the head and asks, “How can I help you?” The young man says, still looking around the salesroom, “I’m about to be appointed to a management position. I want to prepare myself for that. But when I looked into it, I came across a variety of leadership models that left me more confused than helped. I read about Experimental Leadership, Agile Leadership, Lateral Leadership, Sustainable Leadership. Shared Leadership, Mindful Leadership, Tribal Leadership, Conversational Leadership, Distant Leadership, Host…” “Yes yes, I know,” the old man interrupts him and calmly waves him aside. “Easy does it. What exactly are you trying to prepare for? What kind of leadership role is that anyway?”

The young man then explains his future team leader role in detail and talks about his previous tasks in his organisation. After a short pause, the old man mumbles something unintelligible into his beard and says, “Before we look at what you need, let’s look at what you have.” To the young man’s disconcerted look the old man responds with a friendly smile, “How well can you lead yourself?” The young man was not prepared for this question and it takes him a few moments before he can take a deep breath, to…. The old man interrupts and says: “You should be able to lead yourself before you lead others. It’s actually something that goes without saying, but many people don’t realise it. In essence, it’s always about a relationship of trust between the leader and the person led with a common goal that moves the organisation forward. That is effective leadership! That is the core. And what do you yourself specifically want to introduce into this relationship?”

The young man now looks around the salesroom attentively and gazes at several shelves with pots, canisters, bottles, stands with ampoules. The old man responds to his perplexed look with an expansive arm movement: “All you see here are the standard mixtures of the leadership models you just listed and a few more. All prefabricated.”

The old man leans forward a little towards him and continues in a confiding tone, “I have to admit to you frankly, I don’t think much of these standard mixtures at all. They don’t fit everyone at all. I have a few pots with my own active ingredients. With these I can serve my clients according to their individual needs. But I also have to offer the standard mixtures. Stupidly enough, that is my main business. They are demanded above all by training providers, who hype new leadership styles and then the HR managers get in on it too. That’s how business works here. Not for people like you, I guess.” “And what else do you have back there on that shelf?” the young man asks curiously, pointing to the lone old wooden shelf on the side wall. “Back there? That’s all management. Hardly anyone wants it anymore, it’s selling very badly.”

“But you really made me curious with your pots. What’s in them?” the young man asks. The old man bends down and pulls out a few pots, mugs and bottles of different sizes from under the counter and places them carefully next to each other on the counter. Now much more friendly and open-minded, he turns them so that the young man can read their labels. “So here we have Flawless Trust, that’s the most valuable thing,” making a meaningful gesture with his hand. “Here we have Respect and there is Self-organisation in there. There’s Curiosity in this one, there’s Risk-taking in this one, there’s Courage in this one, and there’s something missing… got it.” and he bends down again and puts another bottle on the counter. “Right, and here is Self-reflection as well.” “Yes, but…,” the young man responds hesitantly. Then the old man stops him in mid-sentence: “Forget all that leadership bullshit bingo. Take what you need from this here, be observant and you’ll be up to any leadership challenge.” The old man suddenly looks years younger.

“I see…,” the young man nods his head thoughtfully, his eyes wandering from the vessels on the counter to the old man and back. “You really think I can get by with this in any situation? Is leadership supposed to be that easy?” the young man asks doubtfully. The old man smiles mischievously and replies: “Nothing is easy! Why don’t you give it a try? Start your everyday leadership with humanity. If you don’t get on, come back again. I can still sell you methods and techniques of leadership bullshit.” “Okay, then I’ll try what you say,” the young man relents, still not looking entirely convinced.

“Well then,” the old man rubs his hands together, “now tell me how much you want of each.” At this, he turns around and fetches a small empty carafe from the shelf next to the door. Now follows an intense exchange between the two, lids rattling, bottles clinking, there is even laughter and in the end the young man holds this small carafe filled with a colourful concoction. He carefully places it on the counter in front of him and looks at the old man. “What do I owe you now?” “I’ll make an exception in your case,” the old man replied, “what qualities do you have that you can leave me some of?” Without much thought, the young man said, “I think I have too much empathy and also a lot of eagerness to learn. I can give you some of both.” “I can go along with that,” the old man replies, “people always ask for those.”

An almost amicable farewell follows. The old man stands in the doorway of his shop and looks after the young man who, with purposeful steps, is soon out of sight.

Original text: PUE
German translation: BCO

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