Why should I follow you?

How to become a good leader - the route to modern leadership

Hierarchies are becoming flatter. Entire management levels are disappearing. A structural shift is changing the management landscape. “But we can’t do without hierarchies entirely,” said Niels Van Quaquebeke, Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at KLU. He does, however, make the case for a new self-definition: "Leadership requires a new kind of legitimation."

Such new understanding of the role of managers can open up new opportunities and is a route to higher efficiency. However, in walking down that route, many established companies would have to challenge their existing structures and define leadership anew. “The ‘I have a leadership position, therefore I am a leader’ approach is outdated. Modern managers should ask themselves two questions every so often: Do I actually want to lead people? And what makes me a good leader?,” said Van Quaquebeke. 

Against this background, KLU’s contribution is educating managers – for example, with its Executive MBA in Leadership & Logistics program. “My teaching in these programs includes simulated job interviews in which experienced managers are asked to explain why they are good leaders. For example, I ask them: ‘Why should I follow you?’” said Van Quaquebeke. “Other than general plati-tudes, many people are at a loss for answers to this question. Most any managers have never thought of tackling this question.” As a result, in German companies many managers define themselves by the extent of their specialized knowledge, for example. In fact, this is often the reason why they were promoted. “The fact that they also need expertise in leadership is often forgotten. And leadership is different from management,” he added. People who want to be successful leaders must be able to motivate and inspire.
Google, the Internet business, has recognized that leadership needs personal legitimation. There, the issue of legitimacy is a key theme – as early as the recruiting phase. “People who want to be lead others are constantly evaluated by the people around them. Such largely anonymous evaluations are used to find out whether respective candidates are respected and to what extent. Only those who are respected for their knowledge and their people skills are allowed to advance,” said the professor. This follows the logic that if a company’s leaders lose their subordinates’ respect, there is a risk of political games, loss of motivation, and cynicism – to the disadvantage of the company. An obvious “no-go” at Google.
Louis, a major motorcycle dealer in Hamburg, has also internalized the issue of respect – with success. “When Louis needs to hire a new store manager, the candidates do not have the standard 6-month trial period. Instead, they have a test week. At the end of the week, the employees are asked whether they want to work with this potential new boss. If the answer is no, the candidate does not get the job,” said Van Quaquebeke. "The method is based on the idea of man that people really want to work. According to it, employees would always choose managers who give them a sense of meaning and purpose while at the same time respecting them as humans, simply because it feels good and makes them productive. Everyone benefits from the results.”

Van Quaquebeke is convinced that the examples of Google and Louis can be transferred to many other companies. But there is also resistance: “Top-level managers are not always comfortable with such questions. They as most others are anxious about not having personal legitimacy to lead. So a challenge to the status quo obviously makes many of the old guard uneasy.”
Another obstacle to change is the widely held opinion among managers that they must be able to act in difficult situations without taking their employees along. However, Professor Van Quaquebeke emphasizes that lone-wolf decisions have no place in the modern culture of leadership. He favors an evidence-based management style: “In many companies, people are still making intuitive decisions. The managers there believe that they know the solution – but are often off base. Google managers, on the contrary, make many decisions dependent on statistics, data and wide consultation, and have been very successful – even in the areas of human resources and leadership.”
Companies may use three steps to implement a new management structure based on a new understanding of leadership. First, the parties involved should define criteria that characterize a good leader, creating a type of “leadership compass.” In a second step, according to Van Quaquebeke, companies should improve their recruiting methods. When selecting new managers, they should make sure that people will follow the candidates – in doing so, it will become apparent that leadership qualities are just as important as specialized knowledge. Finally, managers need room for further self-development and external support in this process. “Today’s leaders often have the problem of finding adequate people with whom they can discuss their challenges,” said Van Quaquebeke. But this kind of exchange should be supported with current scientific knowledge and not some new training hype.”

Despite his own fascination for the topic of leadership, Van Quaquebeke is also quick to point out that leadership is overly romanticized: “Today, many seem to think that one’s career satisfaction is solely contingent on reaching a management function. As a result, we have managers who eventually don’t really want to lead. And even worse, they don’t exactly know why people should follow them.” All of his courses and seminars help the participants find their personal answers to these questions. And they apparently enjoy the challenges he puts in front of them. After all, students and executives alike have awarded KLU Professor Van Quaquebeke the title of "Teacher of the Year" for the second time just last year.


By Kai Gerullis