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I and Thou

Management and Leadership are slippery words. Most of us rely on a loose understanding of them because like the majority of business diction, workplace terms are rough and ready tools and very few people aim to be precise in business talk. In the case of 'leadership' and 'management' that's too bad, because these words dominate the literature, and because many poor ideas emerge from the hazy meanings of those two words in particular.

The most common error is that leadership is valued as a higher art form than management. There are more calls for managers to become leaders than the other way around. Our house view is that this is nonsense - a product of faddish thinking. Better understanding of management and leadership is available, and one source is the the I-Thou relationship.

In philosophy, terms are constantly being defined for precision. Roger Scruton and Martin Buber - two philosophers give us ideas of "I" and "Thou" which can be applied to the workplace. They teach about the significance of how a subject (you) and what the subject encounters (the other) interact. They contend that we should not engage with other people as "it" - but rather as "thou." The position is related to Kant's "we must treat people as ends in themselves" but unique. For Buber, "It" implies that 'the other' is an object, and "thou" implies that they are a subject - a deep being very much like us. For Scruton, there is something sacred in 'the other' and we treat them as subject, not object. For example the lover and the beloved, the parent and the child, a city counsellor and the voter. In each of these cases, when we're at our best there is something transcendentally deep about the "thou" standing across from us and the relationship between us and them.

This is nothing like the relationship between an "I" and an "It" such as a driver and a car, a boxer and a bag, a climber and a mountain. I'm confident that drivers, boxers, and climbers have complimentary things to say about these objects, but they never rise to the level of "Thou" i.e. sacred human other.

In the workplace what we see is that there are many "I-It" relationships and problems emerge from these. The solution to these problems lies in replacing "I-It" with an I-Thou connection between them. For a manager, the 'other' is an employee or a direct report ('the managed') and for a leader the other is a follower ('the led.') And there's the key - put simply, your employees make you a manager, and your followers make you a leader. Once there are no followers, there is no leader. The title 'leader' makes no sense any longer. Once there are no direct employees there is no manager.

Going further, I argue that managers do not have followers and leaders do not have direct-report employees. At this point, many are already saying "Wait - many leaders are managers and many managers are leaders." That is absolutely true, and reinforces the core idea: that these are distinct identities. You may find them in one person, just as you may find someone is a manager and a mother, or a leader and a lepidopterist. We can talk about people holding both manager and leadership identities exactly because they are not the same thing.

A manager whose people begin to follow adds "leader" to her many identities because following is the thing done between leaders and followers, (in a philosophical sense the "I" of a leader and the "thou" of a follower.) It is a totally different dimension of their relationship than manager and the managed.

Test this in the managers and leaders you know. Name a great leader that has more followers than they could ever possibly manage. They are incapable of being the "I" that is there for the "Thou" we're calling 'the managed.' Their followers step into interrelationship with them on a voluntary basis, and expect no input on their daily practicalities. Likewise many great manager will dedicate themselves to the ongoing optimization of workplace practicalities for their direct reports. It is not a feature of that relationship to relate aspirational ideals or inspire to abstract values. They can, but it's not management. When we hear someone speak with deep admiration from the position of 'the led' or 'the managed' we can be certain that an I-Thou relationship was cultivated.

In conclusion, the I-Thou relationship concept affirms that being a manager is nothing like being a leader. It shows us that 'the led' and 'the managed' are two relationship types which, when properly constituted, are very different from one another. This is high bar for workplace relationships but it is not impossible, and forms a vision for the very best definitions of these two commonplace words in our conversations.


Martin Buber "I and Thou"

Roger Scruton Multiple writings, incl: "The Soul of the World" and "Beauty"

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