We take it for granted that companies need leadership. But is that true? The editors behind a new book on the subject strongly disagree.
Anders Örtenblad has a story about management.
In 1982, when he was in his early 20s, he worked as a cleaner at Landvetter Airport outside Gothenburg in Sweden. The cleaners were split into groups that worked shifts around the clock.
“In one of these groups there were some who did nothing when their manager was absent. ‘No one told us what to do,’ they would say. No one in the group distributed or managed the work,” says Örtenblad.
“It's not that I think that leaders are always necessary. But in this case, I found it very strange that they were unable to lead themselves,” he says.
Örtenblad’s days as a cleaner are over and he is now a professor at the University of Agder (UiA) where he is conducting research on management among other things. Together with two Danish co-editors, he recently published the book Debating Leaderless Management. Here, a number of researchers write about the advantages - and disadvantages - of managers.
“Companies can manage without a formal manager. But I’m not sure if it is possible or even desirable to do away with informal leaders altogether. I don’t think we can get away with not having someone to take the lead to drive things forward,” says Örtenblad.
The professor believes that a perception that there is something wrong with managers has taken hold.
“I see the role of the leader as one among many others. It is not automatically the case that we look up to our bosses and think that they are so much better than us. It's nice that someone takes on administrative tasks so I can focus on tasks that I find more interesting,” he says.
Örtenblad is also the editor of the book Debating Bad Leadership, which came out in 2021.
“There is much that is not good about the system we have today, but I think we should work to improve it rather than get rid of managers altogether,” he says.
Nevertheless, he sees that there may be advantages to going without formal management. The organisation becomes less dependent on individuals and employees get more involved in their work if they take part in decisions.
“It would be fantastic if it were possible to manage without managers, but I don't think it is. If you had asked me 30 years ago, I would have said that it sounded perfect,” says Örtenblad with a laugh.
Frederik Hertel is a lecturer at Aalborg University Business School. He thinks that age has no bearing on views on management - and points out with a smile that he is only three years younger than Örtenblad.
“Our management culture has become stronger. Society has become more hierarchical. In general, we can say that leaders matter more than ever, at least in their own mind,” he says.
In recent years, Hertel has seen a development where employees increasingly lose their influence to professional managers. When he talks about leaderless management, he means a move to more collective management.
“A manager once said that management and employees are equally important in a company. This is definitely a misunderstanding. Nothing is produced unless the employees do their work. And the employees can manage themselves and take responsibility for the work,” Hertel says.
The Danish professor says that examples of such collective management no longer exists in Scandinavia. But they can be found in Spain and the US, among other places.
“One argument for debating this is that we are in an economic crisis that has been created by the way we produce things. Generally in Europe we work to produce and sell more, not to create a symbiosis with nature. And it's also a matter of management of course,” Hertel says.
He believes we cannot change much within the current financial framework. Businesses with collective management have to compete with businesses that operate on other terms but need to demand efficiency.
“We have to demand not only a flat structure, but also stop demanding paid added value from those who produce things in the organisation. Democracy stops outside the factory walls, and we have to change that,” Hertel says.
The book Debating Leaderless Management is published by Palgrave Macmillan.