Leading-ship: Reshaping Relationships at Work

The vertical relationship

We find the first examples of the conceptualization of “leading” in the late 19th century. During this period of industrialization, the “leader-centered” model emerged on the workplace stage, and was referred to as “leadership”. The term was then adopted into common usage and incorporated in the English language. The core element in leadership was the concept of command and control between leaders and followers. The leader should lead, and followers should be led. This autocratic line of force was strictly based on a downward relationship between master and servant, and was characterized by a culture of domination, obedience and subservience from top to bottom. During the post-industrial period of the 20th century, numerous subsidiary leadership theories emerged, and books on leadership became popular. One such was the enormously influential Scientific Management by Fredrick Taylor (1911). In the years that followed the concept of leadership was further developed and interpreted. We might say that it evolved from a concept concerning actions directed by a leader to one of interaction between leader and followers.

This evolution was accompanied by a transition from the sole focus on leader-as-superior, with followers as tailing instruments, to relationships characterised by interconnected actions and reactions between leader and followers. Within this modernizing frame of leadership, this more humane aspect emphasized cooperation, collaboration and coordination between people and work processes.

From the 1930s the Human Relations movement was established as a management discipline, and contributed to developing new perspectives in the organization of work. For example, working-teams were developed as an organizational form, and were further modified from the 1960s onwards, through the movement of socio-technical systems.

We find an example of contemporary leadership theory in Joseph Rost’s Leadership for the Twenty-First Century (1991). Rost holds that leadership is a relationship of influence between leaders and followers. Participants practise this influence in one way or another, even where actors in the relationship are not equal. According to Rost, leadership contains four elements:

(1) Relations based on influence;

(2) Leaders and followers;

(3) Both groups intending real change;

(4) Intended changes reflecting their mutual purposes.

Again, the a priori belief that Rost and other leadership scholars have shared is that leadership is based on relationships characterised by leaders and followers, organized vertically, with the leader above and the followers below.

The term leadership, and the thinking and practice that surrounded it, developed an increasingly broad scope during the last century. Nevertheless, these main features in the relationship were sustained. Attempts to distance the term from its “leader-centred” origin, and to lend it a more equalized and mutualised image, have not changed the underlying substance of leadership:

1. The position of the leader above (to lead) and the followers below (to be led) is preserved and protected as an indisputable de facto, as if it were a law of nature.

2. The relationship between the leader and follower is unequally balanced, with the leader having the authority to decide over the followers, and the followers obliged to follow imposed decisions.

3. The relationship, regulated through leadership, is vertically organized from top to bottom, in accordance with the order of hierarchical ranking.

Horizontal relationships

In an effort to develop an alternative model of leading, a work-in-process began some years ago, seeking to develop a model based on equally-balanced relationships in the workplace. The term “leading-ship” was introduced into this debate by myself in 2006. ((See “A change from leadership (vertical power-structure) to leadingship (horizontal power-structure) at work. The theory and practice,” The New Workplace Reality Series, 2006.)) The neologism was considered necessary because the term “leadership” had become so laden with associations, assumptions, perceptions and beliefs that yet another modified interpretation could never help establish a qualitatively new model. If real change were necessary, I felt it must involve a reorientation of language and terminology as well — a paradigm shift to help make the unthinkable thinkable, the unconceivable conceivable. The term leading-ship embodies the function of leading through personalized and internalized processes that involve every person in the workplace. Put simply, leading-ship consciously manifests itself as a contrast to leadership.

Leading-ship is: “…the expression of freedom and trust exercised by the individual human being as an autonomous person. “Leader-ship” is, on the contrary, the expression of subjugation to a superior authority in control of the individual human being as a subordinated person.” ((“The DemoCratic Workplace,” 2009.))

Leading-ship acknowledges the people’s rights to self-direction within their respective field of work. It involves people using their will-power and work-power in contributing to common goals, whether alone or together with others. The participative character of leading-ship establishes and maintains values of personal influence, involvement, engagement and encouragement — critical factors in motivating creativity, productivity and efficiency. Self-determination is the main outcome of leading through participation, with the individual making self-directed decisions within his or her own area of responsibility.

The significance of leading-ship hinges around power-sharing. This, through competence-based authority, enables people to become empowered leaders through their actions in their respective workplaces. With people in charge of their own leading processes, they are able to assume responsibility for themselves and share responsibilities with others in the workplace community.

Leading-ship requires that people are treated on the basis of their personhood – as unique and equal individual human beings – as opposed to being treated according to position and rank. Leading-ship enforces a system whereby people are self-organized through a structure that acknowledges and grants individuals the right to work and function in a sovereign and autonomous manner. This self-organized structure will provide and ensure equal and mutual access to personal freedom and individual independence.

Leading-ship in practice amounts to “getting things done through oneself in collaboration with others”. The model of leading-ship is therefore based on two principles:

a. The right to lead one self;
b. The duty to support each other in the leading of themselves.
The outcome of leading-ship in the workplace is that everyone in the organization gets their work done through independent and responsible actions as equal members and partners of the organizational community. In such a process people are treated as the persons they are, not as the persons others have decided they should be.

Horizontal relationships are therefore based on the construction of the following elements:

1. Everyone in the workplace is leading themselves, in concert with others.
2. Relationships between people are equally balanced by the personal authority everybody is assigned to make decisions within their own sphere of responsibility
3. The relationships generated through leadingship are horizontally organized, consisting of people on the same level operating on mutual understandings.

Definitions and models

In my paper “Leadingship vs Leadership” (2009) an illustration of the terminology was presented. The model and definition of leading-ship is as follows:

The model:

The definition:

Leading-ship refers to the function of leading in the process of joining personal authority and individual competence throughout the performance of work. The individual person is leading him/herself in equal and mutal understanding with others through a shared conception of reality in the workplace. Everyone is a leader within their respective area of responsibility, and has the power to make individual decisions and to influence decisions concerning their respective field of work.

In contrast, the model and definition of leadership are as follows:

The model:

The definition:

Leadership refers to leadership as a person/people. The leader with superior rank is assigned the task of command and control in leading the inferior subordinates to follow the imposed orders. The subordinates await orders as followers in the cause of performing their work when responsibility is given from above. The subordinates perform servantship in obedience to their leader.


Leadership has been conceived and defined as a relationship between those above and below on a hierarchical ladder. This vertical relationship is an inherently authoritarian system, whereby a person in a higher position is assigned authority to make decisions regarding those below. Leading-ship is predicated upon relationships between equals and peers, and interaction is carried out without position or rank. Leading-ship is an egalitarian system, with dignity the core value in shaping power relationships between people in the workplace.

We have two main choices to our disposal. These are presented in the following models:

Authoritarian power system:

  • Vertical power structure (high and low positions)
  • Hierarchical organizational structure (someone above, as superior, and someone below, as subordinate)
  • Leadership (leader-based work processes)
  • Vertical relationship (somebody is leading and somebody is led)

Egalitarian power system

  • Horizontal power structure (side-lined functions)
  • Egalitarian organizational structure (everyone has independent and responsible roles)
  • Leading-ship (individual-based and collective-based work processes)
  • Horizontal relationship (the individual person leads, together with others)
Rune Kvist Olsen is a member of the New Unionism Network and a lecturer, consultant, designer and author. The network has no formal structure, no officers, no policies or meetings. New Unionism can be reached at: enquiries@newunionism.net. Read other articles by Rune, or visit Rune's website.

10 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on February 13th, 2010 at 12:53pm #

    Work is just as much part of life as a leg, marriage; right to be heard, equally valued, etc.
    One owns one’s arm but not work nor work area like one did let us say 15 k yrs ago.
    At certain time a free person, roaming the land freely for game or picking berries, suddenly or over millennia cld no longer do that. The land s/he freely travelled, now belonged to a ‘noble’ who had a posted guard there.
    From now on, if u worked on ‘his-her’ land, u had give a portion of what u got from ‘his-her’ land.
    And his freedom was gone, possibly forever? Now we have ‘leaders’ [despots really] and our debt to them! tnx

  2. Jonas Rand said on February 13th, 2010 at 8:58pm #

    While democracy in all areas of life may be considered a radical idea by politicians, it is, in my opinion, the best idea for the people of the world and the future of the world’s society. For nobody to suffer under the orders of self appointed “leaders”, for everyone to lead their own life, without being told what to do, everyone yearning to be free to get what they have wanted for so many years…yes, that is necessary in this world. the right to speak freely and to conduct one’s life responsibly and without authority is the essence of democracy.

  3. Maien said on February 13th, 2010 at 11:44pm #

    And perhaps one of the issues with this line of thought is that one forgets that ANY system will work effectively when there is no corruption. Plato once said that “the masses are idiots” implyng that democracy …..or any other system will work with an educated , thoughtful and responsible population….. not so with a rabble which functions reactively. So wonderful, for control purposes by a corrupt leader.

    The traits listed in the above model of ‘leading-ship’ simply are not traits that are being developed for the youth of the north-american/western world. This type of discussion remains as part of the great distraction … to keep younger academics away from the real issue… a culture which disdains personal responsibility on the most basic levels (‘lieing’ in all its forms has become acceptable) on a daily basis and demands that personal responsibility/authority to be jettisoned out to anyone who will tell this person what to do.

    Haven’t you witnessed the glazed expression on individuals educated especially since the ’80s. My gawd… even lettered individuals with that abject fear…waiting, hoping for someone to tell them what to do next…. not even considering the possibility of making a decision on their own.

    Some people are waking up. Not many. Most people in North america remain insistent on obedience for/from a paternalistic father figure. A generally nasty one at that!

    Please…. what’s the point of having “leading-ship” when there are not enough honest adult players in the group?

    I beleive the logical area to focus attention has been missed. Before you begin building new group relationship models….. first make sure you have building materials… cognizant capable adult humans . Remember the relationship issues occur because there aren’t many emotional adults available. Honest adults.

    Perhaps illustrating how to produce more effective (happy, productive) individuals may be time better spent. Education system? Stronger support for parents?

    Mr Rand, I would suggest that “to speak freely and to conduct one’s life responsibly and without authority” be ammended to “and with one’s own authority intact.”

  4. Deadbeat said on February 14th, 2010 at 12:00am #

    Is this an article for a post graduate MBA students? This article is not radical what-so-ever. You can see this crap in action in many corporation where the benefits still goes to overpaid CEO’s.

    Work in the Capitalist system — which the author never addresses — is about the EXPLOITATION of labor. So even if the condition are set up to make the exploitation seem like “empowerment” are designed to get workers to assist and accept their own exploitation. How depressing.

  5. Jonas Rand said on February 14th, 2010 at 12:21am #


    I am not an adult, but a young teenager. What you are talking about is a gradual indoctrination process whereby the population of the United States is continually subjected to propaganda, meant to convince them that government and corporate dominance over their lives is necessary. This opinion is injected into our media, but more often than not, opinions that differ on authority from mainstream establishment ones are suppressed in our media. I feel that the media has the greatest role in anesthetizing the United States’ population, leading us toward the belief that state-corporate power is necessary and must be imposed to keep order and a “civilized society”. In fact, however, society is not civilized, and the status quo is not the best option. There is much room to decide, and I think if people were not deprived of a wider range of opinions about changing society fundamentally, then we wouldn’t support the current system as much as we do. Democracy will not be achieved by politicians who supposedly speak for us – they don’t. I think that a society that is community-based and community-run, decentralized, and where the fundamental idea that society is based on is that nobody can live without one another, is one that is beneficial for people, but that’s just my opinion. How that would be achieved should be up for discussion.

  6. Jonas Rand said on February 14th, 2010 at 12:29am #

    Deadbeat: While I’m not sure I agree about the author’s intentions, I do agree that empowerment of workers cannot and will not exist before capitalism is abolished. I don’t think capitalism can be radically transformed into a system of compassion, but society can be. Democracy in the workplace is one of the most fundamental constructs of a democratic society (which we do not have), and without workers actively controlling the workplace, there is no real democracy. I believe that the author’s intentions are good, though; when I made previous comments about this article, they were made with the assumption that this would be considered as a sort of “post-capitalist theory” of how the workplace should look. Though there have been attempts to construct workplace democracy within capitalism, and they have been somewhat successful (i.e., AK Press or Left Bank Books), I believe that capitalism must be abolished for workplace democracy and workers’ self-management to be globally successful.

  7. Deadbeat said on February 14th, 2010 at 1:26am #


    Then don’t you think that the author should articulate what you just stated? That is called “communications” and “understanding”. Both of those traits are needed to create democracy especially since we are asking for the participation of the masses.

    If communication is poor or filled with ambiguities then condition will be ripe diversion and division which cannot be afforded. Therefore it should not be open to interpretation of the author’s intent. It is the responsibility of the author to make his intent CLEAR.

  8. john said on February 14th, 2010 at 2:17am #

    I largely agree with this article, but it has flaws.

    The very first sentence – “We find the first examples of the conceptualization of “leading” in the late 19th century.” – is wrong. Leadership, together with ‘the conceptualization of “leading”‘ is at least as old as recorded history, with the glorification of leaders dominating the earliest accounts of human ‘civilisation’.

    Leadership is grossly overrated. Not only is it overrated, leader-worship is at the very core of our corrupt systems of government. Because the word itself is so debased, it should be erradicated altogether for everyday purposes, and fiddling with the structure of the word (i.e. ‘leading-ship’) is nowhere near good enough – it still retains a concept of ‘leading’, which by definition means that lesser ships must be following.

    There are almost no circumstances where leaders are necessary, and the only situations I can think of are those where life and death decisions need to be made very quickly and the actions of other people accurately co-ordinated to that purpose. These situations are thankfully very rare, and would be rarer still if our ‘leaders’ weren’t permanently dragging us into illegal wars somewhere.

    Society does need an administrative system – but it does NOT need leaders. People are perfectly capable of organising themselves without a leader in sight – providing they have good information and an equitable decision-making process.

    Rune, I’m pleased you submitted your article, and mostly I agree with you. It’s a very important subject that more people should be discussing. But I think you need to come up with a different name to ‘leading-ship’ for your thesis – it’s far too close to the grossly overrated ‘leadership’.

  9. Don Hawkins said on February 14th, 2010 at 5:31am #

    How that would be achieved should be up for discussion. Well Jonas let’s discuss it. What we now see on msm and much of what we read is academic just words and done by people who just like getting there face on TV. It’s kind of an addiction. It appears the problem, problems are to big for most of these people. So what we get is illusion, foolishness. It’s almost like the fight is on to see who get’s to control freedom. If we are going to make a try at slowing the problem war must be put on hold now there’s a new way of thinking not what we want but what we need must start and soon. Just those two thing to talk of them with the old thinkers the one’s we see on TV of course they will call you nut’s. That’s not the way the World work’s well they did get that part right it’s not working the problem of course is once you get a little money power or get your face on TV it becomes an addiction one of the most powerful around granted you must sell your soul to the system and that’s just what they do. The latest data are in and record ice melt this summer in the Arctic and if that happens as it appears it will funny weather not climate the norm. So far it’s so be it from the people who have the most money and power it’s just better that way. When I watch my Son work on his small farm and another job knowing full well what these people are up to that amount’s to nothing except the status quo keeping themselves and a few close friends in money and power while using nothing more than illusion of knowledge and foolishness while the fight goes on to see who gets to control freedom is nut’s. Of course they the few really don’t want to many people to find out this little fact. It’s still the easy way out more illusion and we will be back to normal in just a few years and the moon is made of green cheese. Still time with some hard choices and again that is not happening. Calm at peace organize one voice and it will take a lot of us.

  10. Tonyo said on February 14th, 2010 at 8:28am #

    A great additional resource one can tap is “The Lucifer Effect” by Philip Zimbardo. I would suggest reading all of this treatise, especially on how to train your children to identify and deal with unjust authority. Unjust Authority does not have the right to tag-team an adult or child who expects the same respect that unjust authority would want for themselves. Come on! Are we dealing with criminals or bosses? Oh! I forgot. Authority can do anything they want and we peons must submit every time or commit employment or career suicide.

    If I, as an employee, haven’t the right to respond to a supervisor curtly, loudly, or disrespectfully, just because I can get away with it, then the employer better curb the same impulses or they will fell the lash of my tongue. Employers exploit at-will employment provisions to treat their charges like shit, while said charges should not consider looking toward an employer with justifiable askance. I hope anyone who believes in might makes right dies.

    If bush and obama can lie to justify murder for empire, then you as an employee can main or kill metaphorically or literally, verbally or physically, employers who would unjustly deprive you of the right to your economic/social survival.

    Employers have waged a war on working people roughly for the last 35 years. Now, this employee will organize a revolt of the working class to fight for living wages, single payer health care for all, and freedom from wall street’s thieving, murderous ways. When the empire that consists of u.s.a. and it’s murderous acolytes pits one worker, who wants to live peace and not participate in your wars, against another worker who will sucks unjust authorities ass, then we will fight back. Hit somebody first,and they have a right, if necessary, to lay you out in a church.

    Obamass and Bullshitter are murderers. They deserve no respect. They are unjust authority and the only they respect they deserve is the right to live, as long as they do not impair the peoples right to live and speak truth to power. Personal dislike from bullies for empire does not bother anyone. Sanctions, weather they be covert or overt, do destroy lives for rapacious empirical gain. This must stop.