Why is the nature of “leading” so decisive in the relationships between people at work? In search of a reasonable explanation, Rune Kvist Olsen* looks at what we are doing and thinking when we perform the process of “leading”.

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.

“Moving out of our present mental box
of reality perception will lead us on
the way of changing our conception of
reality. Remaining inside our mental box
will confirm our existing perceptions of
reality, and continue to preserve and
protect our valid reality conceptions
from change”.

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(1). 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.”(2)

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)

“You never change things by fighting
the existing reality. To change
something, build a new model that
makes the existing model obsolete”.

– Buckminster Fuller

*Rune Kvist Olsen is a member of the New Unionism Network and a lecturer, consultant, designer and author. At the University at Tromsø, Norway, he lectured in competency and organizational development. Prior to this he was a senior consultant at Kvaerner Energy, Oslo and a lecturer/consultant in private academies in developing, teaching and managing education programmes. He has published extensively in this area, his works including:

  • “The DemoCraticWorkplace – Empowering People (demos) to Rule (cratos) their own Workplace. Organizing Individual and Group Decision Processes through Personal Competence-based Authority”. 2009
  • “The Equal Organizational Concept. A Theoretical Framework in developing the Equal Dignity Organization.”. The New Workplace Reality Series, 2008.
  • “A change from leadership (vertical power-structure) to leadingship (horizontal power-structure) at work. The theory and practice.”, The New Workplace Reality Series, 2006.
  • “From a vertical and hierarchical order to a horizontal and egalitarian order in structuring and shaping the flow of power in the organization. Getting things done at work – myth and realities”, The New Workplace Reality Series, 2006.
  • “None to command and control. An analysis of the relationship between power and health in the workplace”, The New Workplace Reality Series, 2005.
  • Book: “Kompetansen er Din” (The Competence is Yours), Norwegian version, Cappelen, 1991.


(1)  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.

(2) “The DemoCratic Workplace” 2009