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The Path to Sustainable Leadership

Why leadership needs rethinking today – from the bottom up

The issues dealt with by managers have become more demanding over the years – leadership is now more time-consuming, increasingly challenging, and overall: more important. But instead of questioning outdated practices, experienced managers try to revive leadership based on old patterns with new methods and organizational models. Time and again, they fail. Steinbeis consultants Dr. Peter Becker and Dr. Regina Brauchler know from their own day-to-day work why a fundamental change is needed in the way managers both think and act – and the importance of sustainability in this.

It’s becoming apparent that leadership is increasingly unattractive to the younger generation. Young people sense the price many pay in management, which is particularly high for older managers due to strong demands on their time, little time for spouses, children, and friends and, ultimately, strains on physical, emotional, and mental health. It’s like sacrificing everything on the altar of a career. Given this burden, what is happening to leadership in the new working environment: Working World 4.0? Is time running out for leadership? Will people actually need leaders in the future, and if so, what kind of leaders? There can be no doubt that we need to rethink everyday leadership, which will entail a new portrayal of the human being, based on the premise that personality develops autonomously, requiring an extended understanding of the goals and motives of leadership. This will be the only way to manage staff sustainably and efficiently.

Changes in the labor market

Change brought about by digitech has turned the labor market on its head, simultaneously with changes in demographics. Managers currently have to approach Generations Y and Z through active sourcing, portraying themselves as amazingly appealing employers in order to court favor. In fact the demands of Gen Y and Z go far beyond the sense of duty of the baby boomers, most of whom still hold management positions in companies today.

This sense of duty felt by employers and having to play things safe in legal terms, especially when it comes to HR processes and occupational health and safety, has become more intense over time to the point where it is now entrenched in everyday management in European companies. This prescribed corporate responsibility is even prevalent when going international or outsourcing production to the Far East or Eastern Europe, even if it may not always be applied to all employees.

The sustainability reports of stockholding companies and SEs show that social, environmental, and economic corporate responsibilities are taken seriously. But with outdated laws still in place, district courts bursting at the seams, lengthy court proceedings, and a judicial system that is based on power imbalances between employees and their employers, closer and more detailed attention is required from all stakeholders. In addition, Gen Y and Z virtually expect the companies they intend to work for to show outstanding corporate responsibility in the long term. Firms are expected to rethink along the lines of the school climate strike movement and Fairtrade, but also when it comes to desk-sharing, working from home, and – not least – the work-life balance.

Healthy people: a key task of management

Healthy employees are good for business because they perform better, they adopt a positive attitude when dealing with customer inquiries, and they are therefore more productive overall, which pays off in financial terms.[1] Nevertheless, even this concept of promoting health at the workplace as part of day-to-day management – with healthy-living events, free drinks, or seminars from health insurance companies on relaxation or nutrition – is sometimes not enough.

Speaking from experience, Regina Brauchler, Steinbeis Entrepreneur at the Steinbeis Consulting Center for Demographics-based HR Management, says, “Even at such companies, occupational health management that actually minimizes hazards or stress at the workplace – or even eradicates it by introducing new technology or ergonomic work design – is rarely on the agenda of occupational health and safety committees.” The same is true for risk assessments aimed at understanding mental health: Companies often spend five years planning and updating assessments – and may even conduct them – but they are never actually followed up on by introducing measures in day-to-day management and improving identified shortfalls within the organization or management.

There is a correlation between the health of employees and how they are managed. “Health must be seen as a task of management and made a tangible part of everyday life. After all, the core objective of leadership must be to bring out the full creative power and dignity inherent in every human being,” asserts Peter Becker, a project manager at the Steinbeis Consulting Center for Healthy Organizations.

Leaders with a heart

Summoning up courage and playing to inner strengths requires opposite numbers who are genuinely interested in the well-being of others and their personal development. If the strong potential inherent in every human being is allowed to unfurl, and can be invested to the benefit of the individual, also to allow the workplace to develop, a stable environment can be established, thus creating a sense of order that promotes good health – even in times of upheaval.

Managers can become this opposite number for their employees and be a “leader with a heart”.[2] This also involves developing an “inner compass,” a term used by the neurobiologist Gerald Hüther. Within the context of social systems, leadership can thus be seen as a dynamic relationship of cause and effect.

Leadership in “Working World 4.0”

Changing our thinking and acting in different ways in everyday management will typically require the support of an experienced systemic coach. It is important to be able to help managers individually to underscore their strengths and deliberately highlight weaknesses so they can be guided as they explore the options of more effective and sustainable leadership. The ideal leader of Working World 4.0 has a highly pronounced propensity to adapt behavior in all respects, but such leaders do not exist and they never will do.

It is utopian to think that people can be fully conscious of their own dignity and be altruistic in serving employees and the organization. But continuing to do things the way they were until now will not be enough. This was clearly reflected in a survey of several thousand family-owned businesses conducted by the consulting firm PwC before the current pandemic. The German introduction to the survey highlighted that “digital technology is challenging established business and leadership models, such that some are even becoming completely superfluous […]” and that “family businesses are totally aware that ‘keeping going’ will not be enough.”[3]

What Working World 4.0 needs – particularly in the post-COVID era – is a blend of two types of leaders: the generation of the younger managers that have grown up with digital technology, but also the “old” generation of managers who are in a position to make valuable contributions based on their experience in the “old economy.” Both should take a number of things to heart: Thoughtfulness and a soupcon of self-doubt are not signs of weakness; personal development as a business leader is a lifelong process; and employees are not machines that require optimizations, but beings with dignity, an identity, and a sense of responsibility. Embodying these ideas offers tremendous potential to make leadership more sustainable.


Dr. Peter Becker (author)
Freelance project manager
Steinbeis Consulting Center Healthy Organizations (Bensheim)

Dr. Regina Brauchler (author)
Steinbeis Entrepreneur
Steinbeis Consulting Center Demographics-based HR Management (Grosselfingen)

[1] Hagenlocher, Brauchler (2021): Healthy employees are good for business [German]: https://www.jobs-imsuedwesten.de/magazin/news-aktuelles/gesunde-beschaeftigte-sind-gut-fuers-geschaeft
[2] Becker, P.: Leading With The Heart – How You Can Lead Successfully as a Versatile Leader with Dignity, Values, and Trust in the Dgital Working World 4.0 [German]; Manager Seminare publishing house, Bonn 2021
[3] Rittmann, U. (2018): Family Business Survey 2018, PwC