Kierkegaard and authentic leadership


It is 2013, and thereby the 200th birthday of Kierkegaard the world famous Danish philosopher. But what could a 19th century philosopher, discussing the fear and trembling of old testament Abraham possibly say about leadership, authenticity and organization today?

In a sense Kierkegaard tries to understand the authentic leader, and likewise at Stagis we try to understand and advice authentic leaders creating an authentic business organization. Leaders of tomorrow cannot risk falling back into a managerial role of controlling employees and business according to fixed rules, by not understanding the drive towards authentic goods and services. Thus, Kierkegaard might after all have a thing or two, to say about leadership.

Kierkegaard had a desire for understanding passionate characters that takes risks to go beyond the ethical or the mainstream. In his key work Fear and Trembling (1843) Kierkegaard studies Abraham, the father who feels he has to sacrifice his first-born son on the command of god.  Abraham cannot explain to his wife or anybody else why he has to do this. What kind of god would demand to kill ones first-born child?

Likewise, the passionate entrepreneur taking radical steps to break with the mainstream of the market can also have difficulties explaining his project. When Steve Jobs founded Apple in 1976, he was about to change the competitive factors and eventually the entire paradigm of the market. But at the time no one really understood what was going on. And almost certainly not even Jobs himself.

“If anyone on the verge of action should judge himself according to the outcome, he would never begin. Even though the result may gladden the whole world, that cannot help the hero; for he knows the result only when the whole thing is over, and that is not how he became a hero, but by virtue of the fact that he began.” Søren Aabye Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, 1843.

When Rene Redzepi created Noma as the first New Nordic Kitchen restaurant, he was ridiculed as an unsophisticated hick, trying to stir up media attention with the cook Claus Meyer. After all, why would anybody go back to use old nordic ingredients and recipes when you have French and Italian culinary traditions and rules?  At the outset, Rene Redzepi could not make his project intelligible to him or anybody else; he just felt it was right. Paradoxically, by both riskin his own identity and being absolutely true to it, Redzepi made himself an authentic culinary hero rising above the ethical.

Nonetheless, the authentic business entrepreneur is quite vulnerable. Going beyond the mainstream, or the ethical rules and judicial framework of a market, can be anxiety provoking. Having no existing norms or rules to rely on; creating an entirely new business model can feel like having 70.000 fathoms of water beneath oneself. So, how did Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg or any other of the successful entrepreneurs who had never learned the jargon and rules of the business school, manage to create an authentic business organization out of nothing?

In Kierkegaard’s words, the authentic leader is making the move from the ethical onto the religious. Because the authentic leader is not building his organization around (ethical) business school rules, which are applicable to all corporations like a McKinsey consultant. Rather authenticity is about founding the organization on inner strengths and deliberate leadership actions to go beyond the mainstream.

Moreover, the authentic company, are also better crisis survivors as they are not competing by the same competitive factors of price and quantity as the mainstream market, but has become super premium brands. OKI Printing Solutions had difficulties differentiating their printers from the rest of the market in terms of price and quantity like speed of printing. Thus, Stagis helped OKI making a radical move above the ethical, to become sellers of OKI Identity, rather than printers. And importantly, this also resonated with  their history, as they introduces radical different printers to the market earlier in their company history.

Authentic companies are thus not only able to find a corporate identity with links to their history and actions, but can also express this when authentic leaders dare to challenge the ethical. At Stagis authentic leadership is thus not about putting the past to rest, because “…why bother remembering a past that cannot be made into a present?” ― Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, 1843