Hvor meget skal jeg give af mig selv? Om det personlige lederskab ved sygdom og død på arbejdspladsen

Anne-Mette Fenger & Ursula Baumgarten

Student thesis: Master executive thesis


This project is about the exercise of personal leadership towards employees facing existential life crises. We have been interested in investigating what happens to leaders when their employee is affected by private problems in which the leader will inevitably be involved, and to formulate the overall problem, we have asked the question:
What is at stake for leaders in their handling of sick and dying employees?
This is a very broad question that we have specified in two sub-questions, namely;
• How do leaders' portrayals of themselves, and their personal leadership, play a role in the discussion of internalisation in working life? And
• Which of their personal values are challenged (according to the leaders’ own stories), and how do they see their own leadership responsibilities in that context?
By focusing on sick and dying employees, we focus on their existential conversations, i.e. conversations about our basic human conditions, our common experience and our fragility as an individual.
We have spoken with some experienced leaders from the University of Copenhagen, and asked about their experiences of talking with sick or dying employees. Using the Critical Incident Technique interview method, we have collected six detailed stories about real-life conversations or processes, where the leaders came close to their employees in dealing with intensely private life challenges. Then we used narrative theory - more specifically performative analysis - to examine what image we got of the leaders and their handling of the employees.
A central concept in the task is internalisation, understood in the way by which you act informally and use the ‘private’ side of yourself at work. You draw on qualities that, in a strict sense, have nothing to do with your professionalism, but which are utilized to perform your work in the best possible way - skills of collaboration, communication, empathie, enthusiasm, etc.
Our fundamental impression of the Danish labour market is that internalisation has come to stay, but just as the critics whose theses we highlight, especially Svend Brinkmann and Kirsten Marie Bovbjerg, we see also dangers related to the leaders’ self-development, the risk of mental-overtime, and a blurring or change in their power relations. Like Sløk, we believe that the solution is not the totally non-internalised working life, where leadership becomes schematic and instrumental, and we therefore bring her persona-concept to the fore and discuss and investigate how this manifests in our interviewees.
We take Bernard Bass' theory of the transformative leader as an expression of an ideal where the internalisation is high, as seen in the exercise of transformative leadership. With all that which transformative leadership entails, e.g. sensemaking, charisma, enthusiasm, community and close relationships, how can the leader act in a ‘strictly professional’ manner? We therefore examine the extent to which this ideal can be said to be expressed in the self-portraits of our six interviewees. We also shed light on the conflicts of values which these tough conversations raise with our interviewees, and examine how they handled them. Through this, we have come to another key issue, namely that of leader responsibility. To what extent do they see their responsibility to their employees, and what does that mean for their handling of the problem?
In our conclusion, we paint a picture of how it’s possible to exercise personal leadership in different ways. We see examples of how you can take your employees under your wings with the risk of being weighed down by guilt when they are not feeling well - and we see examples of how you as a leader can keep your employees at an arm’s length, so you keep a distance and are not particularly affected by employees’ private problems. The degree of internalization has been less than we expected - but in all cases there is a high awareness of choosing a persona that enables the leader to find that difficult balance between the professional and the private considerations. We have seen clear expressions of self-reflection, vulnerability and empathy among the leaders. This makes us confident that, as a leader, it is possible to take care of your employees, while taking care of your business. It is not always unproblematic for the leader to get close to the employees in their life crises, but it develops leaders, makes them wiser to human nature and makes them consider their own values, which are perceived as very meaningful.

EducationsMaster of Public Governance, (Executive Master Programme) Final Thesis
Publication date2020
Number of pages64
SupervisorsCamilla Sløk