© 2020 Sune Bjørn Larsen

Forlag: BoD – Books on Demand GmbH, Hellerup, Danmark

Tryk: BoD – Books on Demand GmbH, Norderstedt, Tyskland

ISBN: 9788743019817


Consultants are under pressure to perform and project an image of themselves as competent and credible within the practice of organisational development. Wanting to create a good impression is inherent in most human interaction and consultants may wish to appear knowledgeable, trustworthy, ethically aware or relaxed because it has an impact on the relation, the task and their sense of self. Being caught up in trying to impress clients and avoid disappointment might have negative implications. It might deflect the consultant’s attention from first, the patterns of behaviour in groups and the relational character of organisational development and secondly, from the politics and ethics of the situation. Impression management requires careful ethical consideration because it has consequences for others, and it expresses and influences the sense of self for the consultant as well as for the clients.

I have employed auto-ethnography as a broad methodological approach to describing narratives and reflexively inquire into them. The narratives explore micro-interactions that build, threaten and develop the client-consultant relationship from the perspective of a Danish consultant within organisational development working primarily in the public sector.

In this thesis I incorporate a dramaturgical view on consultancy as a performance where individuals are trying to manage the impression they make on others (Goffman, 1959). Drawing on Elias’s processual sociology (1978) and Bourdieu’s understanding of power (2005), I argue that the individually experienced need to impress is a pressure in relation to clients. Impressing clients in particular ways is an inevitable part of the politics of consultancy within organisational development. Impression management is entangled with power whereby the consultant always engages in political and moral struggles rather than acts as a neutral helper. The emotional reactions to disappointing or impressing people are related to the pressures created by the political and economic conditions of consultancy.

I suggest that reflexive inquiry creates possibilities for consultants to gain detachment from the pressure to impress as competent, knowledgeable, helpful, and decisive, which might enable them to pay more attention to how politics and ethics work within the role of the consultant. Impression management is relational but is also individual at the same time because it expresses the consultants’ identity and ethical position. The thesis proposes Ricoeur’s notion of mutual recognition (1992, 2005) as an ethical approach to take others seriously within consultancy in organisational development. Taking clients seriously in the spirit of mutual recognition implies that consultants strive to give an honest account of themselves to take a position and yet listen to others and be open to changing this position at the same time.

Key authors: N. Elias, G.H. Mead, I. Goffman, I. Burkitt, R. Stacey, C. Mowles, P. Bourdieu, P. Ricoeur.

Keywords: Disappointment, impression management, consultancy, organisational development, recognition.

Important note: Names of individuals, organisations, locations, etc. in this thesis have been anonymised.


I owe my sincere thanks to the doctor of management research community, particularly to my learning set colleagues: Helle T. Stoltz, Rikke H. Sørensen, Nama Sidi, and Graham Curtis and my supervisors, Emma Crewe and Chris Mowles, for their curiosity, care, and support.

I wish to thank all of my clients for participating in the exploration of my practice as a consultant with them, especially those who have been willing to participate in the narratives. I deeply admire their honesty and courage. I have also drawn on the sharp minds of many friends and colleagues, particularly Christina Levin, Jesper Gregersen, Søren Bjørn Larsen, and Thit Jensen whose help, as fellows in organisational work, has been invaluable.

I am grateful to my family and friends who have participated in and supported my endeavours: my parents for their unconditional love and willingness to engage in the reflexive inquiry with me. Getting to know them and myself is, fortunately, without end. Lastly, I am grateful for my wife Maria Torp Larsen, who has supported me with her love, care, and, not least, patience.

Table of content


This thesis takes issue with a contemporary discussion in the field of organisational development. It has increasingly become the norm to talk about individuals as resources with inner potentials to be unleashed. ‘Nowadays, the ideal employees are those who see themselves as reservoirs of competencies, and consider it their own responsibility to monitor, develop and optimise those skills’ (Brinkmann, 2017, p. 4). Individuals’ self-improvement has dominated the discourse of work for many years (Brinkmann, 2017; Ehrenreich, 2010; Sennett, 1998; Stein, 2017). Brinkmann and many other scholars have problematised how the pressure to self-improve without end is a relatively recent phenomenon in human history that might lead to stress, exhaustion, fatigue and depression (Brinkmann, 2017; Han, 2015; Sennett, 1998, 2007; Taylor, 1991). These critical views have not received broad public attention though. Therefore, it was remarkable that Brinkmann’s book Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze (2017) became a bestseller followed by a sold-out lecture-tour in Denmark when it was released in 2014. Taking issue with the ideal of continual self-improvement seemed highly resonant to many.

As a consultant working within organisational development primarily in the public sector I welcomed this as an opportunity to think about how these ideals affect organisational life. Consultants are often described as contributing to the pressure on continual improvement, obsessed with change and pejoratively depicted as ‘virtuosos in symbolic manipulation’ (Jackall in Clark & Salaman, 1998, p. 22), always ready to reformulate ‘problems’ to ‘challenges’ or ‘failures’ to ‘learning potentials’. In contrast, I have found it highly relevant and rewarding when I have managed to explore and discuss failure, disappointment, feelings of incompetence and not being good enough with clients. However, it seems dangerous to admit failure, vulnerabilities and doubt especially in the public space. According to the sociologist Goffman (1959) we all put an effort into managing the impression we make in others to appear competent and failure is far away from the ideal of the competent consultant. Impression management is important to get and keep jobs as a consultant and to help managers and employees with their problems, yet we rarely discuss how we do it, why we do it and how it affects our work within organisational development. But if consultants focus too hard on their appearance rather than being curious together or engaging in creating public good, they might fail to pay attention to power and the ethics involved in the situation. This is displayed in the excerpt below, taken from one of the reflexive narratives that I describe and analyse in this thesis. I was hired by two management groups to work with their strategy but ended up in a power struggle between the managers John and Peter.

I had facilitated the days as requested, but I felt like a puppet on a string, initially with John as the puppeteer, superseded by Peter. I sympathised with both of them for their dedication to improving the lives of mentally disabled children but felt it had turned into a primitive battle of egos. I could not understand why they were not able to discuss their disagreements in a civilised manner.

I found myself in a fix and unable to act in the situation as a consultant. I was disappointed with them and disappointed with myself for not being able to solve the situation. I feared that they would not think positively about me if I intervened. I realised that being dependent on their positive affirmation as a consultant was part of the power relation between clients and consultants. The nuances and subtleties in which we manage the impression of ourselves as consultants are inherent parts of power games, identity and ethics in organisational life. This led me to refine my research question as follows.

How does the pressure to perform and impress others affect consultancy in organisational development?

As indicated by my title Are you impressed? I wish to explore how the presentation of oneself is related to the pressure to impress as a consultant. The title also serves as a reminder for me. So, when I am impressed by others or when I am impressing others (or at least find myself trying to) it is also a call to ask myself: What are we doing and why are we doing it? Stacey phrased these questions as a fundamental approach to researching into organisational life (2012, p. 124). As the point of departure in my inquiry I assume that individuals always leave an impression on others as they interact. So, impressing others is understood as the mere process of interaction between people. In this thesis I explore how consultants face certain expectations towards their ways of impressing others and how they consciously and unconsciously respond to these expectations and try to control the impression they make on others; particularly as the experience of a need to leave a positive impression in clients. Although there is a difference between leaving an impression and leaving a positive impression this is often conflated (as I have deliberately done in the title of this thesis). These two meanings are clearly differentiated in the Danish language as two different words (respectively ‘indtryk’ and ‘imponere’). I have described whether I refer to the first or the latter throughout this thesis. This has led me to explore consultants’ need to impress clients with curiosity, how and why they do it and what it might deflect. I am aware of the irony that this thesis is also aiming to impress the reader, but I am stressing that impressing others, in the practice of consultancy as well as in academic work, is certainly not all about impression management, manipulation or persuasion. One might also be impressed by hard work, rigorous argumentation and thoughtful considerations and I am not implying that impressing others is intrinsically ethical or unethical. In this thesis I am making the argument that consultants manage the impression they make in response to power and the politics of organisational life in order to help clients but also to get and keep jobs. The motivation to impress others is complex, many layered and changeable and it is important to understand that impressing and disappointing others is part of the economy of consultancy although it is also about recognition, identity and ethics. Consultants might find themselves caught up in trying to impress others as competent and attractive, which can distract them from operating politically and ethically and thereby, being as useful and helpful as they might be. Before I begin the exploration of the research theme that will lead to these arguments, I will briefly describe my approach to research as a guide for reading this thesis.

Research approach

The Doctor of Management programme (DMan) is a professional doctorate that encourages managers and consultants to take their experience and relationships with others as an object of research. It is a requirement on the DMan programme to describe and inquire into narratives from one’s own practice with an auto-ethnographical approach. I have set out and developed my arguments in conversation with relevant literature in different disciplines that has proved relevant to the exploration of the experiences I have encountered. The research theme and the specific methodological approach have not been planned in detail from the outset. My research has been problem driven and I have continuously made decisions about what the next step in my exploration should be and which theories could be helpful to explain and understand my practice. This also means that I have reviewed literature throughout the thesis rather than conducting a conventional literature review and presenting the results in one place. I have described my methodological decisions whenever relevant and I have delved in depth into how this has formed as my methodological approach in the method section in the synopsis.

My approach to research was in part shaped by the structure of the DMan programme. This programme consists of four residential weekends a year, with presentations and discussions about relevant themes, ethics and methodology held within a community of around 25 doctoral students and supervisors. We are further divided into smaller learning sets that consist of four students and a supervisor. In between residentials the learning set has virtual meetings to comment on written work, discuss, help, challenge, disagree and continually be reflexive about each student’s work. I find that the pragmatist notion of a ‘community of inquiry’ describes the collaborative research practice I have conducted (Shields, 2003). The learning set and the wider DMan-community have been vital to explore taken-for-granted assumptions in my practice and I refer to their contribution to my research throughout the thesis.

The thesis is a portfolio that consists of four projects and a synopsis. Following my auto-ethnographic approach my first project is an experiential autobiography (Mowles, 2017, p. 228) where I describe how I have become who I am in relation to others and how this influences my work as a consultant. My individual account is relevant as a starting point in the exploration of the broader context of my theme of research. I critically explore the assumptions that I am making and move from my particular experience to more and more generalisable claims throughout the thesis. This foundation allows me to investigate my practice in a reflexive way in project 2, 3 and 4. These projects have reflexive narratives treated as the empirical data that I explore, share with others, and build on to enhance our understanding more generally of my theme of research. Each project has gone through six to nine iterations in response to the comments, critique and discussions with learning set and supervisors. Once I have finished each project, I have left it untouched to display the emergent character of this research and to demonstrate the development in my thinking and practice. This means that the first project that follows after this introduction was finished nearly two and half years ago. The last project is a synopsis that contains reflexive turns on the projects, description of method, key arguments, research ethics and contribution to knowledge and practice.

Project 1: An exploration of recognition and values

My thinking

In this project, I will explore how I think about my work practice. I will describe significant events, experiences, and periods in my life. I will reflect upon how they have influenced my way of thinking and how my thinking has evolved throughout my childhood, studies, and work experiences. To understand how I think, I will explain a little about values in my family.


I was born in 1975 and raised in a small city in Denmark on the edge of the countryside. I have two brothers and a sister. We were closely connected in our family, and we still are. My grandparents on my father’s side were farmers and actively involved in the local Christian church society. They started their adult life with a small piece of land without electricity and had been working hard to buy a small farm. My father is a Christian, too, believing in gratitude and giving love to your neighbour. For instance, my parents never locked the front door to our house. I asked my father if he was not afraid that our things would be stolen. He replied that those who would steal our things probably needed them more than us. My father was not a devout Christian, though, and my mother was not Christian at all. We rarely talked about God and Christianity at home, and we went to church only for Christmas. In Denmark, we are taught about Christianity in public schools, and when I was around 14 years old, I had an intuitive sense that God did not exist. I talked about it with my parents, and I remember our talk as a mutual inquiry into beliefs and that they were supportive of how I felt. Later, my sister studied theology and is a priest now. I have enjoyed my frequent discussions with her about Christianity. I see now that my values developed during my childhood as a strong and fixed set of values based on Christianity.

Hard work was a strong value for my father, just as it had been for my grandparents. Towards the end of my primary school, he was a director of finance in the municipality. I was very proud of him, and I wanted to make him proud of me too. I did my best in school, and I got good grades. Sport was important for me too. I used to—and still do—play table tennis. I remember my excitement when telling my father every time I had achieved or won something. I recall the feeling of lying in my bed after a successful tournament. Sensing warmth, feeling recognised, proud, and happy. As the amount of table tennis training increased, it was difficult for me to participate at the highest level and give enough attention to high school at the same time. I had to prioritise how to spend my time. And although I was on the youth national team, I realised I would not be able to be among the best players in the world. So, I decided to slow down on the table tennis career, and I focused more on high school. Good grades in school evoked the same feelings of recognition, and it was important for me to excel in school.


When I think back upon these feelings of happiness, I find a strong link between my family valuing hard work and doing my best, which was aimed at getting attention and recognition from my father. I feel this was how I became visible to him. My relationship with my mother was very different. She worked part-time as a librarian to have time for the household and to spend time with my siblings and me. I remember her as available and supportive, and I have always felt recognised and accepted by her no matter what I did. Thinking back, I find it strange that I strived for my father’s recognition when my mother’s recognition was always there. It was as if I did not find it valuable since I did not have to work hard to get it. Near the end of high school, I worked as a helper for mentally disabled adult people. I found it important and deeply satisfying to help people who were dependant on help, and I connected this to my Christian values. As high school was coming to an end, I faced the choice of which career path to choose. There was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to go to university. I remember I was asked why and that I could not come up with a reasonable explanation; it just felt like something I should do. I had been serious about my schoolwork in high school, and I had achieved the highest grades in my class. Therefore, I was able to choose whatever studies I liked at university. I applied for psychology and was accepted. In hindsight, I think it was a move that would both satisfy my need to excel and do good for other people.

Psychology and early work experience in the municipality

I started psychology and developed friendships with a group of students who are still close friends of mine. One of them was a student helper in the HR-unit in a municipality, and he recommended me for a job there. In the HR unit, they had organisational development (OD) as a framework, and I got to know the literature in this field (Schein, 1988; French, W. L. & Bell, 1995; Senge, 1990). French and Bell present the framework here:

Organization development is a planned, systematic process in which applied behavioural science principles and practices are introduced into ongoing organizations toward the goal of increasing individual and organizational effectiveness. The focus is on organizations and making them function better, that is, on total system change. The orientation is on action—achieving desired results as a consequence of planned activities. The target is human and social processes, the human side of organizations (1995, p. 1).

Within the OD perspective, I was particularly intrigued by Argyris’s ideas of single-and double-loop learning (Argyris et al., 1985). In summary, the model describes different levels of problem-solving and learning. Single-loop learning is the successful application of experience and known problem-solving strategies to new problems. The problem with single-loop learning, according to Argyris, is that the underlying assumptions are not questioned. If the available experience or problem-solving strategies are not relevant regarding the problem at hand, the problem cannot be solved. Argyris points to double-loop learning instead. This implies a reflection on our own underlying assumptions in order to change these to see our own thinking and limitations and thereby solve the problem. This is not solving the problem in itself but, rather, reframing our thinking. At the time, I understood the OD-perspective and Argyris to mean that although problems can be complex, it is possible to find desired results. It also implied that I could master this as a technique if I worked hard enough. At the university, I gave a student presentation on this subject. The teacher asked me afterwards if I would join him in giving the same presentation at a university class for people from outside the university. I was flattered and prepared the presentation more thoroughly than I had ever prepared anything before. I received positive feedback from the participants, and I felt that I had accomplished something extraordinary. I felt I was recognised as an expert. This triggered feelings of happiness. In hindsight, I believe this has supported my positive feelings towards this particular theory and the underlying idea that problem-solving is an individual competency that brings recognition to me.

During my psychology course, there was a growing interest in social constructionism and the philosophical sources behind it. I delved into this and linked Argyris’s ideas about reframing one’s thinking to the thinking of Gregory Bateson, Wittgenstein, and Berger and Luckman. I explored the second-order systemic theory from the Milano School and their work in the field of family therapy (Cecchin et al., 1992) and the application into organisational development (Haslebo & Nielsen, 2000). Organisations and individuals are here seen as autonomous systems that we can disturb but cannot control. Language is central as a creator of reality. The sense I made of it was that we can create positive changes for people if we are skilled in our use of language and our second-order thinking. I also interpreted these ideas as a striving for harmony and avoidance of conflict through the use of language.

Appreciative inquiry

I encountered another approach both at the university and at work in the municipality that has influenced me. In my job as a student helper, I was involved in documenting a project called The Good Municipality. The project aimed to create a powerful vision. They used the method of appreciative inquiry (AI). AI relies on a social constructionist view and claims that we get more of what we pay attention to (Cooperrider & Srivastva, 1987), so we should focus on what works in order to get more of that. In the process of creating a vision, there was a strictly planned practice for the employees in which only positive things could be discussed. The HR-unit, however, received frequent and persistent opposition towards the project from the staff. Several of the managers felt they were being treated disparagingly and not allowed to speak out. I remember one manager who raised his voice on one of these awaydays. He had recently laid off a group of employees in his department, and he opposed the positive disciplining in angry terms.

I was embarrassed when the critique surfaced, and I was happy that I was only documenting and not on the stage being responsible for the process. I disliked the atmosphere of conflict and critique. I felt the project was a complete failure; I associated conflict with failure at the time, something to be prevented or handled. At the end of the day, the senior consultants and I discussed what had happened. They came up with several ideas. They wondered if it would have helped to put a mailbox by the door, so the participants could have put their negative thoughts in the box on the way out instead of saying them out loud in the room. I remember I thought I would never place myself in a situation where I could be critiqued like that. I wanted to excel and be recognised as a professional within organisational development. On the other hand, I saw that the manager who opposed the positive process was struggling for service to the citizens, and I thought it was disrespectful to force him into this positive thinking if he did not find it helpful. At the time, I felt the dilemma could have been solved if the facilitation had been more skilful. However, due to the study I was doing on my final master thesis at psychology the dilemma was reinforced.

In the thesis, I did research on the implementation of an IT-project in a hospital. I drew on the sociologist Bruno Latour to understand what was happening. Latour argues that scientific facts are constructions that are developed in networks through alliances and negotiations. He claims that we should not have an a priori hypothesis when we try to understand a phenomenon. We should rather see it as connected in networks with the possibility of taking different perspectives. He distinguishes between classical and relativist sociology:

For classical sociology the actors are informants... Relativist sociology has no fixed reference frames, and consequently no metalanguage... For relativist sociology, indeed, everything is grace (Latour, 1996, pp. 199–200 italics in original).

I found that this was a strange and poetic approach to science, but I could relate to relativist sociology as a respectful way to understand the manager who opposed the appreciative inquiry method. Latour made me question the assumptions that I had been taking for granted in the OD-perspective. He made me realise that I had been trying to gain a position where I had metalanguage, while others only had their own language. I did not know how to use these insights in organisational development work though. I was starting to question models and recipes in organisational development in general, but I did not know what to do instead. Without Argyris’s model, AI recipes, and other similar concepts, I felt I was just a human with other humans and not in a professional expert position like the one Argyris offered. I have often said that I valued critique both as a consultant and later as a leader. However, when I look back, I do not think I ever did. I was dependant on the positive affirmation and confidence that the expert-role provided to me. In hindsight, I saw the expert position and a human position as opposites.

When I have contributed to a discussion, I strove for recognition. I long for others to respond to me and say it was relevant or clever. For example, at the end of the first residential on the DMan programme, the director, Chris Mowles, said to me that he was glad to have me on the programme and was happy about my contributions. It created an instant bodily feeling of relief and happiness. I felt I was good enough. However, I also felt dependant on his approval, and I am increasingly interested in how this dependency affects how I think. I see a pattern in my behaviour in which I make a great effort to adapt to and excel in order to receive recognition and thereby stand out as a unique and special individual. I am starting to see the striving for recognition as my struggle to exist as an individual. I am also very aware of my referring to things that others have said in order to make them feel recognised.


Towards the end of my studies and employment at the municipality, my father quit his job as director of finance. He was 50 years old and, at the time, I had several conversations with him about his decision. He explained that he had experienced increasing symptoms of stress from work. One day, he found his hands were shaking so much that he could not raise a cup of coffee. He did not find it meaningful to work as much as he did, and he felt sorry he had been away from the family so much when my siblings and I were small. So, he quit and started to study again. When he finished his studies, he started to teach part-time. I found this brave of him since it was contrary to ideas of how to excel in a work-life, and it made me happy that he was more present after this.

Meanwhile, I finished my studies and continued my employment at the municipality and later in an HR-unit in a hospital. A few years later, I began working as a self-employed organisational consultant. I was primarily working for the public sector in the social field. I was working with psychological work-environment issues and coaching employees and managers. My business was doing well, and I was proud that I had been able to start my own company. However, at the same time, I experienced a growing dissatisfaction with the content of my consultancy practice. I was caught in the previously mentioned dilemma between the detached systemic perspective and the OD-framework on the one hand and the critical view from Latour on the other. I wanted to excel, but I also wanted to help as a human, and this seemed contradictory. I felt I was part of a game where I had a role to play but that I, from time to time, was not helping my clients. Later, I read what Mowles has written, and I strongly relate to his description:

Increasingly I felt as though I was expected to be some kind of performer, to distract from what we needed to talk about with a box of tricks, slides containing grids, frameworks and principles to which we could all bend our efforts and find an ideal way of working together (2011, p. 7).

I missed the meaningfulness I had experienced as a helper in social work. I also missed the long-term continuous involvement with and attachment to other people, like I have with friends and family and that I had experienced in my work with mentally disabled people earlier in my life. I wanted to be part of a community and not just slide in and out of organisations briefly entertaining them on my way. So, I applied for a position in a municipality as a manager at a residential institution for children with learning difficulties. I had been doing consultancy work there, and I liked the place and the people. I got the job.


The job involved lower wages and longer hours. But it allowed me to take greater responsibility and to try to be the manager that I had been advising others to be. I felt I was a participant in an important field of work again. At the age of 32, I was in charge of about 50 employees, and this made me feel like I had achieved something extraordinary. I remember the phone call when I was offered the job. I was driving alone in my car. After the phone call, I parked the car on the side of the road. I checked that no one was looking, and I raised my arms in celebration and shouted, ‘YES!’ I recall the strong positive bodily reaction even as I write it now—eight years later.

I worked hard to adapt and excel as a manager. I received appreciation and recognition from the managers above, and I was appointed as a deputy for my manager. After three years, her job was vacant, and in 2012, I was appointed as the centre manager for the whole area. This included five large institutions for mentally disabled children including residential units, schools, and other social activities. We were a total of 280 employees. I had excelled, and I was recognised for it with the promotion.

One of the institutions I was a leader for was Enggaard, an institution with about 80 employees where 16 children with developmental disabilities lived. Most of the children did not have verbal language, and they were easily frustrated with resulting violent behaviour. One of the boys was 15 years old and had autism, blindness, and the mental age of a one-year-old. He frequently played with his faeces and was violent towards the staff and his parents. In 2014, the parents of the boy secretly made audio recordings at the institution for three weeks. The relatives handed over more than 700 hours of recordings, and a nationwide morning newspaper published a series of negative stories based on these. The recordings revealed bad language, dark humour, and minor violations of good conduct. As an example, one employee suggested to another, after a night spent cleaning up the boy’s faeces several times, that they should put a plug in him (without the boy hearing it and without them doing it). Another example was about a rule that everyone should say their name upon entering the boy’s room as he was blind and needed to know who entered. In the recordings, we often heard that the staff did not do this.

The employees were both offended that the recording had intervened in their private sphere but also embarrassed. I found the revelations disturbing, so I made plans, listened to the recordings, and investigated the events we heard on the recordings. The local manager and the employees’ union had a significant number of official conversations with staff; we sanctioned everything that differed from the official standards, initiated preventive measures, made new plans, and so on. This process lasted for months and caused insecurity for the staff at the institution, as it was unpredictable what the recordings would uncover and how things would be interpreted. I had never worked as hard as I did or been as worried as I was in that period.

I made plans, worked hard, and tried to do what my superior manager and the politicians wanted. However, unlike earlier in my career, it did not solve the situation. The parents and employees continued to be upset and insecure. The politicians fought over this in public, and some blamed the local leadership. I was misquoted in an interview by a national newspaper, and more inquiries were launched from the municipality. My manager resigned for other reasons, and the higher-ranked director initiated an increasing number of inquiries and requirements for all sorts of documentation at the institution. Although Enggaard had good formal reports and a good internal accreditation before this incident, the trust that the institution had had was replaced by rules and regulations so the higher level of managers at the municipality could cover their backs. My space to manage the work at the institution was increasingly narrowed. The criticism grew, and I found myself with increasing demands, and I was disheartened that my hard work was not enough to solve the situation. Parents with a positive attitude towards the institution, the positive formal reports, and all other positive things slowly moved to the background in the eyes of managers above. The staff began to leave the institution, and recruitment became increasingly difficult. It had been hard to recruit to our area before the crisis, and this was significantly worsened.

A new senior manager was employed. He was a former colleague. On one of the first days of his employment, I had a discussion with him in which he advised me to distance myself from the institution. He suggested that I should let the manager at Enggaard handle the situation and not get too involved since my own involvement would make me responsible too. Just before the Enggaard recordings were revealed, I had been recruited to a talent programme for leaders with the potential to be promoted to the next level of leadership in the municipality. He said that my own involvement could do harm to my position, reputation, and career. I assumed he tried to distance himself from being involved in the crisis and he was suggesting that I do likewise. I think he was insecure in his new position, eager to prove his worth to the director, and trying to protect and help me. I did not, however, find it helpful. I felt he reduced the situation to a matter of personal survival, ignoring the wellbeing of the children and the employees. I found his advice unethical, and I rejected his approach to his face with determination. This is something I rarely do, and it made me uncomfortable, but I found our diverging views on how I should engage and take responsibility as a leader deeply disturbing. I found his statements in conflict with my Christian values. I was not aware of this at the time, but I see that my own values were conflicting too. I wanted to help the children, take care of the employees, work hard, and be loyal as a leader of the centre. I could not see how I could solve the situation in a way in which I would be successful and act in accordance with my values at the same time. His lack of understanding and recognition of my work, combined with my feeling of being unable to help the children, families, and staff I was responsible for, resulted in severe feelings of stress. I experienced physical strain due to the long working days, my constant worrying, impacts on the children at Enggaard and at the four other institutions (because I did not have time to give them much attention), the violation of my values and the lack of positive affirmation. I woke up early in the mornings feeling exhausted, forgetful, and with less patience both at work and home. I suppressed this, explaining it as symptoms in the face of a lot of work and suspected that these symptoms would disappear when the problem was resolved.

The problem and my reactions did not disappear. The crisis had stretched for more than half a year, and I was continuously feeling worse. I suffered from sleeplessness, chest pains, headaches, and nosebleeds. One day, I felt it was all too much. I could not gather my thoughts and my nose had been bleeding several times during meetings. I had desperately been hanging on in order to solve the situation while repressing the symptoms. But on that day, I had to admit to myself that I could not hang on anymore. When I came home that day, I said to my wife that I just could not do the job anymore. She was happy for me. She had seen me fight and suffer and had been worried for a long time. The next day, I quit without a new job, which is a very uncommon thing for me to do. It did not feel as though it was an active choice for me to leave the job. I felt detached from my body and that my body had resigned. I was in a state of shock since I had not been able to control my reactions. In hindsight, I had seen my body as a loyal servant to carry out what I needed, a thing to take care of and a thing my brain could control as if I am my brain but not my body.

Once I resigned, I felt relief that I was not faced with the problems at work anymore. However, I also felt ashamed that I had not been able to solve the situation. Shortly after I had resigned, I was asked about my occupational status at a meeting with parents from the class of one of my children. I answered that I used to be a centre manager in the social area. I immediately noticed how awkward it must have appeared that I replied with my former position. I realised I had found the managerial position prestigious and important to my identity.

Reflections on my period as a manager

Making sense of that now, I see that I had quite fixed ideas about what it meant to solve a situation as a leader. Later I read Mowles’ critique of the ideal leader I strived to be:

So a good leader would be someone who could choose to be transformational, turn things to the positive, decide on change and show themselves to be a leader rather than a manager. In being able to sew all of these things together they will have set out their vision in a coherent and morally convincing, authentic way that demonstrates how they will both inspire and deliver results (2011, p. 92).

I had wanted to be a successful leader in control, able to solve problems according to my values and to receive positive affirmation for my accomplishments. As a part of the talent programme, I had already envisioned a near future where I had moved to the next level of leadership. Instead, I was now without a prestigious managerial position, and I felt like a complete failure. I felt guilty, and I blamed myself for not being able to solve the situation. I also blamed my manager for being cynical with flawed ethics. The lack of positive affirmation clashed with my concerns about the wellbeing of the children, the families, and the employees, and I could not make these ends meet.

Looking back, it seems to me that I had idealised my values as if they were universals and superior to other people’s values and seen them without internal contradictions. This makes me curious to understand further the importance of my struggle for recognition and the conflict with values. The German professor of social philosophy Axel Honneth has developed an understanding of the need for recognition that I can relate to. To illustrate this, he refers to the novel Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (Honneth, 2003, pp. 98–99). The novel is about a black man who is treated as if he were invisible in a white society. This social invisibility raises aggression and anger in the main character, and according to Honneth, the book revolves around his struggle to be visible in order to exist. Honneth uses the notion of visibility to show his view on recognition as fundamental in the development of identity. Our identity is deeply social, and we are dependent on recognition. I see that the recognition I have struggled for has primarily been positive affirmation.

Honneth draws on Hegel’s dialectic understanding of societal development to explain that what we are recognised for emerges as historically and contextually based patterns (2003, p. 43). Hence recognition at work is strongly linked to our sense of identity. In Enggaard, I felt ashamed that I was not able to be in control and perform. This struggle aroused feelings of stress and panic in me. I see these strong bodily reactions as my struggle to exist as an individual. It rests on the assumption that I can control and solve situations as an autonomous individual. Stacey suggests a different understanding where the individual and the social are not separated: ‘Basically, this is a way of thinking in which both mind and society are the patterning activities of human bodies’ (2003, p. 2). From this perspective, my struggle was a pattern that evolved in the activities between human bodies and was not located just in me.

Thinking back, I had seen my struggle to adapt and excel as a fixed and unchangeable personality trait that I have inherited from my father. I have even had discussions with my siblings about the pros and cons of this heritage which implies that we have perceived it as a fact. I recognise a similar pattern around my father’s struggle as a director. It reminds me of how my own three children who are now aged 8, 10, and 12 still mention that I was rarely home during my period as a manager. When I was home, I was mentally absent or frequently on the phone. They say they are happy that I do not have that job anymore. I see now that I have used my father to explain my own actions. For example, why I wanted to win at table tennis, study at the university, and excel as centre manager; as if my father has been the cause for how I act in my life and particularly at Enggaard. In hindsight, I think he was aware of this pattern and did his best to accept me as a human. I find it unfair to him that I have unconsciously blamed him for my actions, and I find my thinking surprisingly rigid since I had reproduced a pattern that is similar to his despite the conversations we had when he left his job.

Self-employed consultant—again