Existential Thinking

Existentialism is a philosophy concerned with finding self and the meaning of life through free will, choice, and personal responsibility.  The belief is that people are searching to find who and what they are throughout life as they make choices based on their experiences, beliefs, and outlook.  Personal choices become unique without the necessity of an objective form of truth.

An existentialist believes that a person should be forced to choose and be responsible without the help of laws, ethnic rules, or traditions.  It stresses that a person’s judgment is the determining factor for what is to be believed, and objects to individual or societal attempts to impose or demand beliefs, values or rules onto individuals or groups.


According to existentialist thought, our essence as a person isn’t fixed but we become who we are through the choices we make. Our choices are influenced by factors such as the assumptions, beliefs, judgments, hopes and fears etc. we hold about ourselves, the same we hold about others and how we experience and act in our relationships with others, in our everyday  circumstances and in the decisions we face and make. Existentialist writers sometimes refer to this as our ‘stance in the world’, that is, how we perceive, position ourselves and act in our everyday lives. Our stance both reflects something of our sense of and our way of being in the world and shapes who we are and become in the world. I can share a personal example to illustrate this phenomenon.

When my youngest daughter was 7 years old, I took her to a theme park that had a very high and steep ‘death slide’. I was surprised and impressed to see her quietly but resolutely psyche herself up to leap down its harrowing slope. When she finally did do it, I asked her how she managed to bring herself to push herself off its terrifying edge. She responded in a way that humbled and amazed me: ‘Firstly, when you told me it would be OK, I trusted you that it would be OK, even though it looked so scary. Secondly, when I write about what we did today in my diary tonight, I want to be able to write that I went on the slide even though I was afraid of it, not that I didn’t go on the slide because I was afraid of it. That’s the kind of person I want to be.’ I felt awe-struck and speechless.

Curiously, we are often unaware of making choices, or deny to ourselves that we are making choices in order to avoid the responsibility that choice implies, and unaware of the underlying metaphysical world view we hold that both influences and is influenced by our choices. It’s as if we can live at a superficial level, sometimes choose to live at that level as a form of self-defence or life-coping mechanism. The problem is that if we only live at that level, we may fail to be who we can become in the world; deny ourselves and others a deeper and more fulfilling life experience; struggle with contact in intimate relationships; expend our time, energy and resources on distractions that aim to suppress or avoid facing the discomfort and anxiety that existential issues can evoke.

Existentialism and Leadership

One of the goals of existential coaching is therefore to raise world view and choice into awareness in order enable clients to live more authentic lives. It’s about enabling clients to acknowledge and deal with underlying anxiety, tensions and conflicts that could be experienced symptomatically in psychological, emotional, physical or relational difficulties or in problematic patterns of behaviour. Duerzen summarises this approach as, ‘to help people to get better at facing up to difficulties with courage instead of running away from them’. It necessarily involves a willingness to explore issues beneath the surface, a willingness to face anxiety and a willingness to explore alternative ways of being and acting in the world.

The fulfillment in a leader’s life can be a crucial aspect for the role leaders play in today’s organizations. Both the organization and people within can only benefit from a leader who is well centered and lives a meaningful life.

It naturally follows that existentialism equates leadership with the empowerment of people or groups.  Leadership theories grounded in this philosophy see the worth and dignity of the individual as the most treasured quality of a sound organization.  Change cannot be forced, but must come from within the individual.  In the context of groups, open dialogue leads the way as the primary means of arriving at a group decision for change.  In other words, if people are valued and in healthy community, leadership will emerge from within them naturally, for all people are leaders. Two leadership theories find their roots in existential thought: team leadership and servant leadership.

According to the team leadership model, the critical function of leadership is to help a group accomplish its goals by monitoring and diagnosing the group and taking requisite actions necessary to assure success.  The study of leadership and groups began in the 1920’s and 1930’s with the focus of the human relations movement, which arose in opposition to the study of individual efforts advocated by scientific management theorists.  The history of this study is long and diverse, but the current model provides a map for a leader to help diagnose team problems and vet out potential solutions.

The critical function of leadership in this model is to help a team accomplish its goals by monitoring and diagnosing the group and taking requisite action.  A strategic decision model exists to demonstrate the various decisions team leaders must make to improve their group’s effectiveness.  Overall, leadership is portrayed as a function of team oversight.  The leader’s role is to do whatever is necessary to help a team achieve effectiveness.  The team leadership model reveals its roots in existentialism by supremely valuing individuals and the teams they create, as well as its commitment to bring change through group think.

Servant Leadership

Servant leadership is also rooted in existentialism.  Developed by Robert K. Greenleaf in 1970, the essential idea of servant leadership is that the leader serves the people he leads, implying that followers are an end in themselves rather than a means to an organizational purpose or bottom line.  The leader as servant is devoted to serving the needs of organization members, and develops employees to bring out the best in them.  He facilitates personal growth in all who work with him and builds a sense of community within the organization.  Servant leaders are felt to be effective because the needs of followers are so looked after that they reach their full potential and perform at their best.  Servant leadership forces one away from self-serving, domineering leadership models, and makes those in charge think harder about how to respect, value and motivate people reporting to them (Greenleaf, online).  By emphasizing the value of the individual over and above anything else, servant leadership demonstrates the influence of existentialism in its model.

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