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Von Feen und Dämonen

26 July 2023


While the “demon” was originally understood to be a warning or admonishing voice coming from the conscience, the meaning of the word became increasingly negative through Christian teachings, so that today a demon is regarded as an entity that frightens people, threatens them or even causes them harm. Wikipedia defines the fairy as “a type of mythical being or legendary creature, generally described as anthropomorphic … a form of spirit, often with metaphysical, supernatural, or preternatural qualities.” Fairies are usually of a cheerful disposition and agents of good fortune. I am neither a mystic nor an esoteric, but I am nowadays frequently struck by the way in which the behavior and habits of certain managers resembles that of demons, while the conduct of others might qualify them for the fairy category.
What are the specific characteristics of demons and fairies in management? Where do they come from? How should they be dealt with? Can we get rid of them, or do we inevitably fall under their spell?


First of all, an observation: companies are a bit like people; they all have lungs, hearts and kidneys, and to a certain extent, they function in a similar way. And yet no two of us are the same, which also applies to companies. Even twins may be identical in appearance, but in terms of behavior and character, they are highly individual. It is the same with companies – they all have the same elements and mechanisms by which they function, and yet no two are exactly alike.

Even if they are rooted in the same national culture or located in the same region and even operate in the same industry, they sometimes differ so enormously that, despite the experience I have gathered from hundreds of similar projects, I find myself constantly confronted with completely new challenges in the course of my strategy and transformation work. These are challenges arising from human interaction, i.e. the technical/factual complexity is usually not the problem. And so it was that, a few days ago, I encountered a “demon”, which also heightened my perception for “fairies”.


The distribution of companies or even individual divisions within a company (it is always amazing what cultural rifts sometimes open up within a single company!) on a Gaussian bell curve looks like this: from the far left, strongly influenced by fairies (“heaven”), to the far right, strongly influenced by demons (“hell”). To stick with this imagery, the majority are to be found in the middle, i.e. “on earth”.

Here “on earth”, things are usually relaxed. People beaver away, sometimes there’s more business to take care of, sometimes less. And apart from the usual minor disputes, senior staff don’t really get into each other’s hair. Commitment and performance are fine, and management is thoroughly professional.

But then there are the extremes of “heaven” and “hell”. Both are characterized by a few key players – a blessing on the one hand, but a curse on the other – no matter whether this relates to the entire company, a division or a single department.

In most cases, the few individuals who determine the culture are rarely aware of it, nor do the others realize how strongly they are influenced, pulled along, even shaped and mesmerized by these few. And that may happen in both positive and negative ways.

Of fairies and demons

Image: AdobeStock Rafael



Yes, they really do exist – fairies in management. I have seen them, experienced them, worked for them and with them. Even after a very strenuous day at one of these companies in which fairies hold sway, I went home feeling content, inspired and with a sense of personal fulfillment. There are just as many challenges at such companies as elsewhere, but thanks to the unique gift of their “fairy” managers, it really is a great pleasure to discuss problems with them and collaborate on finding solutions. You will find these very special people at all levels of management, and they often set the tone in an almost miraculous way. They want major issues to be tackled and brought to a good conclusion. They want to be successful and, above all, they enjoy it when others are successful – not just themselves. All their thoughts and actions are geared towards this outcome. They always have the best interests of others in mind, and malicious intent could not be further from their thoughts.

Here’s the situation: the Head of Corporate Development, the representatives of the departments involved in strategy development and yours truly are sitting together. There are a lot of tasks to be completed in addition to the day-to-day business, and none of those present really feel like dealing with them. They are already feeling the pressure of operational challenges.

As if he had a magic wand, the Head of Corporate Development succeeds in persuading those involved to commit themselves fully to the tasks ahead. The managers present at the meeting realize that the “fairy” cares about making them successful, about working with them to create something special. His approach is determined, confident and unambiguous while at the same time being characterized by great generosity of spirit. The energy level in the room changes, now becoming positive.

Here’s another example. Amid the petty war that takes place in every company between the different divisions, the lack of cooperation between the departments and the newly created digitalization team, and the lax (sometimes even uncouth) tone that characterizes the interactions between the assembled team, the CFO manages to turn the mood into a positive one, without consciously aiming to do so, by talking to those present, trying to understand their concerns and signaling sincere understanding. Without specifically addressing anything here, the CFO manages to turn the conversation around in terms of both manner and content. It is wonderful to be able to experience something like this.

These fairies – few and far between though they may be – shape the way we work together, cast a spell over people and have a strong influence on corporate culture. Consider yourself lucky if you have some of these fairies around you, because the world can look very different.


There are some real fire-breathing demons who destroy everything they come into contact with. Unfortunately, you meet them at all levels. Not so long ago, in one of the world’s coffee kitchens, I witnessed a manager inciting his colleagues and employees to finally show “those people in Finance” who has the upper hand. I couldn’t help but witness this sad spectacle with dismay. At first hesitantly, but then more and more, those present fell under the spell of this demon. The result was downright frightening: it was decided which information should not be passed on under any circumstances from now on and where and when those present would “play dumb”.

Another vivid example of the negative power of manager demons: the top manager of an industrial company calls his Head of Technology and peppers him with questions about what new ideas were presented at the trade fair he recently attended. He doesn’t want to hear anything about his technologist’s own ideas. At first glance, it seems as if he wants to check whether the technologist also had the same ideas that were discussed at the trade fair. But in reality, he is not even interested in that!

Rather, he wants to show the Head of Technology just how inferior in status he is. Wrapped up in polite phrases, one implied accusation after the next is uttered: “Oh, you didn’t notice that?” After a few attempts at explanation and justification, the technologist feels like he has been sucked dry and beaten down by the manager demon. In the sales meeting, this top manager wants nothing more than to make all of the sales managers realize just how little they know and how much they have failed to live up to expectations. He is not the least bit interested in any successes they may actually have achieved.

Wherever they rear their head, demons sour the atmosphere. The really unfortunate thing is that they quickly cast a spell over others so that this type of behavior proliferates. It is important to consciously oppose them and call in the fairies so that the “dark side of the force” does not get the upper hand.

Because “leave it” is often not a realistic option due to private constraints, and “take it” sooner or later leads to becoming complicit or at least indifferent. So, all that remains is to “change it”, to have the courage to say and do the right thing with firm conviction.

Matthias Kolbusa


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