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Is Heroic Leadership a Thing of the Past?

The idea of heroic leadership has become something of a dinosaur in recent thinking. When people attack this notion, they have in mind senior executives who think they have all the answers, who take all the credit and who call the shots without consulting colleagues. This is a rather self-centred, egotistical or narcissistic image.

The "new leader" is supposed to be humble, such as the level 5 leaders discussed by Jim Collins in his book Good to Great. New leaders are supposed to be participative. They work closely with people to decide new directions, recognizing that they don’t have all the answers.

Something about leadership has been lost in this new version, however. People are naturally hero worshippers. Think only of sports heroes. Then there are movie and rock stars, not to mention charismatic politicians. Hero worship can be a bad thing, as in cult worship, but people also need role models, people they can aspire to be like.

What is a hero, anyway? Someone who accomplishes extraordinary feats is greatly admired even if not necessarily a hero. The key seems to be taking risks, especially if the hero’s life is at risk. Someone who rescues people from a burning building or a war zone is normally considered a hero. But we also draw a distinction between everyday and super heroes, so being heroic seems to admit of degrees.

The problem with heroic leadership, however, is that the conventional concept of leadership is badly confused with management. There is certainly little or no room for heroic management. If we define management as coordinating the efforts of others to get work done through them, then managers are like orchestra conductors. Clearly, a conductor cannot perform a symphony alone. An effective conductor is one who gets the best out of every player in the orchestra and who facilitates an outcome that is somehow greater than the sum of its parts. Sure, there are some egotistical conductors but they need to be great facilitators and motivators too. They can’t do it alone.

What sorts of risks do great leaders take, risks that could make us see them as heroes? Clear examples that come to mind are people like Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. These three leaders had very different styles but they all challenged the status quo. King challenged various levels of government and the general public to eliminate segregation on buses, among other things. Gandhi challenged the British government to grant independence to India and Mandela challenged the white government in South Africa to give up their hold on power.

Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, in their popular book, The Leadership Challenge, present 5 ways in which leadership is shown. One of these is called "challenging the process." This sounds like challenging the status quo, but they equivocate on this principle by telling us that leaders do not so much directly challenge the process as make it possible for others to do so. But, this equivocation only arises because Kouzes and Posner have no place at all for management in their account of leadership. A constructive place for a facilitative, empowering and inspiring form of management could allow them to clearly state that leaders do in fact challenge the status quo.

The Bottom Line

Leadership needs to be reinvented. We need to bring back challenging the status quo to promote a better way as a defining feature of leadership. This means leaving everything to do with getting things done through people to a reinvented concept of management.

As a result, we can again see leadership as potentially heroic. The heroism of leadership, however, can range from the everyday promotion by front-line employees of relatively low risk changes in how things are done to high risk forms of advocacy that put the leader’s life on the line. By contrast, management cannot be heroic for the same reasons that proponents of "new" leadership cite: no one executive has all the answers. Both heroic and unheroic leadership can be focused on a very narrow, specific issue. It is easier to be heroic, however, when the task at hand is not so complex that it takes a large team of specialists to get their heads around it. Heroism requires quick decisions and it normally occurs in rather black and white situations where the only question is whether someone has the courage to act. Managers, by contrast, have to deal with very complex organizational issues. Like orchestra conductors, they need to integrate a large number of diverse inputs into a coherent, unified output.

For more on my somewhat unconventional views on leadership, see my other Fastcompany blog postings or my book: Burn! 7 Leadership Myths in Ashes, 2006.