Most of us find the idea of the hero leader attractive. A leader who reliably saves the day and delvers the results. Hero leaders are popular with investors and electorates, and fulfill the ideals of leadership we are familiar with from fiction.
Hero leaders are not, however, the most effective leaders.
Hero leaders are hero leaders because they need to be heroes. They need the recognition and the adulation. It is what drives them, like an addiction, it is what masks their insecurity.
Hero leaders are seldom the self confident figures they might appear, more typically they are narcissistic and insecure. Their need for affirmation can be so intense that they need to tell people how great they are. They might even claim credit for the achievements of others and be reluctant to admit to their own weaknesses or the strengths of others.
Hero leaders also fill the responsibility space. There is little incentive for team members to step up and take responsibility when the hero is already there, and will probably take the credit anyway. Most people are more motivated to just sit back and enjoy the ride.
If you were teaching a child something, you would look for ways to help them find the solution, to give them just enough clues that they can make it. You would then praise them for their achievement and success. You wouldn’t solve the problem yourself and then tell the child how clever you were for doing it. You would make the child the hero, not yourself.
A truly self confident authentic leader will seek to make heroes, rather than be the hero. An authentic leader will have the self confidence to give credit to others – even when the the success is theirs.
An authentic leader will create the space for others to take responsibility and to succeed and just stay close enough to the action to support if necessary, without interfering or scrutinising. An authentic leader insists that everyone on the team leads and shines in their moment, with the support of all of the others, and has everyone aligned and collaborating towards the same goal.
The hero leader also needs to be busy, rushing about, being the hero, saving the day. To a hero leader an authentic leader might look as if they were not really in control and not nearly busy enough. This makes it very hard for an authentic leader to flourish in a heroic environment.
It takes considerable care, therefore, to successfully shift an organisation from a hero mindset, to an authentic mindset, if you are not starting at the top. It takes courage to come out, truly as our authentic self, it takes greater courage still to apply our authenticity to leadership, and it takes commitment and deep self knowledge to learn to stick to it, even when the going gets tough.
Persuading your hero leader boss of the merits of authentic leadership is not a trivial undertaking. It is not that there is a shortage of evidence, the logical argument is overwhelming. The challenge lies in finding the deep emotional triggers that might persuade a hero to give up their addiction to the buzz of heroism.
In many situations crisis is a good motivator of personal transformation, but for the hero leader crises are just another opportunity to prove how heroic they are. Some may even consciously or unconsciously create crises, just for the opportunity of saving the day.
So we have a situation where the hero leader cannot even see the authentic leader as a leader and where crisis is not a sign of a failure of their leadership, but an opportunity to prove themselves again.
I suspect and fear that they only route to transformation is personal failure, or at least the prospect of it, so imminent, combined with the certainty that they do not have the answer, that the hero reaches out and looks for an alternative.
One hero with the courage to be authentic is four-star general Stanley McChrystal who recently told his story at TED.
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