Obviously this is a pretty negative heading, and intended to be a little provocative. However I do think that the heroic mode of leadership is necessarily in decline. Partly that is to do with societal factors, in my opinion, such as how we culturally relate to our leaders. I think the modern, Western world is a place where heroic leaders are likely to be met with cynicism - for better or worse. That said, built-in to the heroic mode of leadership are a series of self-destruct systems which even in the face of adoring followers are likely to make even the best and brightest trip over their own feet if they fall into the trap of trying to be the great golden leader.
Here are my top thoughts on the subject:
- Isolation and burnout - If you are the golden child that everyone turns to for the answers to every problem then people are so unlikely to treat you like a normal human being that you will probably end up pretty isolated. On top of that the weight of the world is on your shoulders so the odds are that sooner or later you’re going to run out of juice! In many ways all of my subsequent points are variations on a theme with this first one at their heart. I could say lots about this and probably will at some point, but the simplest antidote to this that I know is humility and vulnerability. Simple but not necessarily easy…
- Cult of celebrity - essentially this is about projection. People see you in this role, doing amazing things, and they make up all kinds of stories about what that means you are and do as person. Those stories in and of themselves can limit your capacity as a leader. It starts to be difficult to get your real message across because it is so muddied by people’s assumptions and projections. People start acting like they know you when you’ve never met them before which is not just irritating but also gets in the way of having the most basic human interactions.
- Deification - a flavour of projection. The people actually start to believe that you have the magic touch, they set you on a pedestal and you can do no wrong… Until all you can do is wrong. Maybe once upon a time leaders got deified and stayed that way, but the modern media voice and our collective thinking habits along with it have come to love knocking the brilliant off their perches and seeing them squirm in the gutter. Which leads to…
- Demonification - another flavour of projection! Often this follows the fall from grace, but not always. In this instance people really start to believe you might be the root of all problems. This might sound unlikely, or even comedic, but the amount of organisations I go into where I hear people talking about all the terrible things that “management” have done convince me that this is more pervasive than we may realise. In any situation where we create an “us versus them” mind-set whoever “they” are become the enemy and are therefore easy to dehumanise and despise.
- Shaggy underdog story - There are various famous underdog organisations and leaders who have become known for being the heroic “other guy” in competition with “the big guys.” The most obvious of these is Apple as the underdog when facing off against Microsoft. The problem is that when you become this kind of underdog hero, if you are successful then eventually you are no longer the underdog! Apple is now very much part of the mainstream no matter how much they try and keep an edgy and unconventional brand. As I think we are now seeing happen to Apple, when people have loved you for being the underdog, it’s easy for them to fall out of love with you when you’re no longer in that role.
- Bland disappointment - People expect a lot, you promised great things, maybe you are the one great hope for the future… Except, then when you eventually reach the position of leadership you have been aiming for you find the restrictions of that senior position are such that you can’t quite deliver on the promises, you can’t quite make the radical change you’d wished to, you have to compromise far more than you’d imagined you would. Barrack Obama could be an example of this. I still have hopes for him, but I get a strong sense that many of us had hoped he would bring much more radical change to America and the world than he has done. Even with a fair degree of awareness, I can own that when I witnessed Obama’s rise to power I had hopes that maybe this one would be the leader to save us all. I wanted him to have all the answers because it is such a big, complex world. Seeing what has happened to him and the way he seems to have been blocked in so many of his great dreams is a part of what has formed my conviction that heroic leadership will never deliver what we want it to.
- CEO disease - This is common and relatively simple. When you get senior enough no one is willing to give you really honest feedback and because of that you end up doing stupid things because you lack the information to know any better.
- God complex - Not only do people believe you are the golden one, but you start to believe it yourself! Maybe this is supported by the fact that you do seem to get stellar results where others have failed. Whatever the circumstances, you start to believe your own hype, get cocky, and become a diva or a tyrant. “Quail before me minions! I have the answer, so verily go forth and do my bidding or suffer my wrath!”
- Egoic implosion - essentially the next step on from the God complex. Having become the tyrant you realise what has happened, maybe you have a turning point moment where you catch yourself saying something you swore you would never say. However it happens, having realised what you have become and regardless of success, you realise that everyone hates you and you kind of hate yourself. Your ego implodes and you don’t know who you are anymore.
- Self-combusting volcano of doom! - This is essentially the next step on from Egoic Implosion. At the same time you realise that you hate what you have become, you also realise that lots of people are depending on you and you don’t know how to do what you do without being the tyrant you now hate. So you keep doing it out of a sense of duty, and on top of hating yourself for the monster you’ve become, you start to hate everyone else because their dependence on you keeps you locked in the role of tyrant. In this instance leaders can be burning themselves up on the inside while spilling vitriol on to those around them as well.
As is my habit in this series of lists of 10, I am treating this subject with some humour. However as you can probably tell, when this stuff starts to play out it is no joke. I think more than anything else, leaders need to maintain their humility and vulnerability, and those of us in the position of follower have to remember our compassion even when a leader seems to be unreasonable. Compassion doesn’t have to be a soft thing, it could be about setting a hard boundary and saying “that is not okay,” or giving some tough feedback but we must do so lovingly not viciously. For those who are brave enough to lead others, life can be very hard and very lonely. The question I increasingly find myself sitting with is how we can create distributed leadership, how leaders can grow other leaders and we can all take greater responsibility for ourselves, our organisations, and our world.
These are just thoughts on-the-fly but hopefully they have triggered your thinking on what leadership means in your life, and if you're a leader, perhaps what brings life to your leadership. If you've enjoyed this blog post then sign up for the newsletter to receive free stuff and updates on my future work.
Check out previous ’10 ways…’ articles and look out for future parts of this series:
- · 10 ways to be a leader in daily life
- · 10 ways to inspire people (inspirational leadership)
- · 10 ways to connect with leadership through archetype and metaphor
- · 10 ways of being a leader embraces
- · and more...