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The Heroic Impulse

In this third blog post in the series about our working lives, I hope to explain exactly what we think we mean by “a leader”, amid an increasing desire for developing cultures of trust, ownership and empowerment – which an increasing number of my clients desire.

What holds them back from this is an often unconscious perspective held about what “leaders” should do, which depicts them as a hero who has all the answers, tells us what to do next and keeps us safe. This leader is invested with all the responsibility for our well-being and therefore they wield a power over us – which we often give them.

This power is easily taken away. The idea of a figurehead is useful to organisations because it provides accountability and ensures that decision-making within a company is clear and direct. But this means these leaders “fall” if things go wrong. The hero’s lot ends in failure, and it’s one of the main reasons why political careers can end in both a figurative and literal disappointment.

There is a romantic, even seductive, quality to the idea of this hero figure. It attempts to convince us that all the problems we face can be solved by one person alone. This might have been true 100 years ago, in a slower, more predictable world, but now this interpretation isn’t fit for purpose.

So what is leadership, and why are so many of our supervisors, managers and directors enslaved to the idea of themselves as a hero? How can leadership survive in this complex and unpredictable environment?

Margaret Wheatley’s paper “Leadership in the Age of
 Complexity: From Hero to Host” uncovers the superficiality of the hero concept best when she explains that, in its truest sense, leadership is about the relationships you build with other people. The leader who understands their role as that of a host appreciates this subtle but important difference in how teams can be led more effectively. Heroes rise and fall, hosts motivate their team (Wheatley 2011).

A host leader builds relationships and nurtures their team’s basic physical and psychological needs (Maslow). They call on the shared skills of the group to solve the problems they all face together - knowing the world is complex. They asks us to join them, and often have moments when they admit they don’t know all the answers. They lead by example and ask for our creativity. And if we fail, we fail together.

From my own past experiences and with the best of intentions, I confess to my attempts to rescue previous teams and organisations. Fortunately, I’ve grown since then and now I know that this isn’t helpful if you want to develop cultures of trust, ownership and empowerment, which are essential to creating a shared safety and sense of well-being – in any business.

Anyone can lead – and I mean anyone – and we must - to ask others to join us - we are all in this.

This series of posts has attempted to explain how we can perform our best at work, by first recognising the basic needs that motivate us to perform well as individuals, then how we can nurture that motivation in others through our social fabric, and, finally, how the responsibility of leadership is something we should all cultivate within ourselves and in others.

Question - What is your leadership impact? How are you helping others to really join you?

Steve Holliday
Leadership & Organisational Change Specialist, Lacerta Consulting Service Ltd