It used to be easy. I remember as a child watching films and early morning weekend cartoons, there was a villain and there was a hero, they were easy to tell the difference. The villain always had some dastardly plan and the hero always had all the answers, would rush to the aid of those in need and save the day.
It makes perfect sense that as we get older, that we look to our leaders to be that hero. Life as a child is fairly black-and-white, but with experience we realise there is very little black or white, just lots of intertwined, interconnected ideas, some of which complement our values and others which do not.
The idea of a hero is a seductive one, perhaps its our desire to be saved, to not have to do the hard work. Politicians are a classic example of a group that portray themselves as the ‘hero-leader’, someone with all the answers, who can fix all problems and make it all better. It is something we want to believe, we want to believe that such an individual exists, unfortunately the reality becomes all too apparent and we quickly feel let down and seek out the next new inspiring, visionary hero.
I think the first paragraph highlights part of why the problem exists. We have been conditioned to believe certain ‘truths’, ideas that allow the proliferation of ‘hero leaders’:
- We need to be saved, there is someone who has the ability to improve things and we must wait for their direction
- Leaders have all the answers and can tell us what to do
- Leaders know the plan and it will get us to the place we want without any hardship to ourselves or others
- Once we know the plan, people will just do what they are told to accomplish it
- In complex and high risk situations we need someone to take control, we need a leader at the top to direct everyone else, power must shift from the many to the person at the top
Think of anytime you have been asked to lead a group, did you feel like you had all the answers? Did people want to follow you immediately? It’s easy to pick holes in the ideas above.
The reason you do not have all the answers could be that you are not a very good leader, there are many poor leaders. However the simple truth is that no one has all the answers. Setting yourself up as a ‘hero-leader’ is destined for failure. We need to face the truth of the situation, life is too complex for hero leaders, no one is coming to save us and we have to work together to solve life’s problems.
The complexity of life cannot be solved by one leader and a few advisors and it is laughable that this remains the current approach. Asking a few people to take control of a complex situation will only add more complexity. The truth is, we want simple answers to life’s complex problems, our hero leaders, whether deliberately or not, promise these simple answers to make problems disappear. The reality as we know is much different.
For ‘hero leaders’ to exist, they must be in control. I use the example of politics and politicians, because it is something we see on a daily basis and all have experience with or have been influenced by. Hero leaders are rife throughout politics, but we are starting to see the problems with their situation as they try to wrestle complex situations.
To be in control, their must be groups of people willing to be controlled, but what happens when the group disagrees with their ‘hero-leader’? There are people who still believe that we should defer our understanding to the expertise of those in charge, however, there appear to be many more people who understand that the situation is more complex than image that is being portrayed.
Reading most manifestos that are produced demonstrates the simplicity of the situation that is being painted: “if we do x, y and z, poverty will be halved, we’ll have a better economy etc.”. Once in power, delivery is not instantaneous and we are informed how much more complex the situation is. We were not informed of this complexity at the start, this is the point that doubts are raised about our hero and control starts to slip. Our ‘hero-leader’ is going to fail, but have no fear, another is waiting in the wings.
What should our leaders look like?
So what should we be looking for in our leaders? We need heroes who understand the complexity of the problem and do not shy away from explaining it the terms of its intricacies. They must express an interest to understand all aspect of the problem that need to be understood and remedied. Perhaps the more difficult part, as followers, we need to be willing to allow our leaders time, the ability to not get everything right first time and also be willing to voice our opinion and expertise, have the confidence to contribute.
The none-hero leaders are easy to recognise, they are curious, they do not make false promises of having all the answers, they will look to others, believing in their commitment, knowledge and creativity to solve the problem at hand. Those people which are led, do not need to be controlled, but encouraged, supported and motivated. The leader’s role is not to dictate, but to coordinate, to listen and provide care to those individuals in their charge.
The beauty of having people contribute to the creation of a solution is the idea of ‘buy-in’. People are more likely to work with the new idea, to support its development and implementation, because part of their work, part of themselves went into its creation. The idea of ‘buy-in’ supports the individual in establishing ‘meaning’ to their role, having an impact in what they do.
Being a leader
The role of a non-hero leader is not passive. Certainly you are encouraging those you lead to contribute, but this is not the end of the story. It is not a case of sitting back and letting others complete the work. There are many aspects that require a leader’s attention:
- provide the situation, time and support for group work, creativity and collaboration.
- create a culture of learning from experience, both bad and good. Working with individuals to create measures of progress and success.
- be supportive, working for the team, removing unnecessary bureaucracy and administrative limitations to allow the group to work on their solution and defend your individuals from critics.
- celebrate true success when the group completes a difficult challenge together.
Challenges to the non-hero leader
Non-hero leaders are not a new idea, even so their will be many within an organisation who do not agree with the idea.
Hero-leaders within organisations have become used to their position, fully justifying the belief in their inherent superiority. They believe that their staff are in no way as creative or self-motivated as they are. They fear the involvement or collaboration with staff of their organisation, believing it will provide the opportunity to undermine their power.
A non-hero leader requires great skill in defending their position and their team. Senior hero-leaders will often impose more bureaucracy or control to prevent non-orthodox approaches to problem solving. Opting for control over effective solutions, opting to create more chaos in the false belief that the situation requires greater control.
As an extension of this, those in the organisation who have been controlled by the hierarchy of the ‘hero-leader’ system may take quite some time to understand that their new leader is different.
The leader needs to prove him or herself, too many times before have promises been made, but not been sincere or engaged employees in meaningful work. However, taking the time to prove that they are sincere with a consistent positive message will eventually reinvigorate staff. It can create a community where their work becomes less about doing the job. It becomes more about creating an environment or community where people work together to create and solve problems from firsthand experience. Less adverse about experimentation, support risk-taking and are more confident about themselves and their role in the organisation.
Are you a hero?
It is easy to establish if you are a ‘hero-leader’. Do you believe that if you could just work harder or smarter you would be able to fix things? If you could just learn that new skill or technique you could solve more problems for others? Do you take on more and more problems or projects, focus less on communication with others, in your ambition to save the world?
It is important to realise, you are not alone in your approach and your view. You are a ‘hero-leader’ because you care and you arrived here with the best intentions, there is something you want to fix, some problem you want to solve. However, the belief that only you have the skills or insight, only you can solve this problem will lead you down the path to feeling isolated, burnt out, exhausted, undervalued and unappreciated.
It’s time to hang up the cape, to put the hero to bed. If we accept we are not the hero we have built ourselves to be, we will understand that there are many people, just like us, trying to solve similar, or even the same problem. They are ready to help, to collaborate and contribute.
In truth, we don’t need heroes, we never needed rescuing.
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