Illusions of hero leadership

Illusions of hero leadership

In an environment where leaders are under increasing pressure to perform, solve problems and prove their worth, many will feel trapped by the knowledge that the buck stops with them.

The real and perceived pressures of being a leader in an increasingly uncompromising business environment means many are struggling to cope. Leaders are faced with having to handle the seemingly impossible in a chaotic world, which can take a significant toll.

One coping strategy many leaders employ, often not consciously, is to adopt a ‘hero’ mentality. Hero leaders feel that the burden of leadership sits on their shoulders alone and hence resist assistance and monopolise accountability.

Hero leaders are usually highly capable. Some are results-focused and task-oriented, which means they get things done. Some are focused on keeping the peace, while others are highly analytical and critical thinkers.

Despite their strengths, in the end hero leaders are driven by a fear of failure which can have several negative flow-on effects.

Typically, hero leaders are worried about how they will be perceived by the board, their team and other stakeholders if they don’t prioritise bottom line results or tackle immediate problems. They are fearful of not meeting the expectations they have set for themselves and the expectations of others, at the expense of focusing on long-term goals, relationships and innovation.

As a result they behave reactively as opposed to seeing the big picture and focusing on what really matters. Further, they can generate learned helplessness in those around them if they continue to not share the load.

Hero leaders fall into three separate categories:

The controller

Fits the archetype of the warrior. They are focused on appearing strong and in control. They can be aggressive, controlling and forceful. In their pursuit of being on top of immediate needs and fighting fires, they may fail to see the big picture and focus on lasting relationships. Their team may dislike or resent them due to their domineering approach and may exhibit a false loyalty out of fear.

The complyer

Focused on keeping everyone happy, fitting in, keeping the peace, playing by the rules and not rocking the boat. They are commonly known as people pleasers.

In their pursuit of placating all stakeholders, they tend to be more passive and conservative, which can stifle innovation, creativity and sustainability. Their team may feel frustrated by the leader’s failure to have the difficult conversations or make the hard decisions. 

The protector

The protector leader is like a robot; distant, aloof, cool and analytical. Their behaviour can seem robotic as they churn through tasks. While seemingly they get results, they fail to engage with long-term goals and with stakeholders. Their approach often alienates their team who will find the leader unapproachable, critical, intimidating and arrogant.

How can hero leaders change their approach?

The first step to transcending a hero leadership approach is to identify the stories, beliefs and assumptions that fit within the hero mentality.

Often leaders will struggle to recognise themselves as hero leaders as their behaviour isn’t purposeful or even conscious; it is driven out of self-preservation and the need to protect their reputation.

By developing self-awareness to recognise when the stories that fuel hero leadership are at work, leaders can focus on transforming how they show up.

Once a leader recognises their default heroic patterns, there are several steps they can take to change their approach.

Have a big picture vision and enduring purpose

Most leaders understand that having a strong organisational vision for the future is important. However, in the rush to get things done and react to challenges in the short term, articulating the vision and making it a reality can fall by the way side.

Inspiring leaders take the time to develop a well-defined vision and purpose for the future, and have the courage to act in accordance with them. By taking this approach, hero leaders can shift their focus from self-preservation to the big picture, be more creative and innovative, and balance short-term needs with long-term goals.

Share responsibility and accountability

Empowering people to take on more responsibility allows them to grow and ensures they feel trusted and valued. Giving team members greater authority and accountability is motivating and drives engagement.

A key part of sharing responsibility and accountability with others is to connect them with the broader organisational vision. This gives people a sense of purpose, backed up by the knowledge that they are contributing to the vision, which will give them a sense of ownership and make them more accountable.

When leaders learn to trust their team’s opinions and decisions it significantly reduces the pressure on the leader to step in and take over, and frees up their time to focus strategically on what matters for the short, medium and long term. 

Engage in authentic dialogue

A leader’s capability to relate to others authentically and courageously is a gateway to building trust and rapport with their team and all stakeholders.

Authentic dialogue begins with the choice to be open and transparent with people. It is present when leaders have the courage to say the important things that others are afraid to say, and to do so with integrity and purpose.

By developing self-awareness of hero leadership tendencies and consciously choosing to shift this approach, leaders can bring forth the best of themselves, their teams and their organisations.


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