There’s a Dark Side to Heroic Leadership, and It’s Haunting Most Organizations

In her recent TED Talk, Margaret Heffernan, an entrepreneur, former CEO of five companies and author, discussed an experiment on productivity by evolutionary biologist William Muir at Purdue University.  Muir was interested in productivity and leverages experiments with chickens for one simple reason — their productivity is easy to measure because you can just count the eggs. He wanted to know what factors can make chickens more productive, so he devised a beautiful experiment.

Chickens live in groups, so he divided a flock of chickens into two groups. The first group was left alone for six generations. In the second group, Muir only selected the most productive chickens for breeding — those who produced the most eggs — to create a “superflock” of “superchickens.”

After six generations had passed, what did he find? Well, the first group, the average group, was doing just fine. They were all plump, fully feathered. Their egg production had increased dramatically.

In the second group, all but three superchickens were dead. They had pecked all of the others to death. The individually productive chickens in the “superflock” had only survived and achieved success by suppressing the productivity of the rest.

For the past 50 years, we’ve run most organizations and some societies along the superchicken model.  We assume that picking the superstars; the brightest and most knowledgeable men, or women, in the room, and giving them all the resources and all the power is the key to achieving success.  The result has been just the same as in William Muir’s experiment: Aggression, dysfunction and waste.

But why is that?   At least part of the reason is because we live and operate within a culture that values and personifies leaders as super heros, above everything else.

Henry Mintzberg, a top management thinker believes that our emphasis on leadership has led us to an emphasis on style over substance, to an emphasis of leader over follower. Pick up literally every modern business book and you’ll likely read tales of powerful “super hero” leaders, their triumphs and successes. Our society and culture consistently over-emphasizes individual contribution.   We create an heroic culture.

An heroic culture is one that is obsessed with the ability to score goals, advance individual ideas and ensuring that the spotlight always shines on the individual.   With the excessive promotion of leadership, we demote everyone else.  We create clusters of followers who have to be driven to perform, instead of leveraging the natural propensity of people to cooperate in communities and collaborate as teams.

In days where many organizations are struggling to survive during turbulent times, is there still a place for the same top-down management strategies that we’ve been using since the industrial age? Do leaders really have the answers to all the messy, complex challenges that define our hyper-connected universe?   Or, are we simply maintaining the myth that one or a few people at the top can figure out everything that needs to be done?

Some progressive organizations have already started to surrender their most cherished assumptions about heroic leadership and are starting to leverage the power of collaborative knowledge. They clearly see how today’s problems are very different than the past and that expecting leaders to have all the answers is all but wishful thinking. They are moving toward a more engaging style of leadership, mainly due to their recognition that followers have a greater role to play.

For most organizations though, the idea of working to collaboratively to solve problems and cultivate ideas from within the employee base flies right in the face of traditional management thinking and its belief that the only valid source of knowledge is authoritative expertise. In other words, we over-extend our reliance on our super heroes, seeking their permission and guidance before we even make a move.

Strategies for organizations are still being developed behind shut boardroom doors with small groups of leaders making decisions that impact the future of the organization. Despite their intimate understanding of customers, very few organizations will call on front-line employees or middle managers to participate in the strategic planning process. Inside the boardroom is where heroic leadership epitomizes. Most often it isn’t even a job title or rank that earns an individual the right to make or influence decisions.   It comes down to whoever has the strongest voice and political influence.

So does heroic leadership still have a place in organizations? Lee Iacocca, Henry Ford and Jack Welch were heroic leaders. They were strong characters with firm answers. However, today’s business complexity has made it harder for one person to know it all. The Level 5 leaders described by Jim Collins in Good to Great illustrate the post-heroic style: they possess the humility to involve others in developing new strategies.

Heroic leaders use the power of their position to make decisions unilaterally. By contrast, post-heroic leaders are facilitators. They use skillful questions to draw ideas out of others to develop shared solutions. Both styles of leadership have the authority to make decisions for the groups they manage. The difference between them is their decision-making style: one is autocratic, the other is participative.

When it comes to executing change, heroic leaders, which may have been influential in past eras are failing to engage knowledge workers who crave a voice in deciding what direction to take. They no longer want to be sold a vision from up high that they have no part in formulating. Heroic leaders mitigate this desire by trying to inject motivation into employees, namely by “being inspiring” rather than by involving them in making decisions. Yet an inspiring sales pitch is still one-way communication no matter how stirring it might be.  It may inspire, but passion tends to fade when there isn’t ownership vested in the idea.

Building Influence: From Answers to Questions

Post-heroic leaders draw solutions out of their teams rather than promote their own. They engage people in determining new strategic directions by asking the right questions.  In fact, using questions is how they build their influence.

How’s so? According to John Hagel from Deloitte’s Center for the Edge, answers can be helpful but they only have a fixed value, but they tend to become obsolete at an accelerating rate of change.  The greatest value in this kind of environment comes from questions. Questions that no one had even thought to ask but that help to focus attention and effort on promising but previously ignored areas. Questions invite a different and more powerful form of participation. It’s no longer just about spreading the word and persuading others.  It’s about inviting others to explore a new domain and help to generate new ideas and insights.

Engaging leaders operate as coaches, facilitators, catalysts, enablers and developers of people, not solution generators. They create the space and environment for everyone to succeed and step out of the way so that everyone’s slice of genius can be unleashed and harnessed.

What We Expect of Leaders

All of us have likely been in a situation, either as a driver or passenger where you are so confident in your abilities that you refuse to stop and ask for directions.   Those situations mostly end with a familiar outcome – we get lost.

Business is no different.   It takes a ton of humility and empathy for a leader who is expected by society to have all the answers, to admit that he or she really doesn’t know.   It takes a post-heroic leader nowadays to move organizations forward and harness the collective knowledge and talent of the organization in keeping up with the pace of change.

We criticize leaders today not because they are less capable than they were in the past but because we expect more than they can deliver. Our expectations of leaders have grown astronomically because of increasing complexity and the rate of change, causing our anxiety to go through the roof. No wonder the superflock is focused on killing each other. Imagine the pressure and the level of competitiveness needed just to survive.

The stark reality is that no individual has the answers, but  collectively we do.  There isn’t a manual or book written with a precise prescription on how to avert disruption and how to get organizations change faster in the face of massive technological changes.

But Wait!  We Want to Be Led

Shifting to a post-heroic era is easier said than done. We want to be led!   We expect our leaders to have the answers. We expect them to guide us. This is why transformational leadership is so popular. Nobody wants to listen to a quiet, factual or less inspiring leader. They just don’t excite us and calm our fears.

The paradox here, however, is that heroic leadership becomes self-defeating because, the more heroic it is, the more it widens the gap between dependency and empowerment.

It’s a vicious circle. On one end, we seek empowerment. We want a voice. We want to matter.   On the other hand, we are taught, from a very young age to respect authority and respect leaders.  We default to waiting for directions.  We are taught that in order to make the superflock, we have to become experts – that we must be the smartest person in the room and have all the answers in order to lead.

Breaking our dependency on super heroes and finding strength within ourselves is easier said than done. It requires a culture change that entails promoting and developing engaging managers, rewarding those who can bring out the creative ideas of their team members. It demands a focus that shifts from recognizing and rewarding individuals, to recognizing teamwork and the contributions of many.

We still need and want heroes.  But their purpose has to change.  Today’s heroes are those who are focused on creating more heroes.


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9 thoughts on “There’s a Dark Side to Heroic Leadership, and It’s Haunting Most Organizations

  1. An absolutely brilliant piece Reuven. I would add here that one of the nuances is that “situational” leadership is important in this era. A great leader combines both the pre-heroic past, and the post-heroic future.

  2. I found the write up to have some very valid points. The top down dissemination of management though could be a symptom of organizational structure, hence the latent collective organization of the social communities as a rising tide brings change fostering more room for the heroic leader. We may be becoming post industrial as a society, but old ways and mentalities die hard, both infrastrucutrally and generationally.

    The dual edge sword here is the factor of dependency and empowerment models yet are there quantitative results to those efforts and effects. Collective intelligence may be utilized and yet at the same time, an illusion of empowerment within the paradoxes that do exist create a stalemate, and therefore no evolution of thoughts or ideas with which to implement in a decision process. Boards, for example, give rise to the participative model of empowerment, do they not? When carried out throughout though, we can begin to question the translation and innovation there.

    I think the issue is that top-down seems the relevant scale of organization yet the decision maker(s) themselves are the embodiments of collective thought or rather single individuals; hence another illusion of structure, whereas the organizations themselves are in fact more flat/horizontal then we realize, but for the sheer fact that we are made to believe that they are pyramidic in nature.

    Again, how valued are the questions and feedback if only to be used as a sounding board; yet when implemented, then there is a sense of collective harmony amongst the ranks…there we have it, heroic in all aspects. Leaders have to strike a balance between the two styles autocratic and participative, and when considering decision analysis and innovation implementation including the boards and CEOs.

  3. There is a fine line between engaging in collaborative decision making/consultation and “management by committee”.

    It takes a strong and skillful leader to walk that line.

    I can tell you that there is nothing worse than working for a person that appears incapable of making a decision and refers every suggestion back to some focus/interest group or another. Often times the leaders of these groups don’t have all of the facts, or place their own agenda above that of the needs of the organisation, and yet the “leader” pats themself on the back for being collaborative and encouraging participation.

    Martin Luther King Jr famously said “A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.”

    1. The issues encountered here could be explained by the prevalence of leading by heroism, in that some people don’t match up with is perceived to be a good leader, and as a result they doubt their position. I can’t say this explains this scenario you presented, but hopefully you can appreciate the point I am trying to make. It would be fair to say one way or another, which will or which wont work, yet.

      About the martin luther king quote, no offense, but the same could be said by a cult leader. The quote itself gets at an element of what could potentially be wrong about heroic leadership; it assumes that influence is the most important aspect of leadership. There is a time and a place for this type of leadership, and when the stakes are high in a situation such as the one Mr King found himself in, it’s valid. But what about times when there is harmony? What happens to that energy that makes some people so successful as heroic leaders? What’s it’s negative expression and how will it be mobilized into action in the future?

  4. Hello Reuven,

    Not sure if you remember me, but I’d just finished the translation of this article into Mandarin Chinese.
    If you’re interested in the post, here’s the Facebook Link on which I posted it:

    If you’d like a copy of the translated article as a PDF file, please feel free to send me an email and I’ll send you the PDF straightaway!

    Thanks again for the extremely resonating share!!
    Like you, hoping to make a difference in the world, one word at a time!!

  5. The prevalence and desire for leaders to rise up, or for people to develop leadership skills is well described here, and it’s not missed on me as a college student.

    I often hear about how each generation says the one following it is lazier than they are, and that things are just handed to them. Considering this, after reading this article, it made me wonder just how much could be related back to this style of leadership; the connections must vary in strength, and sure it’s not fair to say “this one thing explains it all!” but there’s definitely something there.

    In my experience, as I’ve been encouraged throughout my college experience to take on leadership roles, I find that most people don’t like group projects because the general approach is to let one person do it all(it’s pretty much assumed it works that way, hello entrenched subordinates). People don’t seem to avoid leading because they can’t, they just don’t know how or when. If you offend someone in a certain way, they’ll wake up and all of a sudden know how to take action. We all know how to action at some point. However, most of us are never taught to take action for anything but ourselves, if that. I feel that this relates to the teaching of respecting authority, as described here.

    As people become more comfortable, the mechanisms that encourage cohesion always reveal themselves. In engineering, it’s usually the laissez faire approach that opens doors and allows relationships to flourish. Everyone has ideas, and everyone wants to contribute. Different personality types might need different mechanisms to form cohesive bonds between group members. My point is, there’s never been one single solution to any problem that retains it’s effectiveness when it’s carried to an entirely different problem… and this single approach to leadership that we’ve all been obsessed with is not much different to me. In my studies, trying to use one solution as an approach to every single problem is probably one of the worst things one can do.

    There’s a lot more behind all of this article that I really want to emphasize how much truth I see in it, but I will leave that up to the writers :) I think I’m rambling now.

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