One of the first a-ha moments for me in the leadership panel came when Kavita Ramdas was talking about her definition of leadership. As she expressed it, it seems that all too often these days we are conflating the definition of a leader with the definition of a hero. That led me off on a tangent: Is a leader heroic? And is a hero a leader?
Let’s start with some definitions (source: Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary. MICRA, Inc. Dictionary.com):
Hero: 1. (Myth.) An illustrious man, supposed to be exalted, after death, to a place among the gods; a demigod, as Hercules.
2. A man of distinguished valor or enterprise in danger, or fortitude in suffering; a prominent or central personage in any remarkable action or event; hence, a great or illustrious person.
Leader: One who, or that which, leads or conducts; a guide; a conductor. Especially: (a) One who goes first. (b) One having authority to direct; a chief; a commander.
I think we have often considered heroes great leaders. If you think of George Washington or Winston Churchill they certainly were both. However, Ulysses S. Grant was a Civil War hero, but had one of the most worst presidencies in US history. Was he a leader? More importantly, why is it that we think a leader must have heroic qualities?
You could say that heroism, or a heroic mentality, conveys a sense of personal commitment and responsibility. Heroes are laser-focused on the objective, take no prisoners, and will get the job done. If you think about examples of heroism in war, they are typically high pressure situations where action must be taken, and being focused and decisive is more important than being collaborative or empowering. Thomas Jefferson wrote "In times of peace the people look most to their representatives; but in war, to the executive solely." Translating that to business, heroes emerge in times of crisis: the manager who gets the product shipped on deadline no matter what. The sales rep who closes the big deal on the last day of the quarter. The CEO who turns around a struggling company and brings it back to profitability. Those are success stories, but they are also extreme situations, when the organization needs someone who won’t worry about the longer term impact of their decisions – they are just focused on getting the job done.
The problem with rewarding these heroic behaviors is that you can create a culture where a “diving save” is seen as a good outcome regardless of the effort or longer term costs. Taken to extremes, these behaviors result in an individual walking around saving the world, but not empowering those among them, benefiting from their knowledge, or setting up systems where heroics are an exception rather than the rule. Just once, wouldn’t it be great to see Lois Lane and Jimmy Olson tell Superman that they have what he needs to resolve the situation, and they don’t have to depend on him to rescue them?
Personally, I think it would be hard to work for a hero. I’d rather work for someone who has focus and judgement, but acknowledges that they need the intelligence and commitment of those around them to be successful. A leader can still take the hill, and be as successful as the hero, but how they achieve that objective will be different. They will set high bars for their team, and put systems in place to catch problems before they require heroics. They’ll hire to increase the overall knowledge and strength of their team, and value the contribution of those team members. They will make tough decisions, but the decisions will be tempered with empathy and an understanding of the broader implications. We don’t need more heroes in business. We need more leaders.
What do you think? Have you ever worked for a hero? How does that compare to working for a leader?
Special present for children of the 80s: the video that inspired this post's title.