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Is Heroic Leadership All Bad?

Heroic leadership is out; post-heroic is in, but are we throwing the baby out with the bath water? Managers need to learn which leadership style to use and when. Lee Iacocca and Jack Welch were heroic leaders, strong characters with firm answers.

Recent financial scandals have cast doubt on the wisdom of granting so much power to any individual. Complexity has made it harder for one person to know it all anyway. The level 5 leaders described by Jim Collins in Good to Great illustrate the post-heroic style: 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. Both are positional leaders; they lead from a position of authority.

But in our rush to embrace the post-heroic leader, we overlook another way of showing leadership: challenging the status quo, showing courage and taking risks to champion a better way. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela were all heroic leaders in this sense. They had the courage to stand up to those in power and there will always be a place for leadership based on the courage to question authority. This type of leadership is non-positional because, having no authority to decide for their target audience, such leadership rests on their power to influence.

We thus have four ways of showing leadership: positional heroic and post-heroic styles where only the former is problematic Leadership that is non-positional can be either heroic or unheroic and both are valuable.

The Changing Face of Positional Leadership

Progressive organizations are moving toward a more engaging style of leadership in recognition of the greater role of followers. Middle managers mayHeroic leadership model not see themselves fitting the heroic image, but the heroic mindset infects everyone in cultures founded on heroism. A heroic culture is one that worships the ability to score goals in the form of compelling solutions to problems, downplaying facilitation as not being “real work.”

Heroic leaders such as Lee Iacocca have answers to transform organizations. This worked in the simpler 1980’s and may still work in less complex industries. Iacocca did know how to rescue Chrysler but the heroic ideal is getting harder to live up to as the world gets more complex. Further, today’s knowledge workers want to be engaged in deciding what direction to take, not simply sold a vision from on high that they have no part in formulating.

Heroic leaders also undermine engagement by trying to inject motivation into employees by being inspiring rather than by involving them in making decisions. It is a telling sign of the failure of transformational leadership that, according to a raft of evidence1, employees are still not very engaged. An inspiring sales pitch is one-way communication no matter how stirring it might be.

Recognizing that the world is too complex and fast changing for one person to have all the answers, 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. Engaging leaders operate as coaches, facilitators, catalysts, enablers and developers of people, not solution generators like the star goal scorers of the 1980’s. The level 5 leadership model of Jim Collins2 is one well known version of this form of engaging, post-heroic leadership.

Why Heroic  Positional Leaders Must Fail

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. We fear not being able to cope, not keeping up with the pace of change and becoming obsolete.

Our need for someone to show us the way and take care of us heats up to a fever pitch. This is why transformational leadership is so popular. We are no longer satisfied with quiet, factual or less inspiring leaders. They are not powerful enough to excite us and calm our fears. It’s like being used to coping by dosing ourselves with drugs or alcohol, but now needing something stronger because the old dose is no longer doing it for us. 
In the end, heroic leadership is self-defeating because, the more heroic it is, the more it widens the gap between dependency and empowerment.

Searching for ever more super leaders is no solution because more will never be enough for long. Instead, we need to switch our focus entirely to the power of the group. This means breaking our dependency on super heroes and finding strength within ourselves and our relationships with other group members to find our own direction.

Unfortunately, heroic leaders are hooked on goal scoring and they feel that being a facilitator is just not very exciting. Despite the lip service paid to working through people, managers get their kicks from doing what they regard as “real” work.

Post-heroic Positional Leadership

Post-heroic leaders recognize the power of group decision making and the advantages of shared ownership. Instead of developing their own solutions, they ask engaging questions that are variations on: “What do you think?” Here are some examples:

  • What do you see as the main issue?
  • What do you see as options for dealing with this problem?
  • What is your preferred option and why?
  • What are the benefits, costs and risks of your preferred option?
  • Who else needs to be involved?
  • What will it take to execute your plan?
  • What support do you need?

While facilitative questions develop team members, that is not the main purpose. The aim is twofold: to generate better solutions and to give team members a greater sense of ownership, thereby motivating a higher level of performance. Being a post-heroic leader is not simply a fad. It is driven by the increasing role of knowledge and innovation, a level of complexity that makes managers operating as heroic solution generators obsolete. In this world, maintaining the myth that one or a few people at the top can figure out everything that needs to be done is unsustainable.

Non-Positional Leadership

Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela had very different leadership styles but they shared some critical features:

  • They promoted a change in direction.
  • They had the courage to take risks for their convictions.
  • They did not manage their target audience – their respective governments.
  • With no position of authority, their leadership relied totally on influence.

Such leadership amounts to promoting a better way, leaving it up to the target audience to get on board and implement their proposals. The organizational counterparts of King, Gandhi and Mandela are knowledge workers who see a better way: a need for a new direction, improvements to products or more efficient processes.

Front-line innovators show leadership bottom-up when they take the risk of challenging the status quo. Such leadership is not what is commonly called informal leadership which is actually a form of positional leadership with informal authority. For example, the developer of PlayStation convinced Sony management to market this product but he was not an "informal leader" within the Sony executive team, someone who could direct the efforts of that team.

Non-positional leadership can be heroic or unheroic depending on the personal risks involved. King, Gandhi and Mandela were heroic because they risked their lives, or at least imprisonment. When front-line knowledge workers promote a change to a product or process, the risk is much lower, ranging from a “thanks but no thanks” to mild ridicule or, at worst, being sidelined. Suppose a junior accountant successfully promotes a more transparent accounting process to the Finance Director. This is everyday leadership that is very unheroic but critically important. Such unheroic leadership is in desperate need of encouragement wherever innovation or continuous improvement are critical to success. Thus, there is a place for both heroic and unheroic leadership conceived as promoting a better way.

Choosing a Leadership Style

Managers at all levels can use any of the four leadership styles. They show non-positional leadership when they use influencing skills to promote a change in direction, such as when they challenge their colleagues and promote a better way. A new vision or setting an example might work. Managers who adopt highly ethical or environmentally friendly practices, for instance,  show leadership by example to their colleagues, superiors and team members. This non-positional leadership will be heroic or unheroic depending on the amount of risk involved.

Crucially, managers can foster leadership in all employees. Front-line knowledge workers with no formal authority must be encouraged to show non-positional leadership to become more fully engaged and to take more ownership for organizational direction.

Making the Culture Change

The goal of creating a post-heroic culture is to foster more non-positional leadership throughout the organization for broader ownership and engagement. This can best be achieved by managers using an engaging, post-heroic  leadership style.

In heroic cultures, even front-line employees are indoctrinated with the myth that success depends on scoring goals. The widespread use of sports metaphors in business reinforces the heroic mindset. High fliers get promoted because they know what they are doing. They have ideas for new products or how to turn around a poorly performing division. Their entire careers are built on strong analytical skills to develop better solutions to challenging problems than their less insightful peers. There is no question that businesses need creative ideas. The challenge for managers hooked on goal scoring is how to switch gears and be facilitators.

The required culture change entails promoting and developing engaging managers, rewarding those who can bring out the creative ideas of their team members. In addition, all managers need to learn how to deal with challenges from below, to stop seeing good ideas from team members as a threat. Businesses that compete through rapid innovation need all employees to show more leadership.

Yes, we need to replace heroic positional leadership with its post-heroic engaging counterpart but it would be a disaster to forget either heroic or unheroic non-positional leadership, especially in businesses that need all employees to think creatively.


  1. “What engages employees the most or, The Ten C’s of employee engagement” Gerard H. Seijts and Dan Crim, Ivey Business School Journal Online, March/April 2006.
  2. Good to Great, Jim Collins, Random House, 2001.

This article was published in Ivey Business School Journal, Jan/Feb, 2010 and reprinted a few weeks later in the Economist Intelligence Unit's Executive Briefing. 

See alsoLeadership and Management as Functions and No Leaders, No Managers.

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