Post-heroic management offers a model of selflessness in organizations to replace servant leadership, which has a core of truth: that people in charge of others should be relatively selfless.
The concept of servant leadership is problematic for several reasons:
1. It confuses leadership and management. Being in charge of people means being a manager; hence it would be more accurate to talk of servant managers.
2. Serving people is not a way of leading them. Leading people means influencing them to think or act differently. (No Servant Leaders)
3. The word "servant" is extreme. We need to differentiate between considering people's needs and being their servant.
4. The servant leader idea is conceptually consistent with being a know-it-all, serving people because you think you know what's best for them, which can be paternalistic.
Post-Heroic Manager Traits
The most important trait of post-heroic managers is humility. This makes them a bit like the level 5 leaders of Jim Collins in Good to Great. But it is arguable that level 5 leaders are really managers.
Recognizing that they don't have all the answers, level 5 leaders display their humility by asking probing questions to draw solutions out of others. But this is behaving as a catalyst or facilitator, not a leader, where leadership is defined as an influence process.
A second critical trait of post-heroic managers is selflessness. This is a tricky concept so its meaning must be made clear. Some believe that it's impossible to be selfless because we're all motivated to pursue our own interests, hence we do things for others because it pleases us; it serves our need to be liked or whatever.
But we can recognize this fact of human nature and still say that there are vast differences between people despite everyone being motivated by self-interest. Some take their self-interest to the extreme of being completely selfish while at the other end of the scale, some totally sacrifice their own welfare for the sake of others.
Thus there is a continuum from ultra selfishness to extreme selflessness. Extremely selfless people might, for example, starve themselves to death in their zeal to share their food with the starving, while extremely selfish people would feel no qualms about stuffing their faces while not sharing a crumb with starving onlookers.
Because large populations tend to fall along a normal curve, most people are in the middle, striking a balance between selfishness and sharing. If selflessness is a continuum, we could assign it a ten-point scale where 1 stands for extreme selfishness and 10 for ultra selflessness. On such a scale, selfless managers would mainly range between 6 and 8. They would put a strong emphasis on the needs of others but not to the extent of neglecting their own.
The point of this discussion is to show how a manager could be more selfless than the average person without being subservient, self-effacing, a martyr or a servant.
But before we explore in more detail what it means to be a post-heroic manager, we need to see what it means to be heroic and why this is a problem. Contrasting the two will put the post-heroic manager in sharper relief.
Heroic Manager Faults
Heroic managers have (at least) two faults:
1. They think they have all the answers.
2. They put their own needs first in every situation.
1. Having all the Answers
Heroic managers promote their own solutions to problems and dismiss everyone else's. We all have the potential to be heroic in this sense because we differentiate ourselves by scoring goals, by doing our own thinking and promoting our own ideas. See: A Hero at Work for counterproductive ways of being a hero. See How to be More Effective at Work on how to balance self-reliance and interdependence.
Our very identity is that of a thinker, an analytical solution-generator. Our confidence depends on our ability to come up with answers to any question we are asked within our professional domain. Asking others what they think is perceived as a weakness.
In meetings, people discuss issues by taking turns offering their suggestions. Asking engaging questions as a catalyst or facilitator doesn't feel like making a real contribution. Everyone wants to be acknowledged as a worthy contributor by offering ideas that move the discussion forward. This is what it takes to be a hero.
Those who get to the top in organizations are more competitive than most; they win the battle of ideas more often than others. Winning is so gratifying that it can go to their heads, making them think that they're never wrong.
In his book, What Got You Here, Won't Get You There, Marshall Goldsmith talked about the twenty most common bad habits of executives he coaches, such as interrupting people and never apologizing, noting that all such bad habits boil down to one: having too strong a drive to win.
Needing too strongly to be right is profoundly disengaging for others. Not only do such managers fail to engage others by asking them what they think, they actively ignore or dismiss unsolicited suggestions. Heroic managers ask only factual questions. They want data to help them make their own decisions; they don't want suggestions.
2. Me First – Never Considering the Needs of Others
Typical actions of overly selfish managers include:
• Take all the credit for team successes but blame others for setbacks.
• Hog the limelight.
• Claim the ideas of others as their own.
• Reserve the interesting tasks for themselves, delegating mundane work.
• Deny employees any flexibility, training or special consideration.
• Reward themselves with disproportionately high salaries and other perks.
Subtle Ways of Being Selfish
When managers offer solutions to team member questions, they are stifling the growth of employees rather than meeting their needs. Managers who are quick to offer their own solutions are really serving their own need to be the hero. Post-heroic managers answer questions with one of their own: "What do you think?"
When managers engage in vigorous debates, interrupt others, fail to listen, hang onto their positions no matter what and dismiss all objections, they are putting their need to be right ahead of the wellbeing of the organization and the self-esteem of colleagues.
Managers who delegate extensively do not fully develop people if they reserve the interesting work and strategic thinking for themselves. Using the analogy of eating excessively in front of starving people, managers who delegate only mundane tasks are just throwing a few crumbs to the starving masses.
Managers are often criticized for not doing enough strategic thinking. Post-heroic managers realize the value of engaging team members in strategic thinking to foster wider ownership and deeper engagement, not to mention generating better strategies.
Becoming a Post-Heroic Manager
The first two steps, as discussed above, are to cultivate more humility and to focus more on the needs of the organization, its customers, other stakeholders and employees.
Developing more humility doesn't just mean sharing credit with others; it calls for a major identity shift, from being a solution generator to being a catalyst, facilitator and coach. This is not easy. It is hard enough for many managers to move away from the content of their professional backgrounds to get work done through others.
The harder step is for managers to de-emphasize their instinct to generate their own answers based on their own analytical thinking. Being a catalyst or facilitator means asking others what they think and using questions to draw solutions out of others. The managerial role becomes one of stimulating the thinking of others to foster wider ownership of decisions, deeper engagement and better solutions.
To win the war of ideas that modern business has become, managers need to place more emphasis on getting mental work done through others. This means fostering more creative thinking in all employees by continually asking stimulating questions.
First of all, it's important to recognize that being a catalyst, facilitator and coach is indeed a way of managing; it's not being a leader except in the sense of leading by example, hoping to encourage others to take a similarly engaging approach. Further, while managers must put more emphasis on the needs of others, they don't have to be anyone's servant.
The main reason for making the shift is that organizations are deeply plagued by the metaphor of the organization-as-person, which means that the "head" thinks and the "hands" do. Until we are rid of this top-down culture, employees will remain disengaged and innovation will never be the source of competitive advantage it needs to be.