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Don’t be seduced by the heroic leader fallacy

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Heroic leadership still holds us in its – mostly hairy and ever-so-masculine – vice-like grip, and attempts to encourage more reflective and reflexive practices frequently run up against the need to alleviate conscious and unconscious anxieties.

But squeezing into tight fitting Lycra with your underpants over the top may not, funnily enough, be the wisest or most grounded move for leaders. 

When organisations fail, whether they be commercial or public sector organisations, or even political parties, the knee-jerk reaction is to ask: ‘who can save us?’


Read more: Why HR needs to take the lead on leadership


Socially, culturally, politically and in organisations, we are addicted to heroic leadership. Internal consultants and practitioners are not immune, and that aspect of our own shadow can be evoked, particularly with a client who is unconsciously seeking to be rescued or parented. 

The anxiety about not knowing what to do when faced with complex challenges feeds patterns of heroic leadership. There is an imbued expectation that leaders should be omnipotent and omniscient. This need for certainty fuels hero leadership.


Read more: Why clever leaders must master the art of self-discovery


Unconscious drivers of certainty have a damaging effect on the health and wellbeing of leaders. From my research, these were found to include: 

  • Expectations of leaders, followers, stakeholders and shareholders.
  • Pace: the need to be seen to be doing something right now and the need for speed.
  • Archetypes of ‘great leaders’ and all the projections that ensue.
  • Lazy thinking, particularly assumptions about the nature of change and the belief you have more control than you actually do.
  • Fear and anxiety of failure, of being seen as incompetent, etc.
  • Inability to cope with not knowing what to do, why something is happening and what will happen if I do or do not act. 
  • Need to please: parent/child behaviour is rife in many organisations.
  • Need for displacement or the need to make someone – or something – else responsible.

All of these factors can lead to cognitive and emotional overload, and ultimately burnout. 

Part of the delusion is that there is one ‘leadership style’ or model that will work. The NHS, for example, has been questing for decades for the answer. Every few years a new prescription is offered, and little changes.

The search for a ‘silver bullet’ in leadership is a denial of reality, for what worked in one context, at one moment in time, with one particular set of people, will never work exactly the same way in another. 


Read more: What to do when leadership fails, part one


“Learning in the world of leadership is about the application of judgement, knowledge and skills in real situations,” the leadership consultant Richard Hale suggested to me. Hale’s work is grounded in developing leadership practice.

Unless emphasis is placed on how leaders show up, the impact that leaders have and the context in which they do so, any conversation about developing leadership capabilities remains performative, abstract and disconnected from reality.  

By Steve Hearsum, founder of organisational change consultancy Edge + Stretch

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