The Fallibility of Heroes

Why heroic leadership is not suited to a VUCA world

The great leader speaks little.

He never speaks carelessly.

He works without self-interest

and leaves no trace.

When all is finished, the people say

“We did it ourselves."

— Lao-tzu


What is effective leadership? 

Is it:

A: influencing a group to follow your vision, or

B: influencing a group to face its challenges?

There is a significant difference. Type A is mostly about charisma, acting like a hero, solving problems single-handedly; while type B involves calling the group to adventure, inducing them to apply their minds and energies to a problem while simultaneously protecting them during the process1.

Heroic leadership 

Type A is the predominant archetype. We are fixated on heroic leaders. We celebrate them in Hollywood movies, where they magically solve problems that elude the masses. We idolise the likes of Steve Jobs and Elon Musk. And we consume endless self-improvement books that promise to develop our ‘leadership potential’.

The hero trope has been transmitted throughout Western culture for millennia. It has evolved in outward appearances along the way but still delivers a consistent packet of information2. Joseph Campbell describes it thus3:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

This particular cultural artefact propagates the idea that our heroes fight our battles for us: Theseus decapitates the fearsome Minotaur, Achilles performs superhuman feats on the Trojan battlefield, Sir Lancelot rescues Guinevere from the castle of King Death. The hero does what most needs to be done and is rewarded with adoration from the risk-avoiding multitudes. 

But it is a problematic code. In today’s volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) environment, no single individual has sufficient knowledge and situational awareness to fight our battles for us4. There are too many moving parts. Rather, we need everyone to step up to the plate. We need the entire team and group of stakeholders to take on the fabulous forces together, as one.

Relying on heroes in a VUCA world is a recipe for disaster. 

Non-heroic leadership

Type B leadership recognises that solutions to complex challenges will not magically appear in the minds of heroic individuals but instead will emerge from the collective intelligence of the group. 

It is therefore not the job of a leader to tackle the most difficult problems solo. It is the job of the group. All hope lies within the group. The solution lies within the group. It is the entire group that needs to be called to adventure. Each member is required on the journey. There is no place for heroes (but everyone becomes one).

Type B leadership is very different to type A. The type B leader is both a herald and a protector5. It is someone who calls the group to undertake a challenge and then maintains an environment that is conducive to transformative work. (It is not necessarily a formal role, leadership can come from anyone.) 

The non-heroic type B leader heralds the call to adventure by challenging the status quo. He or she asks hard questions, challenges assumptions, provokes constructive conflict, perturbs the equilibrium. It is a person who asks with gravitas, “How do we solve this problem at the root?”, “Why do we always default to this?”, “How can we break through this impasse?”, etcetera. 

Then, to avoid jumping to premature solutions, the non-heroic leader holds the group in a state of discovery and exploration for as long that is necessary to achieve a breakthrough; implores them to keep challenging assumptions, analysing data, and ideating possibilities until an effective solution is reached. They do this by maintaining a brave space, a space where everyone is encouraged to speak their mind without fear of negative consequences, a space where constructive criticism and dissent are encouraged and rewarded. 

A non-heroic leader helps others to learn to solve their own problems. They help people develop the capacity to think complexly, the patience to keep questioning data instead of jumping to conclusions, and a stomach for constructive conflict.

Type B leadership is not about being a hero, it’s about helping everybody else become one.

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The type B, non-heroic leadership style is based primarily on Heifetz’s Adaptive Leadership model. See: Heifetz, Ronald A. Leadership Without Easy Answers. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1994.

I will be discussing it in some depth, as well as other contemporary leadership concepts in future posts.

Image credit

Theseus Killing the Minotaur, Giovanni Battista Cima da Conegliano via Google Art Project 

1

These are just two poles on an arbitrary axis to highlight a point. Of course, ‘effective leadership’ is highly contextual. I’ll be discussing nuances of it in future posts. 

2

Campbell argued that the hero Monomyth is pan-cultural. However, this view is disputed by several prominent Folklorists

3

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2004. p30.

5

In Campbell’s typology, the herald or announcer of the adventure is often dark, loathly, or terrifying, representing our deeply unconscious fears. He calls the protective figure a ‘supernatural aid’, which is often a little old crone or old man representing the benign and protecting power of destiny.