Do You Need to be a Hero?
by Mitch McCrimmon, Ph.D.

If you are less successful at work than you could be, you might be your own worst enemy for being too individualistic. Are you driving yourself to be the best solution generator, someone with all the answers, a hero in effect? You don't need the ego of a Jack Welch to want to be a hero at work. You simply have to think like an individual with a desire for at least modest personal success. Even employees who lack confidence are caught up in the heroic mindset when they berate themselves for not holding their own in a debate or saying much in meetings. All managers are aware of the need to work through others, but they interpret this truism too narrowly as telling others what to do. They need to realize that most of today's work is mental - thinking about how to solve problems. The best way to get such mental work done through others is to ask them stimulating questions. This means being more of a facilitator than a solution generator or decision maker - not an easy shift for managers with a heroic mindset to make.

The Makings of a Hero

Wanting to be a hero at work means striving to differentiate yourself by generating solutions to problems, scoring goals by providing answers, solutions or ideas that are better than everyone else's. Heroes are competitive individualists who, needing to be right, debate issues in a win-lose manner. Their confidence is based on their ability to generate solutions to problems and to provide definitive answers to tough questions. Their ability to know what to do propels their early career advancement but handicaps them once they need to get work done through others. Calling all the shots works well enough in the execution of straightforward tasks but fails in creative knowledge work where the demand for constant innovation requires all employees to use their brains to develop new solutions. In this context, the key to success is the ability to stimulate others to think by asking powerful questions, not easy for heroic managers with a one-track approach to making a contribution - proposing their own solutions.

Organizational cultures are crippled by the heroic mindset because managers are expected to have all the answers thereby disengaging everyone reporting to them. Even quiet, uncompetitive or unconfident individuals are infected by the hero virus, so they sit in meetings saying nothing because they can't think of solutions to propose fast enough or are too afraid to stick their necks out. Both the confident and the not-so-confident view asking questions as a sign of weakness rather than as a facilitative activity, an invaluable form of contribution to teams where effectiveness depends on the full engagement of everyone's creative thinking capacity.

The Hero's Way of Working

The heroic outlook infects everything that managers do at work, how they think, plan, communicate, manage others, delegate, manage their careers and view their very identity. The most common problems caused by this mindset are outlined below.

The Hero's Key to Success

Heroes base their success on their ability to generate solutions that are better than their competitors for promotion and other rewards. Early advancement does in fact depend on just this ability, but heroes often fail to realize that further career success requires a switch in identity to a mix of coaching and solution generation, balanced toward using facilitative questions to draw solutions out of others. Unfortunately, this is a massive challenge for heroes promoted to high visibility, produce-or-die, roles where the pressure to make an immediate impact fuels their anxiety to be seen as having the answers.

The Hero's Model of Management

Managers, in the hero's eyes, are decision makers. Their job is to make key decisions for their teams. The manager is supposedly the most knowledgeable, smartest or most experienced person in the team, the one to knows what to do at all times. To ask team members how they think a particular issue might be addressed is seen as a sign of weakness rather than as a facilitative style, an effort to draw the best ideas out of everyone, to engage people and stimulate joint ownership of decisions.


Because their identity is bound up with being a top solution generator, the confidence of heroic managers suffers as they rise too far above the functional content of their roles. They fail to make the transition from solution generator to facilitator. It comes as a revelation and a relief to learn that a small set of facilitative questions (i.e. What do you think?'') can be used over and over again regardless of the content - a much easier skillset on which to base their identity and confidence given the daunting complexity and pace of change managers have to face today.

Effectiveness in Meetings

Only one form of contribution is recognized in a meeting - making statements about the content under discussion. Heroes drive themselves to be well prepared for meetings, to be able to anticipate questions and not be seen to lack answers for any of them. If they have no content to contribute, they remain silent, not seeing facilitative questions as a valid form of contribution. Facilitative questions can be asked about content (What other options are there?) as well as process (What are we really trying to achieve here?).


Being a doer inclines heroic managers to see delegation in all or nothing terms; they do the job or delegate it. They are torn between wanting it done properly and wanting to trust someone else to do it. A simple facilitative tactic here is to get the subordinate to talk the manager through how he or she would do the task to be delegated. This approach makes it easier for managers to develop trust in subordinates without the risk of just letting them loose to do the task totally as they see fit. The heroic mindset inclines managers to think only in terms of their own needs (to offload some work), so it doesn't occur to them to sell a delegated task as a learning opportunity, reward or source of variety for the subordinate so they delegate apologetically, thus presenting the delegated task as a chore or burden, a request to get a monkey off the manager's back.

Managing People

Heroes see managing a team as answering questions that team members raise and making decisions. They feel valued when they can answer a subordinate's questions. They think they are addressing the subordinate's needs but they are actually meeting their own need to be seen as a source of solutions. If they really had the needs of their subordinates at heart, they would draw more solutions out of them, hence more fully engaging them, making them feel valued and developing their ability to think through issues for themselves.

Time Management

The high degree of psychological ownership that heroes take prevents them from letting go, hence they worry excessively. This mental stress burns them out more than the sheer amount of work they have to do. Feeling an excessive weight of responsibility, they unwittingly convey the impression that it's no one else's problem. Then they wonder why their team members aren't more responsible - a vicious circle if there ever was one. They also decide their own priorities in isolation, seeing it as a weakness to ask their boss what they should do. This is akin to throwing darts in the dark. But regular alignment with a customer's needs is not seen as a problem. If they viewed their boss as a customer, they could sell regular checks as being in the boss's interest - as a way of ensuring that they focus on those priorities that best meet the boss-as-customer's needs. Focusing on the boss's needs avoids giving the impression that you can't think for yourself. Getting the boss to share the decision on how to align priorities can help them focus better but also relieve some of the psychological pressure of excessive, individualistic ownership.

Addressing Personal Weaknesses

Heroes tend to see a weakness such as, for example, not being very creative or strategic as something they should change in themselves rather than as functions they might facilitate within their teams or by networking with colleagues or other contacts who have these strengths.

Managing Performance and Giving Negative Feedback

Heroic managers feel that they need to carry the full weight of delivering negative messages rather than using questions facilitatively to draw improvement plans out of subordinates. Hence why performance feedback is done so badly, usually generating defensiveness. Not thinking in facilitative terms, it doesn't occur to them that asking supportive questions is a way of helping subordinates acknowledge their own weak performance and to devise their own corrective actions. For example, a facilitative approach with a subordinate who communicated badly in a meeting would be to ask: ''What do you think went well and not so well in the meeting?'' and then ''What could you have done differently to avoid what did not go well?'' Or ''What steps do you think you could take to manage situations like that more smoothly in future?'' Subordinates are more likely to be committed to improvement if they devise their own action plans and put in their own words what they are going to do differently in future.


People with a heroic mindset are often afraid to assert themselves because they know how infuriating it is for another hero's judgement to be questioned and how it can provoke a defensive, angry and vindictive reaction that creates a lose-lose outcome. It doesn't occur to them that they could assert themselves by a combination of asking supportive questions to help the other party explore other options for themselves and by selling those options in terms of the other party's interests. For example, a question like ''What would be the advantages for you of doing X?'' is less confrontational than the statement ''I think it would be better to do X.'' In addition, such questions encourage the other party to think of the advantages of X, which is much better than the open-ended question ''How would you feel about doing X?'' The focus is also on the other party's interests, a much more productive way forward. So, it is possible to be assertive without being confrontational, but it takes a less heroic mindset to think in terms of supportive questions instead of making contrary statements.

Conflict Resolution

When two heroes debate they focus exclusively on the aspects of the other party's position they find disagreeable. This is because they are driven to win, to be right. An option is to preface their own input with statements about what aspects of the other party's views they think are worthwhile. Also, they might then express disagreement using questions around how an alternative approach might better meet the other party's needs. Typically, in a debate both parties focus mainly on their own needs.

Managing Change

Heroic managers focus too exclusively on one-way communication. They think that lots of it, offered frequently, is the best way to get people on board. They don't think of generating real dialogue where those on the receiving end of change are asked what steps they can take to adapt to a change or how they think that a new way of working might be tailored to their work requirements. They disengage people and demoralize them by making it clear that management is in the driver's seat making the decisions about change. People then feel not only expendable during change but totally unvalued because it is painfully clear that their opinion is of no relevance in planning the change. Often, people react more to feeling devalued than to the change itself. Who wouldn't react negatively to being made to feel that his or her views were of no consequence?

How to be Less Heroic but More Effective

You don't need to score all the goals to be a hero. Coaches are seen as heroic too if their teams excel. Being a coach or facilitator doesn't mean never making decisions or providing input. It is more a matter of being a playing coach, hence knowing when to offer your advice and when to draw ideas out of others.

The first step is to reframe how you see yourself, moving from individual goal scorer to coach, catalyst, broker, facilitator, promoter, orchestra conductor, steward or any other form of identity that switches the emphasis away from your need to have all the answers personally. This means basing your confidence to handle diverse situations and problems on your ability to ask a small set of repeatable questions, such as:

  • What options do you see for addressing this issue?
  • What are the pros and cons of your preferred option?
  • How will that solution meet your (or the business's) needs?
  • What steps do we need to take to implement your solution?
  • Who else needs to be involved?
  • What obstacles do you foresee and how can we get around them?
  • How are we going to measure success?

Clearly many other questions could be added to this list, but their essence is that they ask for the other person's thoughts, ideas, values, needs, aspirations and opinions. Merely asking for factual information is what heroes do because they want information to analyze the situation themselves so they can develop their own solutions. This approach profoundly disempowers and disengages the person providing the raw data for the heroic manager.

The second but parallel step is to change your organizational culture. The key here is to convince stakeholders that you can add much more value to their goals and aspirations by facilitating their problem solving rather than by just giving them your answers. The point is to emphasize benefits to them, to focus on their needs in making this pitch, rather than on your own need to improve your effectiveness. This is not easy, however. The heroic mindset is deeply ingrained. One newly appointed senior executive who spoke to each of his direct reports individually asked them for their views on key issues and options for dealing with them. One old timer asked the new boss ''Do you want me to tell you how to do your job?'' This is what you are up against, but you can regard the challenge as a leadership opportunity for you. The benefits of doing so are as follows:

  • Better engagement of everyone reporting to you.
  • More widely spread ownership of business goals.
  • Better use of your time and talent.
  • Fuller use of the brain power in your team.
  • Better communication and team work.

Mitch McCrimmon, Ph.D. has been assessing and coaching managers for over 30 years and has written 3 books: Unleash the Entrepreneur Within, 1995, The Change Master, 1997 and Burn! 7 Leadership Myths in Ashes, 2006. For additional information, see .

Many more articles in Creative Leadership in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2006 by Mitch McCrimmon. All rights reserved.

Current Issue - Archives - CEO Links - News - Conferences - Recommended Reading