Post-Heroic Leadership
by Rosie Steeves

The public is continually bombarded by traditional and outdated heroic models of leaders. Reality TV is a classic example, with individualists such as Cuban, Branson and Trump publicly parading their power over others and equating making money with leading effectively. Within organizations, the same reverence for the 'hero' predominates as well. All you have to do is identify the stories that become legends and the everyday talk in the workplace to realize that charisma, individual acts and independent decisions are still assumed to be the primary driver of a business's success.

However, leadership today is changing towards a post-heroic model. Instead, leadership is recognized as a set of shared practices that can and should be enacted by people at all levels throughout the organization. The figureheads or positional leaders at the top are seen as merely the tips of the iceberg, supported by a broad network of people practicing personal leadership.

Individuals at every level take responsibility and ownership for what's going on, for taking risks, speaking up and changing what needs to be changed. These people, practicing personal leadership, are then supported by others, as part of teams. The functioning of these groups is based on shared accountability and collaboration. Individuals also get the support they need, and are held accountable for acting on their personal leadership in significant ways.

Real work in organizations is happening as a result of collective achievement or shared leadership.

Post-heroic leadership transforms the notion of leaders and followers, recognizing that influence flows in two directions. This means that those in authority learn from others, listening to and being 'led' by others. Individuals without the authority of a title must be able to speak up, advocate their ideas and assume responsibility outside their job descriptions.

In a recent coaching conversation, one of our client's described the huge difference between two individuals in positions of authority at her company. One was genuinely interested in learning from others, no matter who they were or what their job was, and she saw this individual become an outstanding leader. Meanwhile, the other person pretended to care, but it was clear that he had a serious case of "who's who," backslapping those in power while placating the rest. He failed to gain much respect.

Leadership in today's whitewater environment demands this shift from authoritative to collective, from command-and-control to organizational learning, from individualistic to relational and from power over to power with. With this shift, tasks and responsibilities for leadership are distributed up, down and across. The skills required are different, as they are based on engaging others in collaborative efforts and collective learning. Only with the post-heroic approach is it possible to tackle complex challenges and create out-of-the-box innovations essential for competitive advantage.

While, at the macro level, people are beginning to recognize the value of changing the nature of leadership, most organizations are stuck in the old ways of heroic individualism. Even in companies communicating the right rhetoric, daily practices may not be supportive of real change.

For example, managers rarely receive promotions for facilitating organizational learning. In sharing success stories, individuals usually tend to ignore the "little people" who were pivotal in that success and speak more about their decision points. Too often, individual acts of heroism are exaggerated in the company lore. Furthermore, leadership development remains focused on the personality characteristics and traits of the ideal leader.

Post-heroic leadership is about transforming the organizational culture. Leadership development - when it emphasizes the importance of growing people, collaboration, sharing and teamwork - can change cultures. Such a process does not happen overnight. The irony is that while post-heroic leadership is about getting beyond the individual, the change begins with each individual.

Individuals do the internal work of overcoming fears, checking their egos, becoming self-aware, then make the catalytic shift to stand up and say, "enough is enough." It all begins with individuals who decide to take a risk, put a stake in the ground and advocate their ideas in the face of adverse reactions.

Tips for Organizations:

  • Invest in programs that develop personal leadership at lower levels of the organization, in conjunction with executive development
  • Create stories through experiences that recognize the value of shared leadership and collaborative learning and performance
  • Change practices that continue to emphasize the heroic model of leadership
  • Develop teams purposefully and give them real decision-making power
  • Consider including individual coaching with leadership development
  • Engage in real conversations that go beyond the rhetoric and talk about what's really going on.

Rosie is the Co-Principal and Founder of The Centre for Exceptional Leadership. The Centre for Exceptional Leadership is a leadership development company committed to creating exceptional leaders. We raise the bar on leadership for individuals, for corporations, for businesses. We help organizations bring a degree of excellence to their leadership that is only seen in great organizations. Through this, we create bottom-line results. For additional information visit www.exceptionalleadership.com/ .

This article was originally published in Business in Vancouver magazine.

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