Say Goodbye to the Heroic Leader

What exactly is leadership?

A number of years ago while planning a leadership retreat at Niagara College, where I worked at the time, our organizing committee grappled with exactly that question. While on the surface it appeared to be a relatively straightforward question, the truth is that we initially struggled.

Ultimately though, we did agree that while management is concerned with issues of control relating to efficiency and effectiveness, leadership is required for everything that can’t be predicted or controlled. While both management and leadership are essential for the effective functioning of organizations, businesses, and communities, leadership is more like the “drive belt” that you see when you open the hood of your car—the big, continuous belt that’s used to drive other devices.

We also agreed that leadership in our complex and rapidly changing world was an ‘inside out’ job requiring that individuals recognize and integrate their unique leadership style and capabilities and pro-actively seek opportunities to learn and grow. In other words, lead yourself first and then others.

There was also consensus in believing that leaders need to personally adopt and model a ‘lifelong learning perspective’, and ‘become the change they wish to see’ through collaborative, ethical, innovative, participatory and strategic responses to complex conditions, multiple accountabilities and stakeholder groups, and challenges in resourcing. Additionally, there was agreement that the success of leaders would hinge on their ability to identify an inspiring vision, and mobilize support and action for its realization.

All well and good, but at the time we differed from others in our understanding of leadership because we also believed that everyone is called upon to play a leadership role, regardless of their official status within a business, organization, or community. What I’m not sure we totally understood at the time was that we were also rejecting the idea that one person had all the answers—despite their position or what they brought to it in terms of skills, knowledge, and experience.

It appears we were ahead of our time as author Nick Petrie is only now bringing that concept to mainstream leadership thinking. Unknowingly we had been pushing back against what he now describes as the idea of the Heroic Leader.

As he explains it in his paper Future Trends in Leadership Development, the ability of any single individual—regardless of how heroic or skilled he or she may be—is no longer enough to meet the complex challenges we face today.

However, Petrie also believes that with the decline of the heroic leader, comes the power and potential of collective leadership.

During a sabbatical year at Harvard, Petrie undertook a wide-ranging study to explore what the future of leadership development will look like. One of the key trends he identified was the shift to collective or interdependent leadership.

As Petrie explains, “The complexity of our environment increasingly calls for collaboration between various stakeholders who each hold a different aspect of the reality—and many of whom must themselves adapt and grow if the problem is to be solved. These groups (which often cross geographies, reporting lines, and organizations) need to share information, create plans, influence each other, and make decisions.”

While individual competencies still matter, what will become more important are networks of leaders.

Making the shift to collective leadership will also mean we need to rethink how we define leadership.

Many organizational theorists have begun to reframe leadership, getting away from leadership as a person or role, to leadership as a process. As we’ve learned to explain it within the training we’re delivering these days, a leader’s job is not about solving the problem. Instead, it is about ensuring a process that will bring a diverse set of stakeholders together to solve it themselves. 

Everyone can and needs to think of themselves as a leader. It is not about a formal position of appointed or elected authority. In fact, who the leader is has become less important than the actual process and system.

It follows then if we start to think about leadership as a shared process, rather than an individual set of skills, we must invest in and learn new ways to help develop more leadership. It also means we need to ensure open and authentic communication, flattened hierarchies, distributed resources and decision-making, and little, if any, “command and control”. 

Ultimately this approach will lead us to a new definition of leadership because the distinction between who is a leader and who is a follower will become less clear and far less important. Instead, leadership will be better defined as a process of building the relationships that result in collaborative direction, innovation, and commitment.

Posted on 04-21-12


Hurrah! Great blog, Brenda. Many of us shy away from the idea of ‘heroic’ leadership, yet are quiet, effective leaders in our community.  We need to celebrate our every day heroes because the more we have, the greater the collective impact.

•Posted by Janet Naclia  on  04/23/12  at  09:05 AM

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