Blog Post

We don’t need another hero 

Sep 28, 2023

Margaret Heffernan’s excellent provocation in her Financial Times article on leadership asks whether our obsession with leadership is obscuring the fact that our obsession in fact infantilises us?  Is it part of our longing for simplistic solutions and hero figures that has fuelled a cult of overpaid CEOs supported by a billions of leadership manuals?  She cites examples of CEOs (and there are many, many more than she mentions) who, on closer analysis, (and always after they have retired with the cash and the plaudits) are seen to have been in the right place, at the right time, riding a wave – generally just as it is about to crash.  

 There is a great deal of truth in what she says with regard to individual “hero” leaders but are we in danger of confusing the individual leader with leadership and throwing the bathwater out with the baby?   I am often asked “what is the one characteristic of a successful leader?” My reply is always the same.  “There isn’t one, it’s situational and what do you mean by successful?”  The skills and talents that you need are entirely conditional upon the situation you are in. What works in wartime does not work in peacetime, what works in a downturn may well not work in an upturn.  

 There is also the fact that while single combat may have worked at some point in history, leadership is in fact a team sport.  In our pursuit of the one hero leader we have lost sight of that.  We carefully construct organisations as pyramids ignoring the fact that the more complex the organisation the more you need the skills of leadership everywhere. (We also ignore the interesting fact that the Pharaohs, the inventors of the pyramid, made sure that they were buried in the middle of it, not at the top.)   

Those are not skills from the latest book on the airport bookstall, but the simpler skills of critical thinking, understanding of the objective and the task, and the ability to work with others.  People who believe in what they do, who see where they fit into the whole and who can support what the whole is trying to achieve.  People who can lead themselves and manage their own lives to do the things that need to be done.  Who do not wait for instruction, who know there is no hero but only the team doing it’s best and if possible (and it’s not always possible), doing it a bit better each day. 

They are the grown-ups – they do not need another hero.