You can Act Like a Hero, Just Don’t Be One

The other day I posted an observation on Twitter, which I’ve posted once or twice before, that yet again I had been reminded that Heroism is not a viable Leadership Strategy.

Someone asked me to say more.

I included the same statement a couple of years ago in my Lessons from a CIA Manager, but didn’t expound there either.

So what do I mean?

Leaders sometimes have to take heroic actions. The occasion calls for it. Nobody else can do what the leader must do. It my be as “simple” as telling a higher up that their preferred course of action is not advisable. Or it may require real physical courage, as can be the case on the field of battle.

But it strikes me that heroism, almost by definition, does not work as a longterm strategy. Even for military generals, leading from the front has been replaced by a more complex blend of leadership styles. This is the subject of military historian John Keegan’s excellent book, The Mask of Leadership, where he observes how the brave and really reckless heroism of Alexander the Great and even the Duke of  Wellington has over the centuries been replaced by more measured leadership strategies.

Leaders in more quotidian situations, such as corporations, perhaps don’t see how they could ever be accused of heroic leadership. But I wold argue that they can fall into the trap rather easily.

What are some examples of heroic leadership behavior that can occur in any workplace?

  • Making all difficult decisions yourself.
  • Reviewing all important papers and data streams for accuracy.
  • Hiring the executive team that most resembles you.
  • Pursuing a failing strategy just because you don’t want to look weak by revisiting your decision.

Do any of these sound familiar?

Finally, the real problem with heroic leadership as a strategy is that it weakens the rest of the organization. Those who are led by heroism often fail to develop their own bravery. While a heroic leader on a winning streak can compensate for organizational weakness for a while, at some point he or she will falter and the organization will be worse off for it.

Check out my other website, rebelsatwork.com, for my latest post there where I discuss how heroism is also not an effective strategy for corporate and organizational rebels.

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4 responses to “You can Act Like a Hero, Just Don’t Be One

  1. My first infantry drill sergeant at FT. Benning (1979) used to remind us that “heroism in combat is a sure sign that some #$@%^! officer messed up the operations plan.” I’ve found over the years, his wisdom applies to business government and just about any other endevor.

  2. Great post, Carmen. I agree 100%

    Mark

  3. Today I got one of those recruiting emails from one of those services catering to those looking for work in the Intelligence Field. Anyway I thought of you because the byline was: “(employer ‘X’) Seeks Intelligence Program Manager”. Any way since you’re a former CIA Manager, I thought it would fit.

    P.S. (If interested it was a Northrop Grumman event on June 15, 10AM-3PM at the Hilton Hotel Springfield on Loisdale Road, VA)

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