Why heroes are bad leaders

Miha Skerlavaj

For Marvel, heroes are great for business. For the rest of us, they are bad for innovation and bad for our health.

They impress us with charisma and confidence, then disappoint by failing to deliver on their promises.

We keep putting our faith in strong, heroic characters who claim to have the answers to all the world’s problems. From Elizabeth Holmes and her wildly over-ambitious plan to revolutionize blood-tests, to Mark Zuckerberg and his continued attempts to connect the world.

“We repeat a mistake in selecting our leaders, by choosing the most convincing and self-confident person rather than the most competent," says Professor of Managment Miha Škerlavaj.

Ironically, often the less competent someone is, the more over-confident they are in their abilities.

In a new book, Škerlavaj flips the script with what he calls post-heroic leadership.

More innovation and improved well-being

“Like Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings, post-heroic leaders understand their position as role models and servants in the give and take of leadership, involving people at all levels."

From small start-ups to large mature organizations, Škerlavaj’s research shows how post-heroic leaders turn innovative ideas into profitable business.

 “Innovation is difficult because it requires both creativity and a systematic approach to business. Two very different approaches that need different mindsets. Post-heroic leaders have a clear advantage because of their ability to empower and support different followers, and tailor different tasks to different people,” he says.

Post-heroic leaders also increase employee wellbeing. Heroic leaders put an unhealthy emphasis on individual competition and always-on culture. Long workdays and constant rivalry make us less happy both at work and in life in general.

“Leaders play an important role in helping individuals overcome personal and professional struggles and build psychological resilience. Post-heroic leaders are well placed to do this because they are receptive to the needs and wants of each individual team member,” says Škerlavaj.

Two Steps to Becoming a post-heroic leader

Sharing is caring

Škerlavaj insists we should see leadership as a shared activity where people on all levels are invited to contribute.

“Leaders can be understood as tips of icebergs. They are visible and important, but crucially they represent larger networks in their organizations”.

These networks sustain leaders through countless acts of enabling, supporting, and facilitating.

“Leader achievements are constantly mislabeled as individual accomplishment, when in reality they belong to larger groups of people,” he says.

Škerlavaj sees leading and following as two sides of the same set of interpersonal skills.

“Leadership is not a one-way street, and people in formal leadership positions should be open to being led by others when the situation dictates”, he says.

For example, a manager leading an expert should be open to letting them make relevant decisions.

Master your ego and serve the task

“Understanding leadership as a shared activity means appreciating the role leaders play in serving the task."

That means keeping focus on how to best achieve your goal, and not allowing your ego to get in the way.

Research points to six characteristics that identify servant leaders.

  1. They empower and develop people. That means fostering a proactive and confident attitude among followers and encouraging a sense of personal power, information sharing and independent decision-making.
  2. They are humble. Good leaders are brave enough to admit that they can benefit from the expertise of others. They actively seek out opinions and contributions and allow their followers to shine.
  3. They are authentic. For leaders, authenticity means doing what is promised, being visible within the organization and accepting one’s own vulnerability.
  4. They are empathetic. This is about understanding and accepting the feelings of others and where they are coming from, and the ability to let go of perceived wrongdoings and not carrying a grudge into other situations.
  5. They provide direction. Good leaders ensure each person knows what is expected of them. They tailor the work to each follower’s abilities, needs and input and provide the right degree of accountability.
  6. They provide stewardship. Leaders should act not only as caretakers, but also as role models for others. By setting the right example, leaders can stimulate social responsibility, loyalty, and teamwork.

In short, be more like Aragorn and less like Elizabeth Holmes.

Source: Škerlavaj M. (2022) Post-Heroic Leadership

Published 11. February 2022

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