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The Myth Of The Heroic Leader

2015 October 11

In Holacracy, his book about the management system of the same name, Brian Robertson writes at great length about the “heroic leader,” whose job it is to “predict and control” the fate of an enterprise.  In a world of ever expanding complexity, he argues, the concept is becoming increasingly untenable.

When you look at the statistics, you can see his point. Today’s leaders operate at gunpoint. Recent data shows that fully 80% of CEOs are eventually fired and tenures as a whole have declined by 20% since 2000.  Clearly, any system that produces an 80% failure rate is in great need of rethinking.

But does the problem lay with the leaders themselves or with a failed concept of leadership? In a knowledge economy, which relies on an amazingly diverse array of expertise, managers’ visibility into their organizations is necessarily limited and tough decisions need to be made further down.  In truth, leadership isn’t heroic, but great leadership can inspire heroism.

The Politics Of An Organization

Every enterprise has two forms of organization: formal and informal.  The formal organization is laid out in an organization chart and includes functions, levels of authority and job descriptions.   It is designed to describe internal operational structure and it performs that job reasonably well.  Each person is tasked with specific responsibilities and is held accountable for them.

The problem is that the world is a messy place and works in ways that leaders can’t predict. So every enterprise is eventually called on to perform tasks that it wasn’t designed for.  When that happens, the informal mode of organization needs to take over.  Some organizational cultures are able to adapt to those types of challenges, but most aren’t.

For example, as General Stanley McChrystal points out in Team of Teams, over the years General Motors developed a very intricate internal organization, with separate teams for each subsystem of the car.  When a seemingly minor problem arose with the ignition system, that team had no way of knowing how it would affect the airbag being designed by another team.

To make matters worse, GM’s informal culture was geared toward supporting the formal organizational structure.  Executives were encouraged to “stay in their lanes” and focus on their own area of accountability.  Unfortunately, in this case, no one was accountable for the problem at hand—the interface between the ignition system and the airbag.

The result: as many as 100 people died because of the malfunction, costing the company half a billion dollars, all because of a two dollar ignition switch.  GM could have used a hero.

Systemic Breakdown

As former Commander of US Special Forces, McChrystal knows a lot about heroism.  A decorated Army Ranger himself, his job was to lead the world’s most elite soldiers.  Their training stressed not only skill and toughness, but interoperability.  When a plan went awry, they were amazingly adept at making adjustments and overcoming extreme challenges.

Yet at the organizational level, McChrystal found that his forces ran into the same problems as GM.  A team of crack commandos would raid a high level target, capture actionable intelligence and bring it back to base, where it would sit—sometimes for weeks—until intelligence analysts got around to looking at it.

Other times, his soldiers would get into a hairy situation and call for air support which would never come.  The problem wasn’t that the pilots were lazy or lacked courage, but that they were tasked to a different mission.  Whether they were truly needed for that mission or not, they—and the system itself—were dedicated to carrying out a predetermined plan.

So the definition of heroism was very much tied to how the mission was defined and the mission of the unit often superseded the mission of the organization.  A soldier sacrificing his life to save a brother soldier was a hero, yet one who sacrificed resources for a brother unit might very well be considered a sell out.

McCrystal saw that if he was going to transform the organization, he would have to transform its sense of mission.  Rather than being accountable only to their function in the enterprise, they would have to “see the system” and dedicate themselves to solving problems at an organizational level.

Shifting The Mission

In America, we revere those we regard as heroes, both military and corporate.  People like Steve Jobs at Apple and Lou Gerstner at IBM transformed businesses that others had left for dead, seemingly by force of will alone.  Invariably, the situation they came into looks a lot like GM and what McChrystal described at Special Forces Command.

As Gerstner wrote in Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?, his memoir of the turnaround at IBM:


Huge staffs spent countless hours debating and managing transfer pricing terms between IBM units instead of facilitating a seamless transfer of products to customers. Staff units were duplicated at every level of the organization because no managers trusted any cross-unit colleagues to carry out the work. Meetings to decide issues that cut across units were attended by throngs of people, because everyone needed to be present to protect his or her turf.


And much like McChrystal, these CEOs transformed their organizations by infusing them with a new sense of mission.  In Apple’s case, Jobs shifted the focus from computers to an ecosystem of devices.  At IBM’s, Gerstner transformed the mission from one of protecting its “stack” of technology to one aimed at servicing its customers’ “stack of business processes.”

When the mission became clear, the organization rose to the occasion.  Ordinary executives and line workers, when faced with long odds and seemingly insurmountable obstacles, were able to achieve what almost no one thought was possible.  In that sense, they became heroes.

I’ve done several turnarounds myself and, in each case, what surprised me most was how easy it was to find heroes.  They were invariably the most frustrated and bitter.  Managers complained about them.  They didn’t fit in with the system.  In short, they did everything you aren’t supposed to do in a mature, well functioning organization

Creating Heroes

The hardest thing for a leader to accept is that our subordinates will make different mistakes than we will.  We see their flaws all too easily, but usually miss the areas that they handle with alacrity which we would surely bungle.  So we design strict parameters to keep them in line and protect them from failure.

That may seem like a sensible way to run a business process, but it’s a horrible way to train people how to fulfill a mission.  Heroes are born out of the courage that comes from getting knocked down and learning that you can get up again to start the fight anew.  If nobody ever gets knocked down, they never learn how to get up again.

And that’s the problem with the myth of the heroic leader.  Great leaders aren’t heroes, but they can inspire and empower others to be.  They create a clear sense of mission, allow people to make their own mistakes and help them to get up when they’ve been knocked down.  They not only point the way forward, they create a visceral desire to get there.

In an age of disruption, we need heroes.  We should be developing people to thrive on the challenges that create opportunities for heroism.  Instead, we condition them to be more easily managed and fit into a system.  Yet, when the system breaks down, who’s going to fix it?

– Greg

4 Responses leave one →
  1. October 11, 2015

    great post. i listened recently an excellent podcast from tim ferris w mcchrystal. highly recommend.

    agree 100% about heroes being everywhere, esp in a turnaround. finding the right way to get everyone on the same page and then get out of the way is often the fastest way to organization and business health. one of the big challenges, i think, is ego and the need (or expectation from outside the organization) to act/sound a certain way…even if that’s counterproductive to let the smartest people do the best work.

    as always, appreciate your thought provoking writing.

  2. October 13, 2015

    Thanks Buddy. I think you’re right that ego is a problem, but also our normal conception of leadership. Someone who pontificates and grabs the stage is often perceived as a leader, but someone who stays late to help out a colleague rarely is.

    – Greg

  3. Selam permalink
    October 30, 2015

    Hi Greg,
    Thanks for your all thought provoking articles. They are wisdom filled and timely.
    Keep them coming.
    Thanks again,

  4. October 30, 2015

    Thanks Selam.

    – Greg

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