Heroic Leaders Don’t Always Save the Day

by Merrick Rosenberg

When we picture the Heroic Leader, we see a manager putting on the cape to save the team from impending doom. They put on their cape and come to the rescue. But in the end, only the leader’s ego is saved.

As Dee W. Hock, founder of Visa International said, “Heroic leaders, once a godsend, are now a public menace. We need to think about organizational leadership in a new way — a way that fits the times in which we live.”

What is a Heroic Leader?

The Heroic Leader is an individual who sees a crisis and inserts him or herself into the situation regardless of whether or not they are directly responsibility for resolving the issue.

In the short-run, the crisis is averted and the manager looks like a hero. But the long-term impact of such actions can be devastating to the individual, the team and the organization.

Heroic Leaders and their followers get trapped in a never-ending cycle of heroism and passivity. The hero leader sees a crisis and jumps in to save the day. The followers see that their manager is going to handle all of the “big crises” and thus, back off when they occur. The manager sees that the staff is neither willing, nor capable to handle to big issues, which serves to reinforce the need for his or her heroism. And the cycle begins again, with each occurrence serving to solidify the pattern of heroism and passivity.

Ultimately, direct reports, become overly dependent on the leader. They become compliant, conforming, and disempowered, waiting helplessly for the hero to save them from what they fear. Natural leaders within the organization are not developed, and tremendous potential is constrained. Mediocrity is the norm when only a few function at their full potential.

Heroic leaders do not apologize for their mistakes and the negative impacts of their behavior on others, as they feel that their hero status justifies their behavior. The manager acts like a steamroller with a single focus, saying things like, “This was an emergency situation. I can’t worry about people’s feelings.”

Some Heroic Leaders feel the weight of the expectations of others so greatly that the stress becomes overwhelming and they burn out. After all, how can a Heroic Leader take a day off or go on vacation? What if there’s a major problem? David Bradford and Allan Cohen in their book, Creating the High Performance Team, asked, “Can you afford to be the heroic manager, carrying the entire work unit on your back? Do you want to?”

Identifying the Heroic Leader
Heroic Leaders exhibit several key behaviors. First, for the Heroic Leader, knowledge is power. They need to know everything that is happening and tend to act as though they are omniscient. They need to have all of the information and manage others by knowing more than they do. These managers are often promoted because of functional proficiency, not leadership ability as they know little of empowerment.

Second, they always need to be right and believe that if they do something, it will be done properly. These managers have a fear of failure and care more about getting things done right than they do about empowering their staff. This desire for correctness minimizes delegation and stifles creativity and risk taking.

Third, they always need to maintain a positive image. These managers are more concerned with “spin control,” than results. Their fear of looking bad, which usually stems from low self-esteem drives them to take actions for which they can take the credit. They tend to care little about sharing success with the team.

Fourth, some Heroic Leaders feel a need to manage the perceived inferior abilities of others, protecting them from “getting hurt” like a parent protects a child. This creates a co-dependent relationship between the manager and the staff member. As the manager attempts to rescue the individual from dealing with “big problems,” they neglect their role as coach. In the end, the staff have poorly developed skills, which negatively impacts career development.

The True Heroic Leader

So can a manager genuinely be a hero that is admired by staff and valued by the organization? Absolutely…

The real heroes are those leaders who allow others to make decisions, take action, and gain knowledge. They support staff and provide access to information. They encourage innovation, especially during times of uncertainty and reward risk taking, even if the risk does not pay off. They seek input before making decisions and try to achieve consensus. They care about the long-term success of their people and foster continuous growth and learning by pushing employees beyond self-imposed limitations.

True Heroic Leaders add value to the organization that extends well beyond the bottom-line.