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The damaging cult of the hero leader

Corporate training programs often ask people to define what they are looking for in a leader. Respondents tell us they want leaders who are clear, fair and technically skilled. We want our leaders to be accessible at all hours, emotionally intelligent, caring and resilient.

The list of criteria that people look for is lengthy. In fact, it looks like the qualifications necessary to bring about world peace or lead a major global religion.

As a company leader myself, I am not sure I can live up to these high expectations. I also wonder whether these expectations are actually damaging when it comes to empowerment or the practice of leadership itself. After all, if “superhero” leaders really do exist, what’s left for the rest of us to do?

I am not saying that we shouldn’t have high expectations of leaders, but we should also have high expectations of everyone else. And we need to think about what these expectations really mean.

Any time there’s a major scandal in corporate leadership, from business ethics to bookkeeping to problems in the supply chain, we expect senior leaders to be fully informed about what’s going on. The press clamor for someone to be held “accountable” and take the blame. But if you are a senior leader in a large complex organization, can you really know the detail of every operation every day?

We need to be realistic about how much control leaders can and should exercise in a complex, distributed organization. Can we really protect our supply chains against a determined criminal or the deliberate decision of a supplier thousands of miles away not to apply the working terms we have agreed on?

Such control might be possible, but it comes with some major downsides.

Creating followership

If we do expect leaders to have a detailed understanding of corporate operations, what behaviors will that drive? If I am expected to be held fully accountable for everything, then I am going to need a lot of information and I will consume a lot of my people’s time in providing it. I will need to set up very regular reporting and review meetings. I will want to be involved in most decisions. In short, I will need to become a micro-manager.

In an environment of micromanagement, people often adopt a response that is called “learned helplessness,” a passive style of followership that avoids responsibility and escalates every decision — hardly the corporate culture that we want to create as leaders.

You occasionally read in the press about the latest “hero leader” who sleeps four hours a day, has a forensic understanding of the numbers of the business and drives bottom-line value ferociously. Or the genius CEO who brings such a flair for design or financial engineering that they single-handedly transform the perceptions of their business.

But even such revered leaders can create problems, for example with succession. Omnipresent leaders make it difficult for great people to grow and they disempower their middle management.

Distributing accountability

In the complex organizations I work with, real leadership, control and accountability needs to be distributed to the point at which decisions are made. If I make a mistake or incur a cost today, my financial management control processes may not pick it up for a month, at which point it is too late. Real control is exercised by the people close to the firing line having the information, skills and authority to exercise leadership themselves, not in having someone really smart staying late at night at HQ.

So by all means, let’s have high expectations of leadership, but let’s distribute that leadership throughout the organization to the places where it’s best exercised. If we choose to centralize control with an individual “hero,” we are not building either a capable organization or a sustainable job.

Kevan Hall is the CEO of Global Integration, specializing in matrix management, virtual teams and global working training and consulting. He is the author of “Making the Matrix Work — How Matrix Managers Engage People and Cut Through Complexity” and “Speed Lead — Faster, Simpler Ways to Manage People, Projects and Teams in Complex Companies.”