Sounds good, but is it?

Is this just another leadership style?  The title sounds inspiring, conjuring up images of leaders stepping into the fore, saving the organization from one calamity or another.  The leader’s boss may think that there is no problem.  The work is getting done, no doubt the leader is working all hours and appears to have their finger on the pulse.

But there is no free lunch.

As I look back at some of the executives that I’ve worked with, many of them, and particularly middle managers, have adopted the heroic leader profile.  The primary characteristic of this profile is that the heroic leader will personally do whatever it takes to accomplish the goal or task.  It is in some ways the antithesis of micromanagement, in which the leader leans heavily, through scrupulous attention, on employees completing the task.  With heroic leadership the leader feels compelled  to personally contribute herculean effort, without demanding the same from their employees.  Their motives for doing this are varied.  Some are not collaborative by nature, others don’t trust or believe that their employees can deliver on the goods, and others may simply want to take all the credit.

Signs of heroic leadership

  • They see the goal as one that will require intense effort or is highly visible to the people that count. They see themselves as vital, even indispensable, because of their position or expertise regarding the task.
  • They do not clearly communicate to their staff how formidable, complex or visible the task is, nor do they inspire and motivate their staff to rise to the challenge.  In fact they may believe the task is too risky for the staff to undertake.
  • They take it upon themselves to do whatever it will take.
  • Whether they admit it or not they act as rescuers: saving the department from calamity or failure, saving their staff from the worry of how they might achieve it themselves.
  • Some heroic leaders get their egos boosted from acting this way, others see themselves as saviors, yet others operate from fear that they will lose face, or lose their job, and others think it is expected of them to pick up the slack. (This is different from role-modeling which is every leader’s duty.)
  • In some cases they think that they are being benevolent, and therefore a compassionate leader, by not sharing what is truly going on.
  • They see a crisis around every corner.

Impact on the leader

  • They become stressed, even tired.
  • They become overworked, they think less clearly.
  • They don’t develop themselves as leaders.

Instead they are doing the work (often because they used to do it in a previous job.)

Unfortunately, executives see this behavior in their managers and may dismiss them as ineffective leaders, often denying them the feedback that could help them see the need to change.

Impact on their staff

  • It breeds a delegating-up mentality.  Employees know their leader will do what it takes to deliver.
  • They may not put out the extra effort needed to deal with the issue that caused the heroic leadership in the first place.
  • They never learn how to increase effort when needed because the boss is doing it for them.  They also don’t learn how to solve problems, think quickly and take initiative.

Instead of being heroic, be a courageous leader. Leadership courage involves humility, honesty and candidness; facilitating solutions from the very people who will get the job done. Courageous leaders act as catalysts, collaborators and developers.  They don’t varnish the truth for fear it will demoralize.  If it is a high profile project they explain that to their staff and inspire them to do what it takes.  They coach the staff to step up their performance, and yes, they do step in and help but only to role-model the right behaviors.  They then give them the credit and visibility with higher-ups.

If you have a manager who works for you who is a heroic leader then give them the feedback.  Tell them what behaviors they are exhibiting and describe the impact of those behaviors on others.  Coach them on how to trust and develop their people or get them a coach who can help them with that.

Left unchecked the heroic leader will eventually burn out or screw up.  Their people will become dissatisfied and may eventually leave.