Who needs a hero?

Unleashing the power of the commnunity


Leadership: I cannot read a business publication or guru blog without it getting a mention. Performance, it seems, is all about our leaders. These pontificators appear oblivious to the data. Kahneman in his opus ‘Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow’ pointed out that CEO performance and company performance has only a 60% correlation.

I have yet to find any evidence to support the counter view that leadership and performance are strongly linked.

My hunch is that our obsession with projecting our hopes and fears onto leaders is actually a symptom of our neuroses - neuroses born of toxic work cultures.

Our dehumanising work systems of arbitrary authority, stultifying bureaucracies and risk-averse business strategies leave us desperate for leaders to come and save us. Heroes to stand up to The Man, to convince the bean counters to take some punts, to protect us in warmer pools of humane behaviours.

It seems that the more toxic the circumstances, the more we crave and deify leadership: Churchill refusing to negotiate with the Nazis, Ghandi and Washington with their stands against the Brits, Mandela against the segregationists. My question is how much these superhuman individual efforts of ‘hero leadership’ make a difference over the long haul.

Is our tendency to look to these extraordinary characters in fact an anti-pattern for a toxic culture? Wikipedia defines an anti-pattern as “a common response to a recurring problem that is usually ineffective and risks being highly counterproductive”.

Take race problems persisting in South Africa, continued taxation without representation in America, a caste system still alive and kicking in India. In all these cases, inspired leadership undoubtably made some difference, but how effective has it been in tackling underlying issues of separation between peoples.

As a hero leader in the workplace, I might use my prowess to knock out  a layer a bureaucracy,  'let go' of some workers, or get a new project up and running. I might be celebrated or vilified for my actions, but what has really changed in the long run?

The same prejudices and patterns of dysfunction re-emerge in different forms, priming the canvas for new paladins to make their mark.

Rather than continually re-engaging the hero leader anti-pattern, perhaps its time to reflect a little harder on the culture that’s calling out for the rescuer in the first place. Is it great leaders that we need or does the answer to many of our organisational problems lie in our ability to build community?

Richard Atherton is a Change Agent and Partner at SLP Global.

To explore how to build community in your workplace, contact the SLP Global team at contact@slpglobal.com