The Myth of the Hero Leader

The myth of the hero leader - Photo by Mehdi MeSSrro on Unsplash

We adore the hero leader. The star of the movie who wins the day. The billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos who beat the competition. We celebrate these individuals who singlehandedly excel and inspire us to follow them. This all sounds great but is it? Individualism is the theme of the day but there is something very wrong with this thinking.

Hero Leader Thinking

When I joined Intel in 1990 I saw limitless possibilities. I could advance my career as far as I wanted and for many years it was all about me. How could I get promoted to the next level? The increased status, the pay raises and company stock. It was much more about me than we. The system was set up this way to reward the individual. We were set up to compete in the annual performance rating system against our peers. Competition was the name of the game. How can I get ahead, and that would have to come at the expense of my peers.

Things have changed at Intel but more generally, I still see the same focus on the success of the individual. I see this in my client work where aspiring leaders have to learn to shift from a me to a we focus. Looking back at my career, I would have benefitted from a different understanding of my role. I now see my job was to bring people along with me. To make them successful.

Shifting to ‘we’ leadership

In this spirit, here is my advice to every me leader who wishes to advance their career to the next level:

  • The only way you can fulfill your potential is by scaling your leadership beyond yourself.
  • Make every team member successful by helping them grow the team’s overall contribution.
  • Be curious and learn what others know that you don’t, including being open to changing your mind.
  • You are not better than your team. Treat everyone with equal status and respect. Keep your ego in check.
  • Measure your success by your team’s success. You can never be more successful than your team.

It took me way too long to learn the last one but when I did my life changed for the better. People even enjoyed working with me.

What type of leader are you? A me or a we leader?


Comments (1)

Thanks for nailing this crucial and overlooked aspect of leadership Andy.

In my view, Musk, Bezos et al (let’s not forget the likes of Anita Roddick and Mary Barra) really succeed because of their ability to bring others along. They weren’t lone geniuses beavering away in some lab, à la Thomas Edison. They have enormous emotional energy, vision, and conversation abilities that attract excellent people to work with them.

But of course that doesn’t make for good drama and entertainment value in the media, so we focus instead on the simple, compelling archetype of the hero’s journey — and in the process we overlook the high level skills and mindset required for “we“ leadership, as your reflection on your own career revealed.

In a future edition of “Leadership Insights”, I would love to hear you say more about the practices that, in your experience, would help to develop a “we” leadership mindset.

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