How to lighten the emotional load of being a leader and why ‘hero leadership’ is out

One of the main problems with leadership development is that, as a field, it still seems to be wedded to its ‘heroic’ form

How to lighten the emotional load of being a leader and why ‘hero leadership’ is out

One of the main problems with leadership development is that, as a field, it still seems to be wedded to its ‘heroic’ form. In part this is because leaders often still turn up to development programmes to go through the ritual of being taught in lush surroundings, whilst facilitators and faculty play the role of expert, gracing the former with their knowledge. Often this learning is imbued with the language of ‘great’ or ‘good’ leadership, and archetypes of leaders offered to delegates which signal that if they, too, can meet these standards, they will succeed in business and life. 

Jeffrey Pfeffer, who has written extensively on why much leadership development is ineffective, argues that in part this is because it is often “too much a form of lay preaching, telling people inspiring stories about heroic leaders and exceptional organisations, and, in the process, making those who hear the stories feel good and temporarily uplifted while not changing much of what happens at many workplaces”. In other words, it is performative learning. 

Leadership is messy work

The definition of success in a complex world is not just whether you succeed, it is how quickly you do so. Everything is stacked against approaches that suggest that, maybe, rushing to action and grasping for what seems to be a Silver Bullet or quick fix might not be the right answer. Heroic leadership still holds us largely in its (mostly hairy and ever so masculine) vice-like grip, and attempts to encourage more reflective and reflexive practices run up against the need to assuage conscious and unconscious anxieties. Given that, I totally get why a zombie approach to leadership such as the heroic form is so seductive: on paper, it appeals because it offers a template and roadmap of how to ‘become one’. For followers, it ticks the boxes of anxiety management, in that we can relax in the knowledge a saviour is coming who has all the answers. Complex and messy challenges are reduced to simple problems with binary yes/no, either/or, do this/get that solutions. Oven ready Brexit, anyone?…

The weight is there to be born

Part of the reason, I suspect, for the continued popularity of heroic leadership and its offspring (e.g. charismatic, transformational, transactional leadership etc), is that they all serve us well in managing the anxiety we feel at the inability to cope with not knowing – not knowing what to do, why something is happening, what will happen if I do/do not act etc. Culture work? Dysfunctional team? Racism or sexism in the workplace? Pandemics?… Add to that the need to match up to idealised self-images and the expectations of others, the need to please, the relentless pace of organisational life that requires pace at all costs, the fear of being fired, the cognitive overload of all this stuff and other factors that drive the need for certainty. Is it any wonder leaders often feel the weight of the world on their shoulders? 

What to do?

In the face of this, we need to be honest about the psychological processes that most impede the capacity for genuine learning, particularly those rooted in shame. Eliat Aram, CEO of The Tavistock Institute of Human Relations, suggests that as adults “we do not like the feeling of shame and also attempt to resist or avoid it in many ways” (Aram, 2001: 9). Given how hard it is to process shame at an individual level, let alone in teams or organisations, is it any wonder this is largely hidden and unacknowledged? I do not for one moment suggest that it is easy or likely that leaders will find it easy to inquire into shame and anxiety, and it is vital we start to talk more about this. It is by engaging in the useful discomfort of inquiring into individual and collective patterns of shame and anxiety that we will be able to have the conversations that most need to be had. I frequently notice how clients make the biggest shifts in their leadership development when they start to explore that which has been undiscussable and hidden. Painful sometimes? Yes, and the relief and energy released when this occurs is palpable, and far more impactful than (yet more) heroism. 

The irony is that heroic leadership, in my view, increases the emotional load on leaders because it fuels the expectations of the leader for themselves and others of them. The real need is for learning that places a primacy on helping leaders explore how they show up, the impact they have, and to better understand how that needs to evolve as contexts change. That means developing a leadership practice, not yet more lycra-wearing, delusional and headed-for-burnout heroes. 

1 Pfeffer, J. 2015. ‘Why We Don’t Get the Leaders We Say We Want’. Porchlight. Sep 16th 2015. Available here.
2 Aram, E. 2001. Shame as an integral part of a potentially transformative learning process. (Unpublished paper).

Steve Hearsum
Steve Hearsum

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