Leadership is for Heroes – Myths (part 2)

Must Leadership be heroic, with good leaders coming to the rescue? This popular image of leadership is a combination of John Wayne self-sufficiency, James Bond expertise, and Winston Churchill determination. (The lack of women in these images is a topic for another post.) Do leaders stand alone against the crowd? Are they the people who bring solutions to whatever problems face the organization? That’s the popular conception of leadership, and it’s rooted in a false assumption that leadership is for heroes. 

Heroic leadership describes a particular relationship of the leader to the follower. Burns (1978) observes that the central element to this type of leadership is the absence of conflict. Want to be a hero leader? Take away conflict. People seek release from their fears and doubts and give to the leader the authority and power necessary to make them feel safe. The leader becomes the symbol of safety. 

A church in California was going through a pastoral transition. Known for its “avant-garde” ways, its founder left after 20 years of pastoring and the people were uneasy about the future. A confident, driven young man fresh out of seminary was chosen by the denominational leader to apply for the position. He came with a ready-made right-out-of-the-box program designed to take the church to next level. The people were ecstatic. Here was a man with a plan. Here was a forceful leader who had the answers for their uncertain future. 

Yet as time went by it became obvious that the young pastor did not have the experience working with people to make the plan work in the church. Resistance mounted to his “game plan” and he didn’t know how to handle it. He was simply too young, too brash, too forceful to be in the position. He lasted less than a year before he broke and ran to another church. 

Who was at fault? The denominational leadership for appointing him? The people who chose him? The young pastor? All of the above? Heroic leadership is for storytellers, those who like simplistic explanations and people who want to be rescued from uncertainty. Real leadership requires time getting to know your people, and then knowing how to regulate change initiatives so that the organization isn’t damaged. This kind of change is frequently accompanied by uncertainty and conflict. Good leaders don’t  simply supply heroic answers and thus provide people a way of escape from doing the real the work of transformation. Instead, the leader uses the urgency created by the conflict and uncertainty, to help people see the need for change. In other words, true leadership helps others find and craft unique solutions to the challenges facing the group. Leadership is relational.


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