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Getting Beyond the Hero Model of Leadership

Growing up in the second half of the 20thcentury, and coming of age in the 70’s and 80’s was both empowering and frustrating. Since my mom owned and operated a successful knitting mill, I grew up with a role model of empowerment and success, and a belief that I could achieve what I set out to. My mom never shared stories of sexism, misogyny, or prejudice, and I never witnessed or saw evidence of it, at least with the perspective of the time and not knowing how different things could be. I’m sure she must have experienced it, but it wasn’t something discussed.

So it was frustrating to face it in my own life, whether in the form of disrespect or being belittled or misjudged. Often my capabilities were dismissed before I even had a chance to display them. While I bridled at the idea that women couldn’t be as effective as men in most roles and situations, even so, there was a level of acceptance of the status quo. In particular, I had totally bought in to the hero model of leadership: the leader has superpowers, swoops in to save the day, is strong, smart, infallible, and sacrifices all. This guy has all the answers and is firm and unswerving, the only one who could solve the problem, is charismatic, and is really extraordinary and rare.

Worse, if you weren’t a hero leader, you didn’t count. Like the extras on Star Trek, you knew non-leaders were expendable so the heroes could illustrate the risk they faced and come out as victors. Not being a hero leader meant invisibility, not being heard or respected, being kept in a lesser position, dependent on the leader and at his whims. For decades I labored under this model. Most people still do.

I have seen more and more evidence of “post-heroic” leadership growing. Even while it seems our whole civilization is tipping toward isolationism, strong-man political leaders, societal polarity, and more open hostility/anger/intolerance, I believe it is the contraction before we are able to accept a more humane form of leadership. Like the civil war before slavery was outlawed, or the arrests and prosecution of women seeking suffrage, or even the backlash that grew after the first black president of the United States was elected, those in power are trying to hold on to it and it’s getting ugly because the change is real and happening. But enough social commentary. JA post-heroic leader is one who seeks to understand, to champion and empower others and help them grow, to distribute responsibility, and to create a culture where the occasional mistake is seen as an opportunity to grow, develop, and create advantage. This is what I want to be, a leader who seeks a greater, more generative good – richer and more compelling – by promoting creativity and mental/emotional agility in others, accessing their wisdom, talent, and collaborative potential.

And I wish I could say that I have entirely left behind all patterns and inclinations that I was trained into of the heroic leader. I can still sometimes find myself being dictatorial, dismissive of other opinions or contributions, lacking self-awareness about the messages I am sending in my posture, language, and attitude. I haven’t yet completely given up feeling like I have to do it all myself, that I have to be the extraordinary one, infallible, visionary, unflagging. But I can say that day by day, situation by situation, I am making headway.

And you? I’d love to hear from you about your story, and how/whether the hero model of leadership has affected you.

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