The Curse of Heroes and Legends: Re-thinking Leadership

With the downturn of the global economy, growing political divisions and violence on the rise, confidence in our leaders is dwindling. Indeed, 86% of respondents to the World Economic Forum's Survey on the Global Agenda believe that we face a leadership crisis in the world today. So what has happened that we no longer put trust in those guiding the societies we live in?

Dave Dillon, former CEO of the Kroger Co., hit the nail on the head. When asked about what leadership means, he replied by asking 'Is anyone following you?'. This is the crux of the matter: Followership is what turns a loner into a leader. Leadership is not about singling out and pursuing individual qualities and ambitions. Nor is it about the actions of a hero in shining armor. And this is precisely where leadership in the 21st century has failed us. The self-interested pursuit of career objectives, alleged leadership qualities and heroic achievements has given rise to the idea that being a leader means being a strongman - someone who is in charge, holds a dominates position in a group and excels in his field. Even the Oxford Dictionary describes a leader as someone who 'commands a group, organization or country'.

In my view, the assumption that leadership equates to a fixed set of qualities that can be taught in the classroom is at the heart of the crisis of confidence that leaders are facing today. The current language of strongman leadership closes off the possibility to imagine leadership as a values-driven mindset to inspire, guide and care for others. Character plays a key role in this process. Because practicing any form of leadership must start with careful deliberation on what 'good' leadership means across cultural contexts, if we can cultivate it or whether some of us are born to be leaders. In my view, there are three main reflections that are important to refocus the debate from practice-led to values-driven leadership:

1. Self-awareness

A good leader requires a profound understanding of and self-reflectivity towards his own role, that is, the effective management of the organization or group he or she serves. What do we mean by 'effective'? At the fundamental level, effective management requires a leader to implement the vision and goals set out by the organization or group to ensure its existence. Without a vision, a leader cannot provide his followers with a sense of direction that inspires action. Frequently assessing and re-assessing whether one's own actions are aligned with this vision does not only provide the leader with a clear sense of self-awareness; it also provides an important accountability mechanism to serve the wider group rather than one's own interests.

2. Commitment to benefit followers

A good leader must be committed to benefit his followers. To be clear, the goals of a leader may conflict with the interests of members or followers. The leader thus faces a dilemma: Providing benefits to followers such as employees enhances the satisfaction and sense of belonging within an organization, which increases its effectiveness. Yet, at the same time such benefits may conflict with wider targets of an organization such as minimizing production costs in a firm. However, rather than being at odds, a good leader recognizes that both dimensions require a state of equilibrium. In other words, s/he manages to balance the objectives of the organization with the needs of followers. Without this balance, a leader cannot acquire legitimacy through support from his followers, which is the basic condition for leadership.

3. 'Connected' Leadership: Sharing is Caring

Can the CEO of the Internet please stand up? Tough call, there is no such person. The fact that new media technologies, and the vast social networks embedded in them, cannot be easily controlled clarifies that strongman leadership is out-dated. A good leader has the ability to adapt to these changing circumstances of an increasingly networked world. This starts with the realization that adaptation is not the result of forcing or commanding change at all costs; it happens through influencing and relationship building. This requires maintaining effective cooperative relationships across boundaries within a group or an organization and between an organization and the wider community. In other words, good leadership in a networked world requires understanding and relating to what drives others. Creating web discussion groups for employees and sharing ideas on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook is thus not wasted energy in the life of the busy leader; on the contrary, it signals that a leader cares about staying in sync with employees and the wider community. This has a double-beneficial effect: The leader is connected to the concerns and motivation of his followers, which in turn, strengthens their bond of identification with the group or organization.

In sum, it is clear that old leadership models of lonely heroes and legends no longer apply; instead, we must rethink the concept from the vantage point of followership. This provides the very fundament for cultivating reflective, committed and connected individuals that can lead the societies we live in. Because there is a distinction between 'leaders' and 'those who lead'. Leaders hold a position of power or authority but those who lead can inspire us. Whether they are people or organizations, we follow those who lead not because we have to but because we want to. It is those who combine the aforementioned traits - self-reflectivity, commitment and connectivity - who have the ability to inspire those around them or find others who inspire them.