Death of the hero as the model of leadership

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The Independent Online
POOR WILLIAM Hague, caught right in the middle of the Hero Paradox and practically nothing he does can resolve it. He is expected to turn around Conservative Party Plc after a disastrous defeat and will receive a hero's accolades if he eventually succeeds, but in the meantime, every public fumble by the party falls heavily on his shoulders.

The hero paradox has been around for as long as there have been heroes but, as Hague's situation shows, it is more pervasive than ever. In management- theory terms, Hague often seems to do just the right things. He consults his team well and though he was ridiculed for insisting that his MPs go on a weekend "bonding session" he was courageous to do it and should reap benefits from it. Yet the paradox remains to haunt him. His attempts to unlock the potential of those around him are obscured by every flash of leadership criticism aimed at him as if he were a lightning conductor. Being a good leader doesn't compensate for his unheroic image.

The idea of the charismatic leader, the hero who changes the world single- handed, has dominated thinking about leadership for centuries. Yet much of current leadership theory concerns the powerful idea that leaders are not born but made. They are no longer just the top people who make marvellous things happen. Instead, say the theorists, anyone with appropriate training, experience, opportunity and encouragement can exhibit leadership.

Within business, the whole movement to encourage teams to manage themselves, rather than have a boss who uses "command and control", assumes that, at times, everyone can behave in a leader-like way, making suggestions, taking responsibility, showing initiative, using their personality. On Toyota's production line, workers are no longer just cogs in a vast machine. Anyone can stop the entire conveyor belt by pulling an overhead cord if they spot something threatening the quality of the product.

But despite the wish to shift from relying on a single hero, the reality of leadership is often quite different. There remains a huge reliance within society and many companies on the concept of the charismatic leader. It is seen as an essential ingredient of managing large-scale change and as indispensable for driving through important organisation shifts, particularly cultural ones.

We all love a hero, so naturally we get a regular supply of them. Some last longer than others. Richard Branson has shown real staying power. Behind his success lies his ability to encourage others to lead, often throwing enormous responsibility their way. When an air stewardess suggested the idea of Virgin Brides, Branson simply asked her to lead from the front and launch it.

Our society's approach to leadership remains schizophrenic. Leadership based solely on charisma is still seen as potent and indispensable. No matter that the evidence suggests that such leadership is rare and does not explain the success of most organisations.

Yet as we come to understand the inexorable shift towards knowledge working, and therefore the importance of brain power, there is a growing thrust towards unlocking the leadership potential of everyone in an organisation. Only by releasing everyone's leadership capability, goes the argument, will organisations be able to stay truly competitive.

Andrew Leigh is director of Maynard Leigh Associates and co-author of 'The Perfect Leader' (Arrow) and 'Leading Your Team' (N Brealey).