Field Notes

Why Worshiping Heroes Undermines Our Leadership

The pundits warn us to never meet our heroes, and for once they are right. Under closer examination, our heroes invariably disappoint. People, including our heroes, are flawed. We all are. Me, you, and everyone else. No exceptions. This is even true for those we place on a pedestal and admire from afar. By holding up leaders we don’t experience, we are setting ourselves up for a fall. The sad truth is that a leader can have integrity and live an ethical life for 53 straight years and lose it with a bad choice in a fleeting moment. As advertising sponsors will tell, they never recover.

Even historical leaders let us down once a new piece of information becomes exposed that shows them in a different light. The more we read about them, the more the shine comes off. Yet we march forward and look for new leaders to read about and new heroes to emulate. We need heroes to lift us up, to show us the way, and to inspire us to do better, or so we believe. We believe correctly that good models matter. Getting better at leadership is hard if we don’t have exemplars worthy of study and examination.

The problem is, worshiping iconic leaders burnishes a fantasy image and blinds us from seeing what leadership is really all about. Leadership is not about leaders; it’s about what leaders do. All leaders, famous and infamous, struggle with the same issues we do. Holding others up to rarefied status prevents us from asking the questions we should about how we can create our own style and it undermines our leadership.

We can admire leaders without thinking they are infallible. Instead of studying a life, as so many biographers would like us to, students of leadership need to turn their attention to studying behavior. How do they motivate? Develop others? Make sound decisions? Select talent? Overcome doubt? When we ask the right questions, we can learn routines to enact and share with others. The power is in what leaders do, not in who leaders have become socially or historically. Emulating timeless behaviors and routines can make you more effective. Emulating and endorsing famous people gets us in trouble every time.

When you learn the behaviors and routines of well-known leaders, you have something special to replicate. That’s what a role model is really all about ––to do what others do that works.

Even dreadful leaders can be worthy of study and emulation when we make behavior our focus. Take Steve Jobs, for example. The Da Vinci of the modern age, his creativity and eye for detail have literally changed the world in which we live. His thought leadership was beyond impressive, but his team leadership produced humiliation, secrecy, and malady. He succeeded despite himself and thank goodness he did. But is he worthy of holding up as a leader of repute? We can argue about the difference between results and leadership another time, but suffice it to say, they are not the same thing. What we know about Jobs, in part because of the writings of Walter Isaacson, is that his leadership style produced a cacophony of dysfunction while also producing amazing products.

Yet when we drill down and examine what Jobs did to launch his genius, we learn many things worth making our own. For instance, when Jobs first dreamed up the iPad, he needed to convince the glass manufacturer, Corning, to make a special glass for his touch screens. Not able to foresee the future, Corning was uninterested. Jobs could have left the repeated contacts to his engineering team, his legal team, or to other advisors, but instead his tenacity displayed itself personally. He called and hounded the Corning CEO and others personally until his persistence paid off. He was rejected and rebuffed dozens of times. His passion and confidence in the product enabled him to push through the many rejections and come back for more, until he finally won the day.

The idea of leaders chasing not to “delegate rejection,” when rejection is almost certain, is not something we witness with most leaders, and it is a behavior worth emulating. It is too easy to have others plow the field of rejection for us rather than display the confidence it takes to make the pitch ourselves. Jobs displayed this routine multiple times across his career and always to his and his team’s benefit.

We don’t have to hold Jobs up as a great leader, although many will for what he accomplished. Instead we can hold up what he did specifically to produce those outcomes. Once we commit ourselves to avoid delegating rejection, it is unimportant that it came from Jobs. It is only important that we do it to the benefit of those who depend on us as leaders.

Let’s stop worshiping people and start worshiping leadership behaviors instead. The best routines and behaviors are timeless. They always make us better and can never betray us or let us down. We can often learn them from our heroes –– they are heroes for a reason. We can preserve what is best without attaching it to a life that is inherently flawed.

The real hero needs to be you acting as a great leader to those who need you.

– RS