One of the most memorable characters in the 1970s smash BBC sitcom, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin was Perrin’s boss, CJ, whose grandiose catchphrase, brought out at every meeting, was “I didn’t get where I am today by…”.
CJ’s arrogance is highlighted when, half way through series two, his company, Sunshine Desserts is dissolved and he’s forced to apply for a job with Reginald Perrin, his former employee. He then corrects himself slightly, and starts his remarks with “I didn’t get where you are today…”.
The joke is, of course, that CJ can’t cope with his loss of power and authority, has stoically failed to move on, and continues to behave pretty much as he did when he was in the top dog position, to the despair of those around him.
It is this sort of one-dimensional leader that we are keen to get away from. The heroic leader’s potential inability to adapt to change, or listen to others, or to learn new ways of doing things is a significant factor in the failure of businesses.
But we ourselves are responsible for helping to shape these monsters. The heroic leaders’ egotism is in no small part a reaction to the adulation and sycophancy of those around him/her.
The classic heroic leader initially refuses to take on the leadership role, but is cajoled and persuaded to do so by the group. After a period of time, initial reticence is replaced by acceptance. This in turn, can be subsumed by arrogance. Especially if there are no checking mechanisms in place.
But business continues to promote the heroic leader.
Professor David Sims, Head of Management at Cass Business School, says that clients are increasingly asking for courses and seminars which are looking beyond the charismatic hero to more holistic ways of leadership.
He’s been asking himself why the heroic model of leadership has survived for so long.
“A colleague came back from a top international business school recently and said they were talking about heroic management – straight from the 1980s – but then you’ve got to realise that [those academics] are speaking to a self-selected audience that wants to be told it’s special. That’s why you get this rubbish trotted out…again and again!”
Part of this long-standing belief in heroic leadership is down to work carried out by Warren Bennis’ studies of leadership in the 1980s:
“Bennis popularised visionary leadership as the way to go. He went around interviewing leaders of the top 500 companies. They told him that they were in their position because they had vision. And he published that. But he shouldn’t have stopped there. He should have gone on and spoken to the friends of those CEOs – or their employees.
“If all you have is vision, you get locked up, because you’re mad. Things are only going to get done if you have other people around you to make sure the photocopiers are working.”
“A lot of people get to the top of organisations by surf-riding, actually avoiding leadership. Leadership has nothing to do with wearing the t-shirt that says ‘leader’ on it.”
So why does the myth perpetuate itself?
“One of the problems lies with journalists. Why do they constantly publish interviews with ‘leaders’? Well, when did you last read a good novel about a group? The thing is, we need heroes. If we don’t have them, we create them. We need them because once we’ve assigned responsibility, then we can relax. We don’t have to worry any more, because the ‘leader’ will sort it out.”
One way of dealing with this is to accept full responsibility for your position.
“There’s a great quote from Jack Welch: ‘as soon as you’re a leader, it’s not about you, it’s about them’. If you’ve got Neutron Jack saying stuff like that, you know it makes sense. Write yourself out of that hero role!”