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Les McKeown's Predictable Success Blog

First published February 15, 2014

The Dark Side of Heroic Leadership 

A version of this article appeared at Inc.com One of the true pleasures of my job is that just about every day I get to witness acts of heroic leadership. Whether it’s the project manager who leads his team through a series of all-nighters to ship the beta release on time, the big-dog VP of Sales who (yet again) hauls the quarterly revenue figures over the budget line by snaring a project from under a competitor’s nose, or a charismatic CEO once more motivating her team to superhuman levels of performance in order to meet a client’s demands, there’s something at once humbling and inspiring in watching people pull off the seemingly impossible. All good, fun to watch, and motivational. The bad news about heroic leadership? For a business of any size, it’s more often than not a distressing and painful mistake, wrongly conceived, mistakenly celebrated, and, most dangerously of all, erroneously encouraged. How so? Well, because dependence on heroic leadership stunts the ability of an organization to scale. Heroic leadership is the single most effective form of leadership when a business is just getting off the ground (going through the Early Struggle phase), and during its first-stage growth (in the Fun stage). This is when we build the myths and legends of the business, consistently rescuing success from the jaws of defeat, pulling off the near-impossible again and again, and consistently punching above our weight. The problem comes when the business grows. Eventually, it reaches a level of complexity where we can no longer come in every day and simply improvise our way to success. At that point – when the business is both complex and trying to scale – we can no longer deliver consistent quality to our customers and clients by pulling off heroic acts day in, day out, week in, week out. Instead, we now need to begin building our success on a foundation of trusted systems and processes. But often, during the Fun stage, leaders (especially those with a Visionary or Operator style) come to believe that heroic leadership is both irreplaceable and foundational – that it’s the only way to truly inspire and succeed – and fail to recognize when it can no longer deliver scalable, repeatable success. Does this mean that heroic leadership ceases to have a place in a complex organization? Of course not. But it is important that heroic leadership is no longer seen as both the foundation for, and the pinnacle of, delivering consistent results. Busting through walls bare-handed is exciting to watch, and sometimes required, but at some point it becomes more effective to simply install a door. Building myths and legends through heroic leadership is a vitally important part of the growth of any business, but insisting on, or regularly depending on mythical, legendary solutions in a complex organization will cap its growth. So, that last act of heroic leadership was sure fun to watch, right? But was it really best for your business?

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