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Les McKeown's Predictable Success Blog

  • April 25, 2021
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The Dark Side of Heroic Leadership 

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A version of this article first appeared in Inc.com

Listen to Les McKeown read this blog post:

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 her 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, the senior pastor who almost hospitalizes himself through the effort required in meeting a surge of pastoral demand, 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.

It's all great fun to watch, and incredibly motivational. 

The bad news about heroic leadership? 

For an organization of any size beyond tiny, 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).

Heroic leadership has its limits. 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. - Les McKeown, Founder and CEO, Predictable Success

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This is when we build the myths and legends of the organization, 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 organization grows.

Eventually, it reaches a level of complexity where the leaders can no longer come in every day and simply improvise their way to success.

At that point – when the business or organization is both complex and trying to scale – it can no longer deliver consistent quality to its customers and clients by pulling off heroic acts day in, day out, week in, week out.

Instead, the organization now needs to start depending on a foundation of trusted systems and processes to deliver the basis for continued success. But often (and understandably), during the Fun stage, many leaders (especially those with a Visionary or Operator leadership 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. There is always a place for a heroic leadership - its just that its 'place' has moved.

To sustainably scale into Predictable Success stage, it is vital that heroic leadership is no longer seen as both the foundation for, and the pinnacle of, delivering consistent results.

Put it this way - 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 organization, but insisting on, or regularly depending on mythical, legendary solutions in a complex organization will inescapably cap its growth.

So, that last act of heroic leadership was sure fun to watch, right?

But was it really best for your organization?

How are you Ensuring that heroic leadership doesn't cap the growth of your organization?

Let Me Know In The Comments Below!

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  1. Les
    You are right on here. Today, our company is digging in deep to improve our infrastructure. I have a leadership team that is building up our managers and directors at every level so we can take our team approach to new levels. Culture is a strategic initiative at our company in 2021 and we are making progress daily with improved processes, structure, and investment in our people. People first, then process and technology. Great article!

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