5 Ways to Banish the Myth of the Heroic Leader (and Start Getting Stronger Results with Shared Leadership)

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In the 21st century, leadership has changed. In many ways, that’s a good thing. An “old world” leadership model might have valued leaders who focused on bottom-line results to the exclusion of the more human aspects of their “human capital.” Sensitivity was unheard of. Coaching? Forget it. Cultivating a positive corporate culture? Never mind that nonsense. Get the results, and you got the promotion.

Modern leadership takes a more wholistic approach… emphasis on the whole. As in, it seems leaders have the whole world on their shoulders. They are expected to balance both boosting the bottom line and effective, sensitive people management, along with a laundry list of other tasks. Organizations likely expect contemporary leaders to juggle: strong communication; mindfulness; providing good feedback; coaching; managing change; doing more with less; establishing executive presence; innovation; myriad individual contributor responsibilities; employee engagement; and the list goes on – and seems poised to keep growing.

Of course all of these responsibilities are valuable in their own ways. But what is the shadow side of our expansive expectations for modern leaders? And how can organizations make sure they’re setting realistic expectations for their leaders while still making sure organizational needs are being met?

MRG President Tricia Naddaff recently presented a webinar to tackle this topic: Better Together: How a Shared Leadership Model Supports Relationships and Results. In the fast-paced hour, she dug into the problematic myth of the heroic, do-it-all leader – and she shared specific strategies that coaches and organizations can use to establish a more effective model.

So, what is the shadow side of expecting our leaders to be able to do it all? For starters, our leaders probably don’t feel very confident in managing such a divergent array of responsibilities. In fact, when we polled our webinar attendees, 76% said the leaders they work with feel overwhelmed on a regular basis.

Organizations, too, will find themselves flailing if they leave all of these critical responsibilities to individual leaders. Why? Because leaders who can effectively manage both relationships and results are vanishingly scarce. How scarce? Our research reveals the startling truth:

Only 5.6% of leaders rank in the top half for effectiveness in both Relationships and Results.

When you look for leaders in the top third for both Relationships and Results, that figure drops to just 0.77%.

So what’s a more effective approach to leadership? Step one: it’s time to destroy the myth of the heroic leader who can do it all. How do we do that?

5 Ways to End the Myth of the “Hero Leader”

  1. Distinguish the leader from leadership. The leadership is the practice, the leader is the individual.
  2. Help leaders prioritize. It’s not about just working faster or harder or cramming in hours at night. We need to help them – and their organizations – prioritize.
  3. Teach shared leadership methodologies. If people or organizations see shared leadership as a failure, it can’t flourish. Make shared leadership expected and intentional (hint: check out the strategies below).
  4. Educate the organization. Make sure that acceptance of a shared leadership model is truly universal within the organization.
  5. Understand the impact of organizational dynamics. Because organizations are more fractured and less disciplined, many responsibilities of the organization are falling on the individual. Organizations need to be held responsible for this gap between expectations and reality.

6 Strategies for Shared Leadership

  1. Co-Leadership. When there’s a significant initiative or an important project, putting two complementary leaders together can be an effective way to carry it across the finish line. Clear role definition is key.
  2. Thinking Partnerships. Help leaders understand what they want from their thinking partners and where they want it in their work. This can be incredibly effective when leaders choose a thinking partner with whom they may have some friction – the differing approaches can add value.
  3. Running units like micro-organizations. You don’t expect the CEO to be the head of finance, marketing, or operations. At the top, we understand this. So when we look at teams, we can take a similar approach, and formally build some aspects of shared leadership into team members’ roles.
  4. Peer mentors and/or peer coaches. This can be formal or informal, but it should be scheduled frequently enough to make an impact.
  5. Peer advisory groups. The logistics these entail will mean that these can’t be a frequent tool, but even quarterly, these can be powerful. When the group meets, the peer being advised cannot talk; they can listen, take notes, and learn.
  6. A less hierarchical definition of leadership. With the buy-in of the organization overall, we can start to dismantle the formal hierarchy and start to establish a practice of providing feedback up the chain of command, and develop a culture that allows shared leadership to flourish.

With all of these models, assessments play a critical role. Helping leaders understand themselves – what gives them energy, what they bring to an organization, and yes, where they struggle. Using a powerful and scientifically sound assessment tool will help leaders start from a sound understanding of their deepest motivations and their leadership behaviors. This lays the foundation for creating a shared leadership model that leverages an organization’s diversity to help individuals and teams work more effectively.

For an in-depth exploration of shared leadership, you can watch the webinar on demand any time here.

We also received some provocative questions during the webinar that we weren’t able to get to in our live hour. Read on for Tricia’s answers to some of these questions.

Q & A

Q: Can you speak to the specific importance of shared leadership in an organization that is seeking to become truly global in its behaviors?

A: One of the great challenges of going global is that we misidentify so much of our “ways of working” as universal when in fact, many are culturally specific (both country culture specific and organization culture specific). By building shared leadership practices, global organizations can more quickly identify and/or make distinctions between what can be shared leadership practices and what the organization needs to make space for to account for important culturally specific leadership practices. One of the best benefits of shared leadership is the opportunity to expand leaders’ perspectives – something that is especially critical in building a global organization. MRG has done a significant amount of research in differences in approach to leadership by geographic location. You can explore that topic more in this recent blog post, or contact us for more.

Q: Do you think organizations who flatten organizational structure confuse this flattening with creating less hierarchy? What strategies have you seen work to help encourage a mindset that flattening of structure also has to contain considerations of reducing hierarchy?

A: Such a valuable distinction. Usually flattening the organization is done to reduce costs, and to increase efficiencies (and sometimes to make the flow of information easier). Rarely is it done to reduce a culture of hierarchy. The three best ways I know to reduce the culture of hierarchy are:

  • to first train leaders to regularly ask for feedback from their direct reports and other employees who hold more junior positions;
  • second, to coach leaders to be open to sharing (with humility) mistakes they’ve made and lessons learned;
  • and third, to teach leaders how to include more junior folks in decision-making and problem solving by seeking their ideas and input and incorporating both in the final outcome (this is also a great way for the more senior leaders to teach others how to think and problem solve effectively).

Q: How does this apply to family business, as they transition from first to second generation – and often struggle to “unbundle” and share leadership?

A: What a challenging question – because, as you know, family dynamics often add a significant amount of emotional complication to the equation. In my experience, there is often a need for both family therapy and ongoing coaching to enable family leadership transitions to have any chance of being successful. It can be challenging to distinguish a true leadership issue or situation from what is actually a family issue or situation. When we have seen it work best is when leadership development is an ongoing part of the family business culture (so it doesn’t just start when the generational transition is getting close) and shared leadership is a part of the organizational practices (again, rather than something that is being tried at the time of transition). At MRG, we work with an organization that is bringing on its 5th generation of family members; contact us to talk more about our experience with this complicated dynamic.



About the author

Lucy is the Head of Marketing at MRG. She's a passionate people person who talks with her hands even when she's on the phone. She will not rest until everyone on earth has taken their IDI.

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