Leaders or Heroes?

I was talking with a colleague the other day and she spoke about the culture of heroes and legends at her company.   Now at first pass, that does not sound like a bad thing.   The world needs heroes and legends are models to look up to that have left a legacy behind.   The only trouble is, that is sometimes all they leave behind: great stories of days past and great deeds in historic context.

While it is most certain that we need these great doers and pinnacles of performance – organizations also need leaders  Some might say they are the same but I contend they have a fundamental difference.   Heroes are created by individual acts that are for the greater good, leaders inspire others to be great for the benefit of the greater good; a subtle yet important difference when thinking about the sustainability of your organization.   Heroes boost performance in singular incidents, leaders inspire a cadre of heroes that as a collective force can propel the organization towards you vision.   More simply put, heroes achieve objectives, leaders achieve visions.

Think about the heroes and leaders throughout history.   Sergeant Alvin York, of World War I fame, personally captured a large number of opposing soldiers single handedly to help save the lives of his fellow soldiers – Hero.   Gandhi inspired a country to act; he himself did not overthrow the British autocracy in India – Leader.   People can be both and the most successful leaders are – capable of doing great things and also inspirating to others to be great.

The troubling fact is, organizations tend to focus solely on rewarding heroic behavior and not on recognizing leadership behavior.   People get promoted for being great and then senior leaders wonder why they have trouble inspiring their team or letting go of the daily minutia.   Heroes are good at the daily minutia and coming through in a pinch; leaders create teams that succeed even when they are gone.

In the workforce, managers have been promoted for being good at tasks and always doing great things.   In short, for being heroes.   Since people typically continue to do what they are rewarded for, they will continue to seek individual greatness.    Commendable for certain, but what happens we they leave?    If your managers are heroes and not leaders, you probably find yourself facing a pretty large leadership gap; a whole bunch of heroes at the top and a bunch of onlookers at the bottom.

Heroes are great and necessary for organizations to have and leaders are what carry the organization forward past singular acts of greatness.   It is equally important to recognize both if you want to have great performance over time.   Now is the time to look at your reward and recognition policies to see what your organization is creating.   Are you generating a culture of heroes or leaders?   Organizations that have both are what legends are made of.


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