We don’t need heroes – Postheroic Leadership

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At the end of last year, I had the great pleasure of listening to a presentation by Blair Sheppard (Global Leader Strategy and Leadership PwC). He framed his passionate plea to leave a livable world for the next generation with two insights from his research that I couldn’t agree more with.

Insight 1: Challenges now and here (ADAPT).

  • Asymmetry: increasing wealth inequality and erosion of the middle class
  • Disruption: the pervasive nature of technology and its impact on individuals, society and the climate
  • Age: demographic pressures on businesses, social institutions and economies
  • Trust: diminishing confidence in the institutions that sustain society

The ADAPT framework summarizes extremely urgent problems facing society, businesses, and individuals that are acute and divisive, and for which there are no answers. But we must act now or we will face a future we will not like.

Insight 2: Dealing with these challenges

For Blair, “leaders” are needed who can quickly and confidently navigate between or deal with the following paradoxes in our highly dynamic world.

  • Globally-minded localist: the world is drifting further and further apart and yet we are all interdependent and our actions influence each other, people are focusing more and more on their manageable (influenceable) environment due to this increasing complexity, but we must dare to look beyond our own horizons, understand the interrelationships, take a global view and act powerfully locally in our own sphere of action and pay attention to the big picture
    High-integrity politician: acting on the basis of a stable set of values that provide orientation and still being able to negotiate integrative approaches and workable compromises.
  • Humble hero: courage to go new ways, to offer people orientation and to take them along, and at the same time the humility to admit openly that one is not sure oneself whether the way is the right one and that one can also be mistaken and make mistakes.
    Strategic executor: high dynamics and intensity of change require the combination of strategic thinking and anticipation of the future as well as effective and efficient action.
  • Tech-savy humanist: technology changes how we make decisions, how we interact with each other, therefore it is not enough to “just” know how to use technology, we also need to understand the impact and consequences on social systems
    Traditioned innovator: it takes the ability to distinguish when to acknowledge and evolve/adapt what is known and proven and when to develop completely new solutions because the problems require it.

 

And this is where our opinions start to drift apart, because what “leader” is supposed to be able to do all that? No single person can do it, that’s clear. Not the heroic CEO or the self-sacrificing executive. The call for lone warriors and heroes inevitably leads to a dead end!

With our system-theoretical view of organizations, we understand leadership as a function in the “social system” organization, i.e. it does not depend on one person (the manager/leader), but depending on the context, different needs for action arise from the responsibility spectrum of leadership. But whoever assumes these responsibility(s) does not have to be the leader (in the hierarchical sense) – it can also be one (or more) leaders (in the social sense).

What is needed, then, are teams, diverse teams, that use their different “personalities” and complementary, shared strengths to address the challenges and problems of the future. And it needs formal leaders and structures that protect these teams with their formal power and enable cooperation and socially-legitimized leadership.

Unfortunately, too few organizations have yet come to this realization.

  • Organizations still focus on individual performance and reward it with individual goals and bonuses instead of recognizing that problem solving is an emergent team effort.
  • Organizations still create structures and instruments that prevent or at least hinder cooperation and collaboration instead of fostering it: talent programs for “high potentials”, job descriptions with AKV lists, silo-like departmental structures, annual plans with coupled KPI tracking and target systems, and so on.
  • Still too often paternalizing “leaders”, power-conscious or control-mad egomaniacs jostle between the people with their competencies and the most pressing external problems of the organization/world.

If you would like to talk to us about solutions to this dilemma and learn more about our understanding of corporate and HR development, we would be happy to invite you to a personal exchange with us in Heidelberg or in our virtual meeting room in Microsoft Teams. Just get in touch at

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