Heroes vs. Leaders

Everyone loves heroes. From hometown heroes who save children or cats, to sports heroes, to heroes of myth and legend, stories of heroes have captivated human beings since we first came together around fires in the earliest societies: Ulysses and Achilles, Marco Polo, Joan of Arc, Harriet Tubman, Babe Ruth, Superman and Wonder Woman, Winston Churchill, Bilbo Baggins, Luke Skywalker, “Sully,” Katniss Everdeen (or, if you prefer, Daenerys Targaryen)—the list is endless. Hollywood particularly is hero-crazy these days; try to find a movie theater that isn’t showing the latest installment of a superhero blockbuster.

But what is a hero? Joseph Campbell, author of the influential book The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), studied myths and folklore from around the world and asserted that all heroes have in common “a journey.” The hero ventures forth from “the common world” into a place of danger or wonder, encounters fabulous forces, wins a deciding victory, and returns from this adventure to provide benefits to his or her people. It’s a broad definition but it works remarkably well: pick your favorite hero and try it out, from Merida in Brave to Abraham Lincoln. (George Lucas has acknowledged that Campbell’s idea of “the monomyth” of the hero lies at the heart of the Star Wars saga.)

One of our favorite heroes is The Man with No Name, unforgettably portrayed by Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti westerns.” Even if you’ve never seen The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, you know this character because he’s an archetype of pop culture: The Man with No Name rides into a remote town full of evil and corruption. He susses out the situation, takes care of all the bad guys, and returns the town to some sort of order. And then? He rides off into the sunset. Every single time. There’s never a version of this classic genre film where this cowboy hero, having rid the town of its criminal element, settles down to become its mayor.

That’s because Heroes are quite different from Leaders, and this is the point we need to be aware of as we ponder how we can best lead our organizations. Heroes are necessary. They make for amazing stories. We need them, we want them, we raise them up, and we adulate them. Indeed, Joseph Campbell went on to offer a guess as to why heroes are so important: they are “the symbols that carry the human spirit forward, in counteraction to those [things] that tend to tie it back.”

However, in organizations we also require essential things that Heroes don’t, can’t, or won’t do—and here the contrast with Leaders is critical. Consider the following:

  • Heroes solve problems in the moment; Leaders create lasting change.
  • Heroes accomplish great things; Leaders mobilize organizations to achieve much bigger things than any one person could ever accomplish alone.
  • Heroes overcome obstacles; Leaders teach others to find opportunity in adversity.
  • Heroes react to the present; Leaders proactively build the future.
  • Heroes act alone; Leaders get things done with and through others.
  • Heroes are measured by their personal success; Leaders are measured by the commitment and effectiveness of their followers.
  • Heroes achieve the impossible; Leaders enable others to reimagine what is possible.
  • Heroes are showered in glory by their fans; Leaders empower others and let them bask in the glory of what they have accomplished together.
Organizations need both Heroes and Leaders. Heroes get things done against all odds, but they don’t always generate strong followership and they are not often effective at developing others. It’s a common paradox that organizations recognize and highly value Heroes, and then reward them by putting them into Leader roles where they are not happy and usually not successful. Worse, putting Heroes into Leader roles may place the future of the organization at risk. We can illustrate that risk via a famous tale from folklore. As you read the following untypical case study, see if you can derive lessons to apply in your own organization.

You may remember Beowulf, that seemingly endless medieval English epic poem beloved by high school English teachers. The poem has three parts, of which the first two are best-known. In the first part the young hero Beowulf arrives in Denmark to offer help to King Hrothgar. A horrible monster named Grendel has been showing up in the kingdom, wrecking the mead-hall and brutally gobbling up Hrothgar’s warriors. In a fierce battle, Beowulf dispatches Grendel—tearing off the monster’s arm. A great celebration ensues, which sets up the poem’s second part: it turns out Grendel’s mother is an even more fearsome monster, and she wants revenge for her son. Beowulf manages to take care of Grendel’s mother as well, in a thrilling underwater clash, and the kingdom is restored to order. Beowulf is lauded as the greatest hero of all time, and it is promised that his exploits will be sung by bards for centuries to come. (Meadhall audiences were apparently more receptive to these kinds of stories than high-schoolers are.)

The poem then abruptly skips ahead many decades, and in the third part we find Beowulf, himself now an old king, sitting on the throne of a peaceful land. He’s loved and admired by his people, and all is well until a local miscreant disturbs the lair of a huge and terrifying dragon. The dragon proceeds to terrorize the kingdom with fiery destruction, until King Beowulf descends from the throne and goes to fight it … basically alone. He brings along a young sidekick who does little more than look on as Beowulf himself heroically confronts and, with great effort, defeats the dragon. And then, grievously wounded, Beowulf dies.

The ending of Beowulf is both poignant and ambivalent. Did Beowulf do the right thing? At what price? His people are now without a king, and that puts them at great risk. Did Beowulf groom any successors to take the throne? Why didn’t he send one of his young warriors to fight the dragon? What motivated Beowulf to take on this problem himself? Perhaps Beowulf the Leader couldn’t help but show his true colors as Beowulf the Hero. While his people will be safe from the dragon, what more unsettling troubles now await them king-less? The poem’s very last line leaves us with a mixed appraisal of this hero: His people “said he was of all the kings in the world the mildest and the gentlest, the kindest to his people and the most eager for fame.”

What really motivated Beowulf? What motivates you? Do you see any implications for your role and the choices you are making in your career? Or for where you focus your time and energy? Do your people need a Hero, or a Leader?

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“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, not so good when people obey and acclaim him, worst when they despise him. But of a good leader, who talks little, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, people will say, ‘We did this ourselves.’”
— Lao-Tzu