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Can our leaders be heroes?

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Does our leadership development create micromanagers? Kevan Hall looks at whether we expect too much of our leaders.

The cult of the hero leader is alive and well. If you ask people what they want from a leader they ask for an inspirational, visionary figure with empathy, drive and emotional intelligence, who is constantly accessible, sets clear goals and empowers. However, if your leader does all this, what is left for you to do, and wouldn't such a person be already busy curing world hunger or founding their own religion?

These high standards extend to accountability too. When things go wrong the usual reaction is to look for a scapegoat. For major issues, invariably, the scapegoat emerges at the top, where all avenues collide, yet can we realistically expect our leaders to be the heroes we want them to be, with a grasp of all the detail, an ability to never sleep and to have all the answers?

Even in simpler organisations this is a challenge, but in large complex global, matrix and virtual organisations this can lead to some extremely negative behaviour. A leader may think, 'If I am accountable for something then I should know what is going on and be in control of developments.' This can easily lead him or her to becoming an accidental micromanager who constantly reviews the work of others and operates at an inappropriate level of detail for their job.

Empowering people and letting them get on with their jobs can feel risky when the buck always stops at your desk, but if a leader doesn’t let go, people further down the organisation will feel disempowered and distrusted.

"In our increasingly complex and interconnected organisations, the expectation of a ‘hero’ leader who knows and is accountable for everything is unrealistic and unsustainable."

At the most serious end of the scale the recent Jimmy Saville/BBC scandal, horse meat in the food supply chain and failures at Stafford Hospital and the Mid-Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust all led to the search for someone to blame. Senior figures were expected to fall on their swords leaving a lifetime career in tatters. In the case of major, systematic failures this may be reasonable, but it also may not be possible to protect every step of a complex organisation and supply chain from the actions of a few criminals or idiots. Even if it were, the cost to us as organisations and consumers may be unsustainable.

In our increasingly complex and interconnected organisations, the expectation of a ‘hero’ leader who knows and is accountable for everything is unrealistic and unsustainable. In complex matrix organisations we work with many of the most difficult dilemmas. Trade-offs and conflicts are actually resolved in the middle of the organisation where the multiple reporting lines converge. These are where some of the most challenging operational and ethical decisions are actually made in the moment.

Middle managers cannot escalate everything to senior leaders otherwise they will appear incompetent, so we need to make sure that they have the information, authority and skills to make complex, even moral decisions. These people need to have the information, authority and skills that go beyond asking 'can we do it?' (Is it legal?) to 'should we do it?' (is it the right thing for the business and its stakeholders?).

In training, instead of focusing on an idealised form of leader, we need to embed leadership throughout our organisations and in order to exercise leadership, we need to push empowerment and control, as well as the ability to make more nuanced judgment calls, much deeper in the organisation.

In learning and development we have a critical responsibility to give people the skills and confidence to manage trade-offs and ethical and operational dilemmas. If we want true control and accountability in our organisations, we need to embed this throughout our people development programs, not just invest it in a few hero leaders who we can blame if things go wrong.

Kevan Hall is CEO of Global Integration, a global training and consulting organisation specialising in matrix management, virtual teams and global working. He is author of 'Making the Matrix Work – how matrix managers engage people and cut through complexity' 

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