Will anti-heroes of the corporate world trump heroes by ridding us of "wicked problems"?

11 min read

28 May 2015

Despite the financial crisis and MPs’ expense scandals, our leaders often appear to have learnt little as they go from one crisis to the next, according to social entrepreneur Richard Wilson. One can't help but wonder whether he's alluding that we should no longer be surprised as they will continue to disappoint unless they change the way they lead.

The term “heroic CEO” has been used quite often as of late, according to Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, the senior associate dean of leadership programs, as well as the Lester Crown professor in the practice of management for the Yale School of Management.

Throughout history, we look toward figures that simplify a path “needed to get through an area of distress,” he said. During war, for example, we look to generals for the answers. In the time of westward expansion, the pioneer spirit was ascendant. At other times, he claimed, when invention and technological explosion are predominant, we look to entrepreneurs, as well as scientists. 

“Little kids read their biographies and the press exalts them,” Sonnenfeld said. “That’s what has happened with CEOs. Amidst wrenching economic dislocation, the business leader is a figure that can be decorated as heroic.” 

Indeed, the allure of the hero is powerful, no thanks to Hollywood and the plethora of comic book heroes being released on screen. We’ve grown so attached to the concept that almost everyone is promoting the heroes path, to such an extent that it’s probably deeply embedded in our psyche from birth. 

Social entrepreneur Richard Wilson is of the belief that the appeal lies in the simplicity of good triumphing over evil, “and although we all know the world isn’t really like that, many of us secretly wish it were”. 

Think of it as the Disney effect. There are plenty of princes and princesses in Disney movies, but there are many underdog heroes as well who succeed against all odds. There also always seems to be a gravity-defying happy ending. In a sense, watching a CEO conquer funding challenges or hearing about a founder’s idea being based off of the need to help others, has the same effect.

He outlined, however, that real life’s “inherent complexity” is becoming more obvious. Wilson bases this fact on the knowledge that several heroic leaders who dominate our institutions today have fatal flaws.

“First, they tend to be over-confident in their opinions,” Wilson said. “Secondly, they tend to lack empathy towards others. Thirdly, they tend to be inflexible. And finally, they tend to deny the existence of uncertainty.”

This isn’t the fault of the leaders themselves, he stressed. Most of our leaders, as well as CEOs, are using outdated systems of leadership that were “built for simpler times”.

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Essentially, the modern world is throwing up “seemingly insoluble issues” that Wilson classifies as “wicked”. These issues require a way of thinking that technical experts and senior leaders rarely have.

According to Wilson, the world changed on 15 September 2008 when Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy – and it wasn’t just that we all became poorer.

“All of us, in a way, became wiser to the fragility of our world; wise to where power really lies; wise to whom, if anyone, is looking after our interests, and wise to the uncertainty of modern life,” he said. “Overnight, we all had a more mature understanding of how the world really works, and had to face the grim reality that the last 60 years of growth had been an exceptional financial cushion – a cushion that had given us security we’d never had before through pensions, homes and insurance; security that we are slowly realising we may never have again.”

Add to that the increasing pressure the hero dynamic has on CEOs to run ethical and social businesses.

Sonnenfeld is of the belief that because these leaders are perhaps too aware of the heroic stature that has been tossed their way, they’re reluctant to use the power that often comes alongside it – in part because of shareholder reactions and the litigious society we’re in. In a time where we need business leaders to speak up, “they have become much more likely to hide behind trade groups rather than individually speak out, unless they’re the sole proprietor or have a huge ownership stake as an entrepreneur,” he said.

Let’s face it, much like modern audiences have grown bored of the heroic template often seen in movies, so too have modern challenges changed what we need from our leaders. The answer to both problems is a shift from being heroic to anti-heroic.

Who are you more likely to remember? Captain America, who is noble to the core, or Breaking Bad’s Walter White? One is a hero and the other less so – answer honestly.

Read on to find out about the anti-hero in the corporate world…

Image: Shutterstock

Mad Men’s Don Draper, Breaking Bad’s Walter White, Tony Soprano in The Sopranos and Frank Underwood of House of Cards, even Sherlock as portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, are but a few of the characters we find ourselves consistently drawn to.

These men are often who we think of while imagining the “mastermind” archetype – otherwise known as the anti-hero – and they are on the rise in the business world.

We call them this not because we are against heroes, but because they are so different to the leaders we are accustomed to. Anti-heroes have learnt that being a heroic leader only gets you so far, he said. According to Wilson, we need to look seriously at what anti-hero pioneers are doing right and seek to learn from them. “Understanding that the anti-hero is a new stage of adult psychological maturation helps to explain why the usual ‘informational’ training and learning we are offered in organisations is of little help,” he added.

However, culture and organisations are deeply attached to the heroic ideal. Having allegedly spoken to those studying and supporting this new “breed,” Wilson suggested that, “many anti-heroes feel that to break out and unmask themselves would be professional suicide,” and yet, it is people like this who hold the missing key to meeting the big challenges we face.

“The conventional world of heroic thinking likes answers to be ‘clear-cut’ and ‘evidence-based’ but the evidence rarely makes things ‘clear-cut’ or ‘black and white’, instead it paints the world in a kaleidoscope of greys,” he said. Wilson added that this was a spectrum the heroic mind couldn’t see. 

Developmental psychologists such as Harvard’s Professor Robert Kegan argue that what makes the anti-hero has most likely reached a later stage of adult psychological development, and that “only those people who have developed this anti-hero mindset are able to successfully grapple with today’s ‘wicked’ issues”.

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Wilson claimed that if we were to have a chance at tackling any such wicked issues, then we need to quadruple the number of anti-heroes among professionals from its current five per cent to 20 per cent. He implicated that a lack of anti-heroes would, at worst, lead to leaders failing more than they have done in recent years, “exacerbating the implications of wicked issues like the financial crisis and climate change”.

Finally, Anti-heroic leadership is not suitable for all circumstances. We still need heroes in society, in the emergency services, military, schools and communities. Where we all know the outcome we desire and a good process to get there, the hero can be the person to make it happen. These kinds of heroes are vital, but this type of heroism cannot be easily transferred to todays ‘wicked’ issues. That’s why we must expand what it means to be a hero and a leader.

Essentially, Wilson’s point is that post-conventional managers are more effective than conventional managers because they are more strategic in their thinking, as well as more effective in resolving conflicts. The world has become a gritty place and, while we obviously need our heroes to cling to, only the anti-hero could truly do what needs to be done in order to solve our “wicked” problems.