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 Most of our leaders, as well as CEOs, are using outdated systems of leadership that were “built for simpler times”.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…
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