The Myth and Misfortunes of Heroic Leadership

Stop Juggling Ping-Pong Balls and Start Equipping Your People

“One ping-pong ball!” the wild-haired street performer cried out to the crowd.

He placed the ping-pong ball in his mouth, popped it up in the air, caught it in his mouth, popped it up in the air, and caught it in his mouth again. We clapped, amused but not impressed.

I was visiting San Francisco with a group of friends, and we were sampling the utter weirdness of that city: panhandlers in tuxedos, prophets of doom, and wild-haired street performers.

“Two ping-pong balls!” came the next proclamation. And as he had done previously, the performer put two ping-pong balls in his mouth, popped one in the air, and then the other, catching each in turn, popping them up and catching them again in his mouth two or three more times. We clapped more approvingly.

“Three ping-pong balls!” he shouted to our unbelieving ears. In went the orbs and up they went into the evening sky, landing one by one back in the mouth of the street performer. Then back in the air, back in his mouth, back in the air, and back in his mouth again.

We clapped and cheered enthusiastically.

“Now I will do the most amazing trick ever,” the man with the hair said. And we believed him, too. I don’t think any of us could get three ping-pong balls in our mouths, let alone juggle them by spitting them up in the air. “I will make you all disappear!”

Out came a big hat and a request for money. The crowd didn’t actually disappear, but it might as well have. Most all of us walked away to the next act and only a fraction of those who enjoyed the show put anything in the hat.

The Great Irony of Leadership

Herein lies the great irony of leadership.

We think we’re leading when we’re on the stage in front of others. We think we’re leading when we’re doing things no one else can do. We think we’re leading when the applause is loud and the cheers are louder. But leadership is not about the leader. Leadership is about followers, people who’ll not only give money but also commit themselves to learn how to participate in the performance.

Yes, it’s fun to be applauded for achieving amazing feats. It feels good to be held in high regard for our special talents and abilities. But at the end of the show, what do we have?

Nothing.

“Getting things done through others is a fundamental leadership skill. Indeed, if you can’t do it, you’re not leading,” Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan declare in Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done.

That’s right. You’re. Not. Leading.

In other words, while heroics—with or without ping-pong balls—may be inspiring, effective leaders duplicate themselves in others and build robust organizational capacity. This is the myth of heroic leadership—that it actually exists. Here are its misfortunes:

1. Heroic leaders leave others immobilized in awe

While heroic leaders achieve acts of greatness, shattering sales records or speaking for hours without notes, less gifted—or, more accurately otherwise gifted—individuals reach the reasonable conclusion that they don’t contribute to the success of the organization because they can’t accomplish the things their heroic leader accomplishes.

This is (mostly) unintentional. Heroic leaders feel strongly about the companies they serve and act sacrificially to help them succeed. But their actions aren’t effective in the long term because they don’t get things done through others, leaving their people watching in awe at their greatness. Immobilized.

A genius with a thousand helpers is still a genius. He or she is simply not a leader.

2. Heroic leaders don’t create repeatable processes

The thing about a lightning strike is that it’s not repeatable. That’s what heroic leadership is: lightening. Like winning the lottery, it’s cool, but not something you can duplicate or plan on. No one ever said, “My financial plan for the future is to win the lottery.” (Okay, maybe somebody did say that but only after too much alcohol.)

Ask a superstar salesperson how she achieved 150 percent of her sales plan, and she’s likely to say “I don’t know, I just did.” Fine if you’re an individual contributor, but not fine if you’re a leader.

Your job as a leader is to know exactly how to reach 150 percent of the sales plan, breaking it down into a systematic process and mobilizing the entire team to hit that target year after year. Effective leaders aren’t satisfied with the unpredictable lightning strike of a talented superstar but equip everyone who works for them to generate their own electricity.

3. Heroic leaders set themselves up to fail

Finally, with followers immobilized in awe and repeatable processes nowhere to be found, heroic leaders set themselves up to fail.

The strange twist about heroic leadership is that it works. For awhile. Due to this person’s immense gifts and talents, people flock to a heroic leader, as they do to a wild-haired street performer. But with no systems in place to serve those people or other individuals prepared to work with them, the organization implodes, due, ironically, to a lack of leadership.

The saddest part of this paradox is that heroic leaders themselves crash and burn under the unbearable weight of having to carry the entire organization on their shoulders. If you’re the only one who knows how to drive a car on a cross country road trip, ultimately, you’ll fall asleep at the wheel as perfectly rested passengers look on in horror.

What Should a Heroic Leader Do?

What do you do if you’ve been a heroic leader? What do you do if you genuinely possess extraordinary gifts and abilities?

Here’s some quick advice. First, change your mental model of leadership. Successful leadership is not defined by the heroic actions you take to the cheers and applause of others. Successful leadership is defined by the capacity of the organization you serve to fulfill its mission.

And, here’s where the rub comes, that capacity needs to exist apart from the power of your personal presence. The test of leadership with my son when he was a teenager was not how he treated his mother sitting next to me at the dinner table but how he treated his mother when I was away on a business trip.

Leadership is what happens when you’re not there. What happens when you’re not at the dinner table?

Secondly, having changed your mental model of leadership, use your gifts and abilities to build organizational capacity. Make getting things done through others, as opposed to doing so many, many things yourself, the highest priority of your professional career. Less is more here. Don’t drink from the intoxicating elixir of public praise and applause. Do the hard work of duplicating yourself in others, work that takes place mostly in private.

Finally, don’t use leadership to fulfill your ego needs.

Yes, I know that sounds like a bunch of self-help psychobabble, but bear with me on this, please. The exercise of heroic leadership feels good because it gives us an emotional surge of approval and acceptance. But, as I’ve explained above, in the end, it doesn’t build a strong, lasting organization. If you continue to practice it, you’re using the organization to serve you, not the other way around.

Get your ego needs met through faith, family, and friends, and give your organization what it needs to succeed in the long term: an army of capable professionals on mission executing with excellence the processes that ensure success.

That’s how a true hero leads.


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