Is the Hero-Leader Hurting You?

by Ron Potter

Why is humility such a key quality on a leader’s personal resume?

For starters, being humble prevents most of the mistakes that cripple a person who is proud. Consider Henry Ford, for example.

He was an icon of American industry. His revolutionary ideas about manufacturing and design put him near the top of anyone’s list of great American businessmen. Ford carried out his vision with the Model T. The car literally changed the face of America and the priorities of American citizens. By 1914, Henry Ford’s factories built nearly 50 percent of all the cars sold in the United States. Now that’s market share!

There was, however, a chink in Henry’s armor.

He was so proud of his Model T that he never wanted it to be changed or improved. One day, as the story goes, a group of his best engineers presented him with a new automobile design prototype. Ford became so angry that he pulled the doors right off the prototype and destroyed it with his bare hands.

Not until 1927 was Henry Ford willing to change. Grudgingly, he allowed the Ford Motor Company to introduce the Model A. By that time, the company was well behind its competitors in design and technical advances. Ford’s market share had plummeted to 28 percent by 1931.

Image Source: Zeetz Jones, Creative Commons

Image Source: Zeetz Jones, Creative Commons

Henry Ford just could not let go. He had created something, and he was unable to imagine that his “baby” could be improved. Nobody could help him, and he was unwilling to stretch himself to learn how he could make his product better or different.

Consequently, he lost his executives, created havoc in his family, and damaged the company’s market share beyond repair.

Henry Ford’s leadership approach probably resembled what some now refer to as the hero-leader. Many organizations look to a hero-leader to deliver the power, charisma, ideas, and direction necessary to ensure a company’s success. In many cases, the hero-leader does create blips in performance. For a time the dynamic chief is seen as a savior of the organization.

For a time.

In an interview with Fast Company magazine, Peter Senge said,

Deep change comes only through real personal growth—through learning and unlearning. This is the kind of generative work that most executives are precluded from doing by the mechanical mind-set and by the cult of the hero-leader.

Senge points out that the hero-leader approach is a pattern that makes it easier for companies to not change or move forward. The hero-leader weakens the organization and in many ways keeps it at an infant stage, very dependent upon the hero-leader’s creativity and ideas. The people around the leader do not seek or promote change because the hero-leader is not open to new ideas (or ideas that he or she did not originate).

Under the hero-leader, people tend to acquiesce rather than work together as a team with a free exchange of ideas. The hero-leader may take the company in a new direction, but the troops within the organization only go along because it is a mandated change. This type of change is superficial at best.

Despite all of Henry Ford’s incredible qualities, it sounds as if he was a proud rather than a humble leader. In his case, the Bible proverb certainly was true: “Pride leads to disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.”

Is your pride getting in the way of doing something you’ll really be proud of? Or, often easier to answer, do you see someone else who could do great things if they would just let go of their pride? Share some stories with us.

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