I recently found myself in the middle of a group conversation about politics. I find it happens to me these days when I least expect it. Now more than ever, I try to listen to diverse viewpoints more than sharing my opinion.
The reoccurring theme of this conversation was the fact that people are looking for a hero. “If there was just someone to follow that could fix everything and lead us out of this mess. Just one brilliant, compassionate, truthful person, everything would get better.”
The words from Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze’s book, Walk Out Walk On kept percolating as I listened,
We have relied on hero’s for far too long, perhaps because it’s such an enticing promise … It is time for us to give up these hopes and expectations, that only serve to make people dependent and passive. It is time to face the truth of our situation. We are all in this together. Let’s figure out how to engage the hearts and minds of everyone, and get on with the work to do it.
In Walk Out Walk On, the authors journey to seven different communities around the world who are accomplishing extraordinary things by relying on everyone to “be the change they wish to see.” With passages from their book flooding my consciousness, I left the conversation feeling a bit conflicted. While I know that someone swooping in and saving the day is not the answer, it is certainly easier at times than finding the strength within to come together with others to solve the seemingly complex issues of the day. There is so much less accountability when waiting for the hero but also so much less hope, ingenuity and inventiveness.
Organizations are complex communities with distinct cultures. When I see whole groups within an organization feeling disenfranchised, it is often because they are waiting for hero leadership. It is costly in terms of productivity and engagement, not just for that group, but for all the groups, internally and externally, the group impacts.
The bottom line is that waiting for the hero is never a worthy enterprise. The good news is that a cultural shift is possible if leadership is distributed versus glorified. If individuals who make up the whole are able to work purposefully in valuable ways, the search for the hero is no longer a temptation.
Wheatley and Frieze suggest the Leader-as-host perspective …
Leaders who act as hosts rely on other people’s creativity and commitment to get the work done. Leaders-as-hosts see potential and skills in people that people themselves may not see. And they know that people will only support those things they’ve played a part in creating—that you can’t expect people to “buy in” to plans and projects developed elsewhere.
Leaders-as-hosts invest in meaningful conversations among people from many parts of the system as the most productive way to engender new insights and possibilities for action. They trust that people are willing to contribute, and that most people yearn to find meaning and possibility in their lives and work. And these leaders know that hosting others is the only way to get large-scale, intractable problems solved.
Grab a piece of paper and pen and answer the following four questions:
1. What is one thing I can do today to host others versus direct them?
2. What is one thing I can do today to move purposefully in the direction of the change I wish to see versus waiting for a hero?
3. Do I act in a way that communicates that I believe leadership should be distributed versus authoritative?
4. What is one action I could take that would communicate what I value to those around me?
In my coaching sessions with leaders at every level of an organization, the biggest learning for me from this book, is the idea that leadership is a series of behaviors not a role of one hero. In one way this notion simplifies things, and in another it makes things more complex. It is profound to acknowledge that we are all capable of leading in some way, and that once we align with that knowledge, waiting for someone to save us is no longer an option.