Monday, October 19th, 2020

Post-heroic Leadership

Had coffee this morning with Allan Cohen, Distinguished Professor of Global Leadership at Babson College. Cohen and his co-author, David Bradford (now Dean of the Executive Program on Leadership at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business) originated a key distinction we make in the book – between heroic and post-heroic leadership. (This distinction first appeared in their 1984 book, Managing for Excellence).

In Managing for Excellence (focusing on team leadership for middle managers) and their more recent book, Power Up (focusing on team leadership for senior managers), Bradford and Cohen identify two forms of “heroic” leadership, which they call the Technician and the Conductor, and a post-heroic form of leadership they call the Developer. Although they don’t use an explicit developmental framework, like that found in Leadership Agility (see previous post), the characteristics they ascribe to their Technician line up perfectly with our Expert level, their Conductor lines up with our Achiever level, and their Developer encompasses our Catalyst level and certain aspects of our Co-Creator level. (The central story that runs throughout Power Up seems to capture a senior team leader’s transition from the Achiever to the Catalyst level).

Research we consulted in writing the book indicates that about 90% of today’s managers operate from a heroic leadership mindset. That is, they assume sole responsibility for setting their organization’s objectives, coordinating subordinates, and managing their performance. Heroic leadership can be highly effective in certain situations. However, in today’s complex, rapidly changing business environment, heroic leadership overcontrols and underutilizes subordinates.

In this new century, sustained success will require post-heroic leadership. Leaders who operate at these levels of agility retain the ultimate authority and accountability that come with any formal leadership role – but they also work to create highly participative teams and organizations characterized by shared commitment and responsibility.

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