Why heroic leadership is a dangerous idea

01 December 2017

  • The West has become too reliant on romanticising the power of leaders
  • The image of the leader as a hero endures in today's thinking on leadership
  • This romantic view shapes our concept of leaders and followers
  • Romanticising leaders re-enforces men rising to positions of authority

‘Romanticising’ political leaders such as Donald Trump can be harmful because it excludes the logic of their policies, according to new research.

Romanticised leadership can be thought of as the tendency to over-attribute organisational success and failure to a leader, even if they don’t deserve it.

Academics believe we make these unconscious ascriptions to simplify the complex factors involved in significant organisational outcomes.

As a result, we view the leader as the driving force behind everything that happens to an organisation during their tenure.

As the world’s voting public expresses anger towards what they view as the distant, impersonal, technocratic and corrupt power ruling over them in the European Union and in the US, they are turning to politicians and parties, who promise a return to mythical golden eras.

The notion of 'the Hero' has had an enduring influence in leadership theory and practice, particularly in the US where this way of thinking resonates strongly with the dominant culture of individualism.

However, in No More Heroes’: Critical Perspectives on Leadership Romanticism, published in Organization Studies, academics argue that in placing their trust in heroic leaders, the public neglect or avoid the tensions and contradictions in the heroes’ practices and theories.

“Romanticising leadership is bewitching because it offers an account of leadership drenched with imprecise mystique. It asks that we view leaders as privileged, holding a transcendent position above the fray of political or historical critique,” said Keith Grint, who conducted the study along with David Collinson, of Lancaster University, and Owain Smolovic Jones, of The Open University.

Should leaders be seen as heroes?

“Romanticising leadership naturalises the privileged status of leaders, portraying them as possessing the imaginative and heroic capabilities to access transcendent natural truths.

"However, this is just a romanticised mirror image of an ideology that promises salvation. What happens in the post-romantic phase, when followers become disenchanted with the leaders they previously placed on a pedestal?

"The study of leadership continues to be characterised by romanticising tendencies in many of its most influential theories, such as spiritual and authentic leadership. Various currently influential leadership theories, both leader-centred and post-heroic, continue to romanticise leaders. 

"While romanticism, an enduring tradition that has survived and evolved since the mid-18th century, can also shape thinking about followers as well."

When success or failure occurs, these romanticised leaders - who tend to possess strong vision, dissatisfaction with the status quo, and out of the ordinary behaviour - are more likely to be praised as protagonists or blamed for the failure.

The researchers argue that power and identity may be to some degree socially constructed and manufactured, through self-romanticism and self-mythologising. 

Related course: Executive MBA

They also write that romanticised leadership can reinforce the gendered dynamics through which men may be especially prone to elevate other men as leaders, and to try to reinforce male leaders’ power and authority, while securing themselves through forms of masculine prestige by association. This raises important issues about gender and masculinity, as well as race and ethnicity.

"Salvation is promised either by an individual hero or a collective hero," said Professor Grint. "But we have been here, waiting for, and failed by, heroes, in the past.

"When are we going to stop looking for heroes and recognise that, in the words of the Hopi Indians, ‘we are the ones we have been waiting for’, warts and all?"

Keith Grint is Professor of Public Leadership & Management and teaches Management of Change on the Executive MBA and Organisational Behaviour on the Full-time MBA.

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