Leadership versus Heroism

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns

Driven time and again off course, once he had plundered

the hallowed heights of Troy.1


The Trump presidency has raised some difficult questions for some of us who study and teach leadership. Most of my colleagues share values and beliefs that derive from a tradition of humanism, a belief that people have inherent value, goodness and dignity. For the humanist, people have needs and potential, therefore the job of leadership is to uncover needs and help people reach their potential. Consultants and organizational development professionals who operate in the humanist tradition conduct research on collaboration and transformative learning. We write books and teach workshops with names like, Servant Leadership and Facilitative Leadership. We keep encouraging leaders to listen, to learn and to model humility.

There are other schools of thought about leadership. You can find plenty of material on how to be a charismatic leader or an authoritarian leader. I suppose the lowest common denominator of leadership philosophies is that leaders have followers. Trump has followers, and not just on Twitter.

Speaking of twitter, I woke up recently with a nagging fear that my clients would start asking me to lead brainstorming sessions to come up with insulting epithets for competitors in 140 characters or less.

I’ve gotten so confused about what it means to be a leader I decide that I needed to follow my own advice and keep an open mind. I even purchased a copy of Trump’s The Art of the Deal. I should say I downloaded the book to my Kindle. I don’t want to be on the receiving end of side-eyes from my seat-mates on airplanes. By the way, in the section of the book about the importance of gaining leverage during a negotiation, Trump wrote, “My leverage came from confirming an impression they were already predisposed to believe.” Maybe the new workshop should be called, “Leadership as Theater.”

I admit that I’m allowing myself to take elitist potshots at Trump. Perhaps it’s a reaction to having my leadership convictions unmoored by what I’m witnessing. Just because Trump is not my kind of leader, does that mean he’s not an effective leader?

Was Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong Un in Singapore an act of leadership?

After watching the Hollywood style movie trailer produced by the White House a distinction popped into my head that helped me square my beliefs about leadership with what I witnessed last week. I’m of the opinion that Trump doesn’t want to be a leader; Trump wants to be a hero.

I think it is a particularly American notion to mix up heroism and leadership. In some cases the attributes coexist, Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela come to mind. Heroes are defined by their struggles and achievements. Leaders are defined by their ability to ennoble and inspire others to reach their potential. Heroes have adoring fans. Leaders produce a new generation of leaders.

Contrasting leadership and heroism brought Odysseus to mind. Homer’s epic poem is the story of Odysseus’ kleos. Kleos is a Greek term for “glory” or “renown.” Since it is related to the word “to hear,” kleos translates as, “the great deeds others hear about you.” We don’t yet know whether we should compare Trump’s presidency to the voyage of Odysseus or the voyage of the S.S. Minnow, but there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that, if you’ll excuse the expression, kleos trumps leadership for our president.

Homer makes Odysseus out to be a hero, but even the Muse could not embellish his questionable leadership capabilities. Recall that Odysseus led a disobedient crew of questionable intelligence who were all eaten, turned into swine and/or (spoiler alert) drowned by an angry Zeus at the end of the journey.


And then there’s the bit about Odysseus wanting to hear the song of the Sirens. The Sirens’ song was reputed to be so enchanting that sailors passing close enough to hear the song would be drawn to the Sirens and end up shipwrecked on the coast of their island. Odysseus had his crew lash him to the mast of his ship and then ordered the crew to put beeswax in their ears so they would not hear the singing.

There is one thing Trump has in common with leaders I admire. He forces me to recognize and question my assumptions.



¹Opening lines of Homer’s The Odyssey translated by Robert Fagles (1996)

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