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)

The Most Important Skill for Leaders Heading into an Uncertain Future

I’ve just returned from a week in Frankfurt Germany. While there, I co-facilitated a strategic leadership workshop for a group of executives at a global technology company with my friend and colleague Nick Noyes. Nick is a partner and co-founder of Insight Experience, the company that designed the business simulation we use in the program.

Nick and I work together a few times a year and I can always count on learning something new when he’s leading the participants through a debrief of the simulation results. In recent years, Nick has been passing along a concept he learned from the business school professor and consultant, Roch Parayre called, “robust capabilities.” For Parayre, a robust capability describes an organizational capability that can be used in a variety of situations. Irrespective of how things change, a robust capability will be useful.

You could argue that learning to play the piano and read music is a robust capability that prepares you for a variety of musical pursuits. Learning to play the banjo limits your options (Is it just me or does anyone else hear their mother saying, “I told you so!”)

Parayre has devoted much of his scholarship and practice to the art and science of strategic decision-making. He is particularly interested in decision-making under conditions of uncertainty. Parayre argues that many of the decision-making tools used by today’s business leaders work best when conditions outside of an organization’s control remain relatively stable. For example, using net present value calculations to help make capital investment decisions assumes that the values we assign to alternatives won’t be affected by disruptive technologies, government regulations or unexpected competition.

In a world characterized by uncertainty, ambiguity and rapid change we should be suspicious of what we accept as immutable knowledge and expertise. Eric Hoffer once said, “In times of change, learners inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” To be a learner is to be skilled at asking questions.

I would argue that the skill of asking better questions is the most robust capability to be developed for leaders hoping to navigate the complexities of an uncertain future.

Let’s say an organization’s leaders are faced with a decision about which human resource information system to purchase. Consider the difference between the questions we have been trained to ask and questions that might help us reduce the risk of missing something important:

Questions from leaders who assume the future will resemble the present

·    What will be the impacts of each system on productivity?

·    Which system includes better implementation support and more responsive service when things go wrong?

·    What are the costs and timelines associated with the change management required to implement the system?

What leaders trained to ask better questions also want to know

·    Which processes should we stop doing before automation makes them harder to discontinue?

·    How will automating our HR systems impact existing social networks? In other words, what benefits of inefficiency will we be losing?

·    How might we design a low-risk experiment to help us better anticipate the impacts of committing to a full systems implementation?

The saying goes at Interaction Associates that when feeling trapped by the uncertainty of a strategic moment, “It’s not knowing what to do that counts. It’s knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do.” When feeling stuck for an answer because things have changed, the ability to formulate a better question will serve you better than revising the way you answer the wrong question.