​The Curse of Heroes and Legends: (Re)Thinking Leadership / Blog

​The Curse of Heroes and Legends: (Re)Thinking Leadership primary image

Laura-Marie Töpfer is a Senior Associate at Macro Advisory Partners LLP and.is currently completing a DPhil in economic geography. She was a member of the 2014-2015 Global Leadership Initiative.


With the downturn of the global economy, growing political divisions and violence on the rise, confidence in our leaders is dwindling. Indeed, 86% of respondents to the World Economic Forum’s Survey on the Global Agenda think that we face a leadership crisis in the world today. So what has happened that we no longer put trust in those guiding the societies we live in?

Dave Dillon, former CEO of the Kroger Co., hit the nail on the head when asked about what leadership means. He replied by asking ‘Is anyone following you?’ This is what leadership is truly about: Followership. It is not about singling out individual qualities and ambitions. Nor is it about the actions of a hero in shining armour. And this is precisely where leadership in the 21st century has failed us. The self-interested pursuit of career objectives, alleged leadership qualities and heroic achievements has given rise to the idea that being a leader equates to being a strongman—someone who is in charge, holds a dominating position in a group and excels in his field. Even the Oxford Dictionary describes a leader as someone who ‘commands a group, organisation or country’.

What this language of strongman leadership closes off is the possibility of imagining leadership as a mind-set to inspire, guide and care for others rather than a fixed set of qualities. In my view, this is the crux of any form of leadership and has been the key reflection guiding the discussions with my fellow group members at the Oxford Global Leadership Initiative. Because practising any form of leadership must start with careful deliberation on what ‘good’ leadership means, whether we can cultivate it or whether some of us are born to be leaders. And the Oxford Global Leadership Initiative has provided just that: A platform to think about these questions together with a group of young people whose national backgrounds are as diverse as their experiences and ideas. Throughout these discussions, there are three key reflections on the importance of character that stuck with me and which I would like to share here:

1. Self-awareness and reflectivity

A good leader requires a profound understanding of and self-reflectivity towards his or her own role, that is, the effective management of the organisation or group he or she serves. What do we mean by 'effective'? At the fundamental level, effective management requires a leader to implement the vision and goals set out by the organisation or group to ensure its existence. Without a vision, a leader cannot provide his followers with a sense of direction that inspires action. Frequently assessing and re-assessing whether one’s own actions are aligned with this vision does not only provide the leader with a clear sense of self-awareness; it also provides an important accountability mechanism to serve the wider group rather than one’s own interests.

2. Commitment to benefit followers

A good leader must be committed to benefit his or her followers. To be clear, the goals of a leader may conflict with the interests of members or followers. The leader thus faces a dilemma: Providing benefits to followers such as employees enhances the satisfaction and sense of belonging within an organisation, which increases its effectiveness. Yet, at the same time such benefits may conflict with wider targets of an organisation such as minimising production costs in a firm. However, rather than being at odds, a good leader recognises that both dimensions require a state of equilibrium. In other words, s/he manages to balance the objectives of the organisation with the needs of followers. Without this balance, a leader cannot acquire legitimacy through support from his followers, which is the basic condition for leadership.

3. ‘Connected’ leadership: Sharing is caring

Can the CEO of the Internet please stand up? Tough call, there is no such person. The fact that new media technologies, and the vast social networks embedded in them, cannot be easily controlled clarifies that strongman leadership is out-dated. A good leader has the ability to adapt to these changing circumstances of an increasingly networked world. This starts with the realisation that adaptation is not the result of forcing or commanding change at all costs; it happens through influencing and relationship building. This requires maintaining effective cooperative relationships across boundaries within a group or an organization and between an organization and the wider community. In other words, good leadership in a networked world requires understanding and relating to what drives others. Creating web discussion groups for employees and sharing ideas on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook is thus not wasted energy in the life of the busy leader; on the contrary, it signals that a leader cares about staying in sync with employees and the wider community. This has a doubly beneficial effect: The leader is connected to the concerns and motivation of his or her followers, which in turn, strengthens their bond of identification with the group or organization.

In sum, it becomes clear that old leadership models of lonely heroes and legends no longer apply; instead, we must rethink the concept from the vantage point of followership. This provides the very fundament for cultivating reflective, committed and connected individuals that can lead the societies we live in. Because there is a distinction between ‘leaders’ and ‘those who lead’. Leaders hold a position of power or authority but those who lead can inspire us. Whether they are individuals or organisations, we follow those who lead not because we have to but because we want to. It is those who combine the aforementioned traits—self-reflectivity, commitment and connectivity—who have the ability to lead those around them or find others who inspire them.


This article has also appeared in the business section of the Huffington Post, where you can also read other blog posts by Laura-Marie.

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