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Leaders, Stop Trying to Be Heroes

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Hortense le Gentil for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

Credit:  Audrey Shtecinjo/Stocksy

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Imagine an elegant office somewhere in the Upper East Side of New York City. One after the other, top business executives discreetly slip into the comfortable waiting room a few minutes before the door opens. They fear crossing paths with someone they might know. When that happens, both people awkwardly look the other way.

This is the office of a renowned psychotherapist, and most of the business leaders who turn up there would rather keep their visits secret, even though more than one in five CEOs now seek therapy. (Never mind that even Richard Nixon’s psychotherapist pointed out that leaders who seek help in times of stress are courageous and serve interests broader than their own.) Unfortunately, for many business leaders, openly asking for help and exploring their emotions is still too often perceived as a weakness.

For decades, the traditional view was that to be successful, business leaders had to be infallible, unflappable, in control, and fearless. These leaders appeared to be born hero leaders, naturally endowed with supreme intelligence, coming up with brilliant ideas and directives from the mountaintop that lower echelons were then expected to execute.

As an executive coach, I have worked with many such hero leaders. These smart and successful executives are masters at leading with their heads. Yet there is something many of them are now realizing they should probably know but don’t: how to lead with their hearts and souls, too. In short, they don’t know how to be what I call human leaders. This is a problem of global proportions — for the leaders themselves, but also for the people around them, their companies, and by extension, for the world at large.

When I first met Charlie,* the successful CEO of a Fortune 500 industrial company, he felt his role was to run a tight and efficient ship by fixing all problems and issuing directives from the top. He talked more than he listened, often had little patience, and projected unshakable self-confidence. Then the Covid-19 pandemic broke out. The economy tanked and factories had to close. Some employees became sick. Many struggled with isolation and lockdowns, and they became depressed or burned out. As CEO, how could Charlie fix this? There was no playbook for any of it. Suddenly, he had no idea what to do, which scared him. The idea of letting go of his know-it-all façade filled him with anxiety, too.

The pandemic has highlighted what was already becoming clear before the emergence of the virus: that hero leaders are no longer what companies need. The most effective leadership today — at all levels — isn’t about technical expertise and having all the answers. Besides articulating a compelling vision, it’s about being human, showing vulnerability, connecting with people, and being able to unleash their potential.

Why? First, the world has changed. Today’s business environment shifts fast and is increasingly unpredictable. No single person has a foolproof recipe to solve the complex health, environmental, and social crises we’re facing. Second, to give the best of themselves, employees want to feel respected, listened to, and inspired — not like cogs in a soulless machine. They want to be seen, understood, and valued for who they are as individuals. And they want leaders who are human, too, not distant demigods they can’t connect with. So do shareholders.

Today’s business leaders need to be great human leaders. So why do human leaders remain the exception rather than the norm? Because seemingly fearless hero leaders like Charlie are facing one sizable obstacle: their own fear.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Hortense le Gentil is a leading global executive coach and the author of the widely acclaimed Aligned: Connecting Your True Self with the Leader You’re Meant to Be. She helps CEOs and other senior executives around the world be more effective by leading with authenticity and their whole self. She is a 2021 nominee for the Thinkers50 Coaching and Mentoring Award.

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