Letting Others Lead: Debunking the Lone Hero Myth

This is a guest post by Peter Dickens from Tyndale Leadership Centre in Toronto. Peter is passionate about leadership and change. He helps people and organizations that serve others to revitalize their leadership and ministry. Peter blogs at Rethink Leadership. Follow Peter on Twitter.

“We have lots of problems in this place: big and small. I can’t possibly recognize them, let alone solve them. Only you can and that’s why you are here. You have an opportunity, regardless of formal role, to step up and be a leader – and please know you have my full support.”

When I used to lead a leadership program for teams of staff in the healthcare sector, this was the blunt confession the CEO would give to each new wave of participants. For the nurses and porters who had never been given that kind of opportunity or support, it was heady stuff. Yet little by little, the culture in that large hospital was slowly transformed by people willing to step up.

Ever since then I’ve been convinced that leaders need to embrace a much more inclusive and distributed mindset when it comes to leading large, complex organizations. Let me explain what I mean.

Whether in movies, books, or popular folklore, we all love stories of the “lone hero.” He or she is the one who courageously takes charge in a moment of crisis and independently makes decisions that save the world.

The myth of the lone hero is so prevalent that it even affects our view of leadership.

For example, we often think of Martin Luther King Jr. as the “lone hero” of the civil rights movement. But what would have happened if nobody had the courage to act? Anyone within earshot of Dr. King’s riveting speeches could have just said, “That message was no doubt encouraging, but I’m not risking my life or my family’s safety for a dream that might take generations to realize.”

As the saying goes, a leader with no followers is just a crazy person going for a walk.

Great leadership isn’t a solo act; it is inclusive. The most effective form of leadership makes leadership opportunities available to all, and draws on the best of each of them. Just as Dr. King sparked thousands of acts of leadership by drawing tens of thousands of people around a common dream, so we can be a catalyst for powerful change to emerge in our organization.

It all starts when we draw people of diverse cultures, ages and personalities around a common purpose.

As my old mentor, Dick Couto once said, “Any action, no matter how small, in pursuit of shared values and purpose is an act of leadership.”

We may not see ourselves as control freaks, yet letting go of control and trusting in the abilities of others can be scary. When much is at stake, it’s tempting to adopt an attitude that insists, “If you want something done right, do it yourself.”

Despite what our “lone hero” culture might tell us, often the most courageous thing we can do in leadership is loosen the controls and give people the opportunity to lead. It means we have to allow people to try, fail, learn and try again.

Risky as it seems, failing to let others lead means we take the greater risk of letting them down instead. It means remaining bound by our ego and by our fears. This is a common trap that causes us to overburden ourselves far beyond the scope of our role.

I once had a hospital client tell me they wanted to develop 1,001 leaders. The 1,000 represented leadership as a plural phenomenon, while the “1” represented the power of an individual to make a difference.

Highly effective leaders recognize the incredible potential of diversity united under a common purpose. And they recognize the essential role of the leader is not to have all the answers and call all the shots, but to give their full support to the team.