Leaders, Stop Trying to Be Heroes

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. 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. Seemingly fearless hero leaders are facing one sizable obstacle: their own fear. The author presents three steps leaders can take on their journeys from hero leader to human leader.

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.

The Fear of Being Human

Fear is part of the human condition — everyone is afraid of something. Leaders, no matter how much they would have us believe otherwise, are no exception. When thinking about human leadership, many executives who spent their careers striving to be hero leaders feel like the ground under their feet is no longer solid. “I was educated and trained to never show my feelings and vulnerability at work,” one CEO recently told me. “Now you’re telling me I have to? This is a real revolution.” Their fear typically manifests in three ways:

The Fear of Connecting with Their Own Emotions

For rational leaders used to flexing their analytical side, looking deep within themselves can be intimidating, even dangerous. What are they going to find? Self-exploration might upset the applecart. Even more frightening, exposing their true selves might change how others see them. What if they appear weak? What if they lose control, authority, respect, and love?

The Fear of Chaos

Many leaders believe that if everyone starts relating to their colleagues on a more personal level, it might unleash a tsunami of group hugs and kumbayas, which will detract from actual work. “Emotions do not belong in the office,” one senior executive told me. How will they steer the ship if their role is no longer to fix all problems? What will happen when they let go of control? That thought leaves many of my clients feeling like trapeze artists without a safety net.

The Fear of Failing

Many leaders feel they don’t know how to handle emotions at work — their own or others’. “What if someone on my team tells me they’ve just lost a parent or a spouse to Covid?” a client asked me. “Or if someone starts crying? I have no idea what to do or what to say!” Effectively leading with heart and soul takes skills and approaches leaders used to relying on their left brains may not have yet. Even worse, these leaders who are used to success fear they could fail spectacularly. “I’ve been successful leading the old way,” an executive told me. “I like the idea of becoming this new type of leader, but can I be as successful?”

Many executives wonder how they can become human leaders. In my experience, the journey from hero leader to human leader involves the following three steps.

Identify Your Mind Traps

The fear of becoming a human leader is rooted in old beliefs and expectations — what I call mind traps. All of us carry within us many different voices that have shaped how we view ourselves, others, and the world, as well as how we behave. These are the voices of others — our parents or teachers, for example — but also collective beliefs, stereotypes, and standards from our environment, like religious or social values. These voices shape not only our perspective but sometimes, especially when associated with traumatic events, even our brain structure.

Charlie’s mind trap was to associate any knowledge gap or whiff of emotion with epic failure. He had initially forgotten what the root of his mind trap was. But he later remembered that, when he was in business school, he had to make a presentation. He was so nervous that he fumbled. In front of his fellow students, his professor openly ridiculed Charlie’s obvious nerves and poor delivery. He told the audience that Charlie would never be successful in business unless he projected confidence and expertise and set his emotions aside. Charlie was mortified and internalized his professor’s words.

Most of us are suffering from mind traps, visible or invisible, that are holding us back by making us afraid to change. The good news is we can break free of them.

Make a Mind Shift

Eliminating mind traps takes courage: the courage to challenge our old beliefs, to listen to ourselves rather than to others’ expectations, to question what we’ve assumed is true, and to face our fear of the unknown through a mind shift. No mind shift is possible until, as psychologist Susan Jeffers put it, you “feel the fear…and do it anyway.” Through this mind shift, we can change our perspective and free ourselves, and in doing so unlock our ability to become human leaders.

How do we create a mind shift? Once we identify the specific mind trap holding us back, we can challenge it through simple yet powerful questions:

  • Whose voice is it?
  • Is it true or relevant?
  • Am I ready to let go?

We often cannot think our way out of mind traps. So to explore these questions in depth, we must instead bypass the logical   and analytical parts of our brains — in short, our left brains — to unravel them. We must reprogram our own operating systems by using appropriate tools relying on visualizations and storytelling to help us connect with our right brains. This is where enlisting the help of a trusted, wise, and empathetic ally — whether a friend, mentor, or coach — is essential.

After working through those questions, Charlie realized that his professor’s words had profoundly shaped his behavior for many years. Yet he was no longer a young and vulnerable student, and he could question that position and choose to disagree. Once he understood that his professor’s views of leadership did not align with who he truly was, Charlie was ready to change his perspective and approach.

Understanding the mind traps that hold us back and going through the mind shift needed to set us free are the two first steps. Then comes the third and final step.

Unleash Your Leadership Superpowers Through Mind Build

Once you’ve unraveled your problematic mind trap, you need to build and anchor a new perspective that propels you forward — a mind build. It means first reimagining freely who you can be, then translating that into action. This new perspective must grow deep and strong roots so you avoid falling back to old ways of thinking and doing. Just like a muscle, you must exercise and strengthen your new beliefs and mindset. You also need to incorporate them into how you act and lead. New ways of thinking, being, and doing take learning and practice.

To support my clients’ mind builds, I rely on tools that release their powers of imagination and visualization. For example, I had Charlie imagine he was in a tug-of-war with his professor, each of them pulling in opposite directions on either end of a rope. Then I asked Charlie to visualize letting go of his end of the rope. What happened to his professor? He fell backward. Then Charlie imagined having a dialogue, thanking his professor for what he taught him, but telling him that he now had to go his own way. Then he visualized actually walking away. This is how Charlie was able to break free of his professor’s shadow. He then imagined himself in the future as a successful human leader and considered the following questions: How was he behaving? How were employees responding? How was he feeling? What was his life like?

Setting up a routine of daily practice is also essential to a mind build. I find Marshall Goldsmith’s practice of daily questions, for example, remarkably effective: Write down a number of behaviors and actions that reflect the human leader you want to be, and, at the end of each day, ask yourself whether you’ve done your best to behave and act accordingly. This immediately reminds you of what is important so you don’t get lost in the busyness of daily life. Over time, you’ll create new habits. You’ll get used to thinking, doing, and leading differently, and your new perspective will become second nature. But this takes consistent practice. It requires checking in with yourself every day, assessing whether you’re still on the right path, and if not, making a plan to get back on it.

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The journey from mind trap to mind shift and mind build has a profound impact on those who undertake it, unleashing deep and lasting transformation first within themselves, and then in the way they lead.

So, what of Charlie? After we identified his mind trap and replaced it with a new perspective, he started looking at his role — and himself — completely differently. He gradually learned how to really listen and to be comfortable relating to employees on a more personal and authentic level. He became able to admit when he didn’t know the answer to something. He was open about the challenges his company faced, but also shared his confidence that he and his employees could navigate them together. He became a human leader who successfully steered employees and the company through the worst of the Covid crisis and its economic fallout. He later became the CEO of an even larger company.

Human leaders make a profound and lasting difference in the lives of people around them, the organizations they lead, and the world. This journey from mind trap to mind shift and mind build is what separates yesterday’s leaders from those who can successfully navigate today’s and tomorrow’s challenges. You too can unlock your inner human leader and shine your light brighter into the world.

* Real names have been changed.

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