No more heroes…? Leading engagement

Toy StoryDoug Parkin, programme director muses on whether our modern aversion to heroes means we are losing some ‘heroic’ qualities.

The “hero leader” has become an unpopular concept. The idea of a charismatic leader swooping in to solve an organisation’s problems, with a way of seeing things that no one else possesses, does not sit well with contemporary ideas of participation, empowerment and collaboration.

Current theories of leadership point us towards the servant leader, the quiet leader, the collaborative leader and the person who leads from behind. In complex organisational environments, in which success is multidimensional and a rich diversity of professional groups must work together, these participative approaches feel both attractive and appropriate.

In my work as a developer I have espoused and promoted them and will continue to do so for their merits are great in this age of accelerating change.  But does our modern aversion to heroes risk throwing out some important heroic qualities – the ability to appeal to the spirit, to generate interest and connectedness, and to create trust through courage?  Worse, are we making those qualities feel out of bounds?

Appealing to the spirit

Engagement is not merely an intellectual process and, when it is, it is likely to be short-lived.  People engage through their spirit as much as for intellectual or rational reasons, and the human spirit is both elusive and ineffable.  Some would say it should also be off-limits in a work context. But engaging the spirit is a heroic quality precisely because it is not “ordinary”.

The spirit is there wherever we find people engaged beyond mere contractual limits; it is either inspired by the work that we do and why we do it or is not. Inspired people are those who have invested their spirit in a cause, activity or undertaking. But it is difficult to be inspired when feeling hurt and, as most of us know, organisational change can cause a lot of pain and hurt, whether or not it is rational. And so, leading change is about both stopping the hurt and inspiring the heart.

Generating interest and connectedness

It is hard to be engaged by something that doesn’t interest you. Capturing people’s interest involves being interested in people, and that means caring enough to really listen to them.

John Lasseter the co-founder of Pixar says that “no amount of technology will make a bad story good”.  And Andrew Stanton, the lead writer for Pixar’s Toy Story trilogy and WALL-E, has the mantra “make me care” which he applies to storytelling.  We could equally apply it to leadership.  It is the “make me care” element that connects people to the organisation and the need for change.  And it is invariably human stories that make people care and inspires them to connect.  Stories that show a positive difference in the world that others want to write themselves into as the future unfolds – this is true vision.

But interest is not about manipulation.  Any successful negotiator knows that step one is to listen, step two is to find a connection and step three is to build a relationship around that connection. Leaders need to build narratives that are both sincere and sustainable.

Creating trust through courage

Trust walks in but rides away” is a great expression. Showing conviction is easy, maintaining conviction is hard, and holding on to conviction in the face of discouragement, adversity and pain requires courage – sometimes great courage.  But it is nevertheless this clarity and consistency that builds trust.  And, without trust, teams and organisations unravel: “trust is the emotional glue that binds followers and leaders together” (Bennis and Nanus, 1985).

One of the chief forms of courage that leaders can demonstrate – and this is another heroic quality – is honest communication. It is a challenge to engage with something that doesn’t make sense to you, or that requires a considerable act of faith and so connecting people with change involves, above all else, strong, clear and honest communication.

For engagement to occur, the project, initiative or transformation process has to make sense in terms that are meaningful to those involved.  They have to see the need, feel the urgency and believe in the vision. If there is a lack of communication and sense making, other voices will fill the void, perhaps with narratives that set a very different agenda to the one needed.  And so the communication, courageous in the first instance, also needs to be consistent and enduring. Trust will quickly “ride away” if the message about change keeps changing.

 “The land of the possible” is a happier place to be

Engagement – a spirited group of people with a shared purpose and/or interest – is about energy: the energy to connect, to commit and to contribute.  Each of us, individually and collectively, has a wide range of energy buttons waiting to be pressed and inspired, and while it is not necessarily the case that leaders can press them for us, they can certainly strive to create the conditions in which we start to press them for ourselves: through trust, through connectedness, through courageous communication and through stories and images that appeal to our spirit.

Above all else, what these heroic qualities enable leaders to achieve is moving people from the “land of the not possible” to the “land of the possible”.  This is not just important for organisational success and resilience in the face of change, but also because the “land of the possible” is simply a happier place to be.


Doug Parkin the programme director for the Preparing for Senior Strategic Leadership programme at the Leadership Foundation. He also runs a number of bespoke and core programmes, in addition to international projects. 

The next Preparing for Senior Strategic Leadership takes place in Greater London in November.

PSSL 28
Application Deadline: 10 November
Module 1: Wednesday 22 – Thursday 23 November
Module 2: Tuesday 30 – Wednesday 31 January
Location: Greater London

More Reading: The Heart of Change, Kotter & Cohen, 2002