Heroic Leadership. #26 in a Series on Leadership
Glenn Bassett, Ph.D.
Leadership in battle is vested with an almost romantic quality. The supreme tacticians of warfare can stand out of harm’s immediate way, but they must depend on others who can inspire warriors to high duty. Leading a corps of warriors into the maelstrom of potential death and injury requires heroism. Those leaders on the front lines of battle share all the risks of direct combat with those they lead. They must offer an example of courage and commitment. They do their sworn duty. Duty is a special calling, one that usually must be instilled within a highly cohesive social context. It becomes a commitment to the ideals of a group or culture. It demands faithful performance of duty in the face of mortal danger. Soldiers fight for family and country, committed to their cultural heritage. Heroic leadership in battle merits the Nation’s highest honors.
Battle, though, is not the only form of mortal risk. There are other dutiful missions that call for leadership in the face of mortal risk. Police engage possible dangers out of commitment to the larger ideal of public safety and security. Astronauts accept their risky missions as their commitment to making a higher contribution to science and human progress. Physicians and nurses accept the risk of mortal disease when they care for the mortally ill during an epidemic of disease. Leadership in these circumstances is without regard to personal safety or self-interest. Leadership of this quality is also heroic.
Heroic leadership in an organizational setting is the willingness to take action or make recommendations that are needed but may be unpopular or risky. This kind of heroic leader is willing to invest personal social capital in action that can lead to severe criticism or loss of position. The leader who is faced with the dilemma of doing what is right or doing what is politically safe can be heroic in that choice. The whistle blower who calls out fraud or misconduct on the part of others in the organization risks retaliation in the service of truth. The engineer is heroic who challenges more senior members of his group by calling out flaws in equipment design. The teacher who reports possible child abuse by a popular colleague may risk his/her job or even personal safety. The father who turns his child over to authorities for theft or hit-and-run accepts the anguish it will bring. A leader does not necessarily act first in self-interest. He/she acts in the greater interest. Heroes act for the benefit of all, not just in self-interest.
Leadership in its highest form always calls for action that serves the greater interest whether the consequences of that action are dire or not. Leadership, inherently, is action to advance the greater interests of those who are led and those served. When heroism is called for, it is forthcoming. Leadership action that is invested with significant personal risk is a special category all its own. Risk of life, risk of career, risk of reputation, are undertaken rather than avoided by the leader who is imbued with a sense of duty to the greater good. That is heroic leadership.