Heroic Leadership

Heroic Leadership.  #26 in a Series on Leadership
Glenn Bassett, Ph.D.
Copyright 2015

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.


Institutional Leaders and the Power Factor

Institutional Leaders and the Power Factor –  #25 in a Series on Leadership
Glenn Bassett, Ph.D.

The effect of possessed power on attribution of leadership can be great.  Power is not merely or necessarily a matter of assigned authority.  Authority is the right to employ penalties and incentives to direct action.  Power is the custody and application of resources that can change broader social priorities.  The authority over allocation of social and economic resources that the CEO of a major corporation wields is more like an atomic reactor than it is a carrot and stick.  The power of a state’s governor or the President of a nation is potentially awesome.  When not held in check by constitutional or lawful restraint, it can become absolute, enveloping everything in its path.

It is common for many observers to attribute leadership qualities to those in power merely because they are in power.  A certain amount of respectful formality goes with many elected offices.  Incumbents are routinely addressed as “The Honorable”, not necessarily because they are always honorable but because they have position.  Corporate CEOs create major consternation and fawning when they visit.  When looking into activities in the real workplace they may need to go undercover to cancel the effect of their position power.  Generals who visit the troops in the field can be an overwhelming presence.  Presidents who visit their constituents require advance teams and full time guards to protect them, even from their most eager supporters.

Unless we are willing to cheapen the notion of leadership by passively accepting power as the equivalent of leadership, we must place some qualifications on what we want to see in a powerful boss or politician that would qualify him/her as a leader.  The core of our requirement would likely be something like successful use of that power to achieve something genuinely significant. Let’s look at a couple of examples from the real world.

In my role as a General Electric corporate staffer I played a small part in a large scale research project conducted in concert with other major corporations.  This was the Profit Impact of Market Share, or PIMS project, subsequently published in book form by Robert Buzzell and Bradley Gale under the title “The PIMS Principle”.  This “principle” asserts that profitability is directly and largely correlated with market share.  A business that enjoys first or second place in market share will be consistently profitable.  At lower levels of market share, profitability can be low or inconsistent.

Subsequently, Jack Welsh, an aggressive component manager, was appointed CEO of GE.  Corporate staff acquainted him with the PIMs Principle, and Jack aggressively implemented it.  GE was and is a conglomerate.  Though it has long maintained its reputation as an engineering company, it is a mixture of various businesses that had grown in place more opportunistically than through planning.  Welsh summarily redirected resources to those businesses that enjoyed either first or second place in their respective market, and sold off or closed down those that were not.  Managers of businesses  that were dumped complained that with more resources they would have attained first or second place share.  Nevertheless, the effect on corporate profitability was soon clear.  Jack Welsh was hailed as a great leader of industry by profit obsessed financial markets.

Lyndon Baines Johnson, thrust into the Presidency of the United States by the assassination of John Kennedy, rode the crest of social liberality set free by that event to enact the most sweeping liberal programs since the era of FDR.  For his efforts he is credited as a great political leader by some, decried as just a ruthless politician by others.  In truth, LBJ was a superb politician.  He knew exactly which politicians to reward and penalize to get the vote he wanted.  One might reasonably question, though, whether he was a leader or just a very effective political boss.

Barak Obama, our current President, has been called a failure in that position by liberals and conservatives alike.  Liberals are unhappy that he has not accomplished enough of the liberal agenda.  Conservatives, unwilling to accept him even as President, reject him as a failed leader whose accomplishments are unworthy.  Political agenda establishes what is, and what is not, leadership.

Power, like authority, muddles the definition of leadership.  It becomes a matter of politics and perhaps even ethics, as to what is and is not leadership.  Ascribing leadership qualities to anyone who is in a position of power is a potentially cheap call.  Much of what might be called leadership may merely be enactment of programs or decisions that arise from within the institution.  Our definition of leadership would best continue to require that achievement has arisen wholly out of the leader’s personal influence.  Unfortunately, such influence in political or economic matters may be illusory.  Real leadership influence may reside only in the electorate or in markets.  We should perhaps assume that powerful CEOs and politicians will rarely qualify as leaders themselves.  At their best they can only be competent in the performance of their assigned roles as managers and political operatives.

Leadership emerges in response to shared risk and uncertainty

Leadership emerges in response to shared risk and uncertainty.   #24 in a series on Leadership

Leadership opportunity is found in circumstances of shared risk or uncertainty. When “someone needs to step up and take responsibility”, those who are sufficiently prepared and bold can seize the occasion to take on the role of leadership.  Depending on the level of personal risk involved in being the leader, this opportunity can be anywhere from merely pro forma” getting the job done” to highly challenging, even personally dangerous.

The leader who takes a military platoon into the maelstrom of battle faces real danger. This is heroic leadership that demonstrates for the emulation of others full acceptance of the terrible risk involved.  Ordinary occasions for leadership may carry some element of risk with respect to diminished social esteem or economic loss in the event of failure.  The presence of nearly any degree of risk, indeed, confers some quality of heroism to the act of leadership.  The idea of leading and being a leader easily takes on the character of courage and resolution in the face of potential failure.  The boss cannot be a leader when he/she invokes the shield of formal authority to shift blame for failure to those whose work is overseen.  Leaders accept and meet the risk.

Much leadership literature seems to focus on the heroic aspect of leading. Being a hero in difficult circumstances may, in fact, be the easier route to taking on the mantle of leadership.  As long as the extent of risk involved is not seriously miscalculated, opportunity for leadership in the face of risk may be a gift to the aspirant leader.  But accepting leadership without adequate appreciation of the extent of risk may, instead, be poor leadership that exposes leader and followers alike to personal catastrophe.  Risk and uncertainty are special circumstances that call for cautious judgment and measured response.  Running headlong into disaster can be the final act of heroism for all involved.

The better lesson from consideration of heroic leadership may be that to be a leader, one must consistently, perhaps always, provide the appropriate example of action, attitude and judgment required of the circumstances at hand. A leader portrays the path of action that is to be followed by others.  A leader clearly sets the correct priorities, establishes the goals to be achieved and measures progress.

Becoming a good leader in the face of risk and uncertainty starts with being a good manager of people and resources. Heroism without good management skills is likely to be mere grandstanding.   An argument can still be made, though, that leadership is more than good managing.  The technical skills that get good quality and cost results from a team’s performance are often not enough to enlist full commitment of followers.  Leadership is built on a foundation of personal social skill and sensitivity that allows the leader to know his/her followers as individuals with personal hopes and aspirations.  A leader understands that followers are social creatures who respond to social outcomes and rewards.  A leader appreciates that followers want to work out their achievements as team members in task roles that are meaningful and challenging.  Leaders make it possible for followers to follow without ever noticing that they are followers.

The Delicate Practice of Authority in Use

The Delicate Practice of Leadership Authority In Use  –  #23 in a Series on Leadership
Glenn Bassett, Ph.D.
Copyright 2014


There is never leadership without some kind of authority as its foundation.  Some leadership arises entirely out of the authority of influence.   The capacity to influence the actions of others comes from any of a number of sources.  There is potential for influence in experience, in personal expertise, in the demonstration of strong character, in kindness or generosity, or from inspirational oratory.  These kinds of influence can be entirely personal  in quality, wholly without formality of role or legitimately assigned authority.

Leadership can and does emerge in the face of confusion or crisis. On the other hand, formal managerial leadership is founded on formal authority and  is assigned with the expectation that if no other source of influence does the job, it may be necessary and appropriate to employ rewards, incentives or penalties to bring about compliance with the manager’s will.  The boss has the power to “motivate” performance.

Power and authority, unfortunately, are the blunt instruments of behavioral control.  As such they are appropriate and useful only when, absent personal ability or willingness to perform, a minimum of closely monitored performance is acceptable, and the long term memory of its use is not likely to be a liability.  Long term liability arising out of the boss’ use of authority is hard to avoid.  Subjection to power and authority disempowers and demeans.   It invokes defense, defiance, and distress.  There are consequences to it use.  Anyone who has been subjected to performance under threat of punishment knows the humiliation that goes with that experience.

The act of imposing one’s will on another can occur in a variety of circumstances.  Subjection to the boss’ implied threat of downgrade or firing is only one.  Every occasion of encounter with law enforcement is another.  Military action in warfare is an extreme example of enforcement of will where the outcome is measured in lives lost.  People who have had a  bad encounter with a tough boss are likely to hate bosses.  Those who have been abruptly confronted by police may dislike police.  Entire cultures have been known to maintain bitterness across generations and centuries toward their adversaries in former wars.

An earlier post in this series proposed the inevitability of the benevolent autocrat to the emergence of leadership in circumstances of formal authority relationships.  The boss must at one time or another speak and act with authority.  The question then is whether it is possible to attenuate or avoid the undesired consequences of power employed.  I would maintain it can always be attenuated, often avoided if one understands the rules of power application.  There are four:

The first rule is to use the absolute minimum level of power required.  It is easy for the inexperienced or arrogant to elect “making an example” for others by taking “firm” action.  The assumption behind this strategy is that if the boss (or the police, or the nation) can inspire enough fear, there will be fewer occasions when their will is tested.  While this may seem like an efficient strategy for avoiding confrontation, it will likely be taken as bullying by the target of power application.  The near certain response will be defense, defiance and distress.  Effective power use requires that only enough be used to make one’s point.

The second rule is to be sure you understand the problem.  Responding to your requirements may be blocked by something you or others in authority have done, something important or fundamental  that you have forgotten, or simple inability of the individual to know how to respond appropriately.

Often this will not be discovered until the leader has dropped the power bomb.  This invokes the third rule.  Never try to evade or explain away any error of judgment or mistake in use of power.   Own up to every slip-up instantly and apologize fully.  The mark of a leader is that he/she takes full responsibility for his/her mistakes.  Admission of error is feared by many to be admission of weakness that will invite test of authority.  Contrarily, it is evasion of responsibility that speaks to weakness.  Strength is shown in ownership of responsibility, especially so for blunders in use of institutional power.

The fourth rule is never raise the level of power invoked if the first attempt at influence has failed.  Like attempting to drive a car out of the mud, the instinctive response will be to apply still more power to the wheels.  This only cuts the mud ruts deeper and makes the tires slicker as they heat up.  The parallels of this simple analogy are hard to miss.  Raising the level of power only increases defense, defiance and anger.   The better approach is to simply ask for an explanation of failure to respond.  This can open the door to give and take that allows the manager to explain his/her position and seek out voluntary accommodation.   Failure of minimal power to bring about compliance to the manager’s will requires improved understanding of the failure, not more application of authority.

Assigned authority is a loaded weapon.  It must never be invoked without thoughtful consideration of the possible consequences and costs.  A leader never shoots first and asks questions after.

“Leader” is an adjective

“Leader” is an Adjective! – #22 in a Series on Leadership
Glenn Bassett, Ph.D
Copyright, 2014

Is there, as a question of fact, any such thing as a leader? Is there really any clear way to differentiate a leader from a boss, a manager, supervisor, or anyone with authority? It has been argued earlier that the one quality that distinguishes a leader is the capacity to exercise influence without the aid of power or incentive. A leader is followed because he/she is a leader. The circularity of such argument is uncomfortable and unmistakable. Leadership arises out of the magic of influence. Is this the best we can do at defining a leader and the notion of leadership?
Differentiation of manager or boss with a leader is one of the most popular threads in Linked-In discussion groups like HBR or Leadership Think Tank. New threads are spawned weekly that ask discussants to weigh in describing their sense of the difference. Literally thousands of comments have addressed the issue, and scores of attempts made at defining these terms. In crude tabularized form these are among the most frequently offered descriptors:

Charismatic, Influential, Authentic, Credible,
Inspirational, Transparent, Has Integrity, Is a Role Model,
Passionate, Dynamic, Empathic, Compassionate,
Trustworthy, Persistent, Nurturing, Productive,
Effective, Disciplined, Strategist, Creative,
Fair, Enabler, Empowering, Insightful,
Results Oriented, Stamina, Self-Aware, Humble,
Self-Critical, Tenacious, Accountable

Any of these terms might easily be applied to a manager, supervisor or boss, so what is it about them that makes leadership distinguishable? A good answer might be that they are all worthy qualities in anyone, but particularly so in one who exercises dominance and control over others. To be accepted as a leader, those who would shape the actions, and thus the fate of others, must be humane and accepted for their willingness to act in everyone’s best interest. The issue at core in defining a leader is the manner in which domination and control are exercised. Domination and control can, at times, transmute into leadership where it is experienced as wholly comfortable and acceptable. There is thus no such thing as a leader or leadership, only the potential for a shift in the quality of a follower’s experience when working within a power context. Leadership is the experience of dominance and control where the follower’s needs and concerns are fully accommodated. Leadership is authority without authority.

The concept of leadership is what psycholinguistics label an essence. Essences are ideas abstracted from experience that have no clearly tangible reference in fact. The essence of leadership is found in the experience of being dominated, of experiencing how control is exercised over one’s actions and maybe even beliefs. A leader is perceived to act for the benefit of all. A manager or boss is seen to act on behalf of self-interest or in response to some higher level of domination without concern for the impact on the individual follower. That impact can be moderated by enacting those leadership qualities that soften the bluntness of authority.

Every follower will experience leadership through a very personal lens. The individual’s tolerance for domination and control may raise or lower the threshold of the leadership experience. Full commitment of an institutional nature may allow acceptance of unadorned domination and control as leadership. Overcoming long standing skepticism or cynicism, at the other end of the scale, may demand extraordinary sensitivity on the part of leadership. Every definition of a leader is personal. “Leader” is an adjective.

The Focused Leader

The Focused Leader   –  #21 in a series on leadership
Glenn Bassett, Ph.D.
Copyright, 2014

Leaders persist through obstacles and overcome barriers.  Leadership is about goals and purposes .  A leader focuses all effort on those goals and purposes.  It is all about achieving results.  Leaders are results obsessive.

In this regard, there is little difference between leading and doing a competent job of managing people and resources.  Nonetheless, that difference can be very important.  Leadership builds on managerial competence to rise to another level – that of vision and inspiration.  This is no minor change in quality of managerial performance.  It is the difference between followers who are committed to both the leader and objectives versus those who are merely doing their jobs.  It is the difference between working for a paycheck and working for a purpose.  It is the difference between motivation by incentives as opposed to accepting personal ownership of goals.

Leadership focus demands that the manager do his/her job with an open mind to discover the most effective ways of engaging team members as committed co-workers.  Commitment is a personal, emotional event that requires confidence in the character and integrity of the manager.  Confidence is built through caring and consistency.  The move to commitment further requires empowerment of the follower to take responsibility for pursuit of goals and purposes.  Team members are, by definition, self-managed.  They are free to search out or invent the best way to achieve shared goals.

Leadership, contrasted with managing, does not require established job structure.  Commitment to goals implies invention of the best and most effective job structure for the purposes at hand.  Improvements in work method that result in lower cost or greater efficiency of effort are translated into increased productivity.  They are not concealed to allow work effort to be reduced and the job made less demanding.  Added commitments are taken on instead.   Jobs do not have to be time studied or structured formally.  Problems of pay equity that arise from changed job structure are recognized and dealt with openly.  Leadership means championing the best interests of everyone involved in the enterprise.

Managing involves applying the best practices available for organizing work and measuring performance.  Leadership demands a mutual commitment to self-management and evaluation within a framework of shared goals and purposes.  Managers do a job.  Leaders pursue a mission.

Leadership is a quality of mind and personal character, not just for the leader but also for followers.   It cannot be contrived or enacted, but it can be nurtured.