4 myths about "heroic leadership"

Peter Drucker

"Heroic leadership" may not be what you think. It’s not about leaders running around shouting orders or leaders simply ensuring obedience with no participation of those led.

It all started in 1978 when historian James MacGregor Burns published his Pulitzer Prize winning book, Leadership. In it he classified leadership into categories of transactional and transforming types.

Transforming leadership was the preferred process in that it was more potent, engaged the full person of the follower, and leaders and followers stimulated each other to advance followers into leaders and might even convert leaders into moral agents.


What kind of leader are you?

The transforming approach clearly has much to recommend it. These include significant positive change in people and organizations, changes in perceptions and values, and changes in the expectations and aspirations of those led. Most importantly, it is differentiated from transactional leadership in that it is not based on an exchange relationship like carrot versus stick, but on the leader's personality, traits and ability to create change through example, articulation of a vision, goals, and tasks. Transforming leaders are idealized because they are not focused on benefits to self, but on benefits for the organization, its members, and those they serve.

Burns also introduced the concept of Heroic Leadership. Unfortunately, perhaps misled by a misunderstanding of what the name represented, some have corrupted Burns’ concept such that it has become a representative of transactional types (the type Burns described as limiting) and for much that has been wrong about leadership in the past.

Someone even thought up a "Post-Heroic Leadership" in which corporations and other organizations should now supposedly operate and four so called "facts" are now accepted by many as why Heroic Leadership is wrong. Peter Drucker, "The Father of Modern Management often proclaimed, "what everybody knows is usually wrong." Thus it is that when you understand what Heroic Leadership really is, rather than shun it, you’ll probably agree that it is a concept that all leaders should embrace and practice. First, the myths.

Myth 1: Heroic Leadership is a Form of Transactional Leadership

Not true. Author Burns separated transforming leadership into four subcategories: intellectual, reform, revolutionary, and heroic. That’s where the term originated. Burns made other claims about the Heroic Leader, but basically Heroic Leadership was described as a relationship between leader and follower in which followers placed great faith in the leader’s ability to overcome obstacles and crises. Nothing wrong so far, right? Moreover, Burns defined Heroic Leadership as a form of transformational leadership, not transactional leadership. It has nothing to do with use of "the carrot or the stick" which is the exchange relationship that is probably the most representative technique of transactional leadership. So the first myth is that Heroic Leadership is transactional. It’s not, it’s transforming.

Myth 2: Heroic Leadership is Non-Participative

Perhaps because of the first myth, some see Heroic Leadership as necessarily Theory X (authoritarian), as opposed to Theory Y and the preferred participative style. That’s a myth also.

Participative Management or Participative Leadership began with Douglas McGregor and Rensis Likert, both in the late 1950s and early 1960s. McGregor defined Theory X and Theory Y.

But here’s an amazing fact pointed out by Drucker: Theory Y was NOT even the preferred style. McGregor thought that either Theory X or Theory Y might be preferred depending on the situation. However, that little known fact from McGregor’s book is germane to the myth, because Heroic Leadership says nothing about participative or non-participative styles. It can be either. A Heroic Leader may well use a participative style, and many Heroic Leaders do.

Myth 3: A Heroic Leader Operates in a "Command and Control" Hierarchy

Some claim that the Heroic Leader operates in a traditional hierarchy with "a traditional command, control, and reporting structure." Meanwhile, the new way is a flat reporting structure with individuals more or less independent.

The term "command and control" is somewhat misleading in a leadership context. "Command and control" is a military term. Its official definition in the United States is "… the exercise of authority and direction by a properly designated commander over assigned and attached forces in the accomplishment of a mission." It refers to a military commander’s authority to have his legal orders obeyed.

However legal authority is not leadership. Organizational leaders in corporations have similar authority. However, among non-military laymen the term "command and control" leadership has come to mean a leader who leads by simply giving orders and ensuring their obedience. In common usage it refers to a leader who relies heavily on his authority in a multi-level chain of command. That’s supposed to be Heroic Leadership as opposed to "Post Heroic Leadership" which is flat without levels or a "span of control."

Now this may be like a symphony conductor, a surgeon with an operating team, and a sports team captain, among others obviously do not operate in a traditional hierarchy, since their reporting structure is flat and there is only one level of management with no middle managers.

We have to say that Heroic Leaders may or may not be part of a traditional hierarchy.

So this is a half-myth. A Heroic Leader may operate within a hierarchical reporting structure, but so may a "Post-Heroic" Leader. Both probably work in a "command and control structure" with formal authority. That is except for ad hoc leaders which arise with no prior planning or organization, say a leader when there is an automobile accident with neither paramedics nor police on the scene, Heroic or Post Heroic, authoritarian or participative, all may have some sort of authority to have their orders enforced. Again, that authority simply describes a condition. It is not leadership.

Myth 4: The Participative Leader Surrenders Control

Another incorrect notion is that the participative leader leads by surrendering control, that is, without being in charge. This, too, is a myth. It was again Peter Drucker who pointed out that there is no such thing as laissez faire leadership. While critiquing Douglas McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y. Drucker maintained that there must always be a leader in charge, and that contrary to giving up control under Theory Y, that effective employment of Theory Y was more difficult and required even greater effort and involvement on the part of the leader.

This implies, more, not less control. No less a leadership expert of the stature of Warren Bennis tried implementing Theory Y in a more or less laissez faire fashion in an attempt to turn around the University of Buffalo during his tenure as president. As Drucker relates, "There was tremendous excitement but also total failure. Instead of achievement, there was lack of direction, lack of objectives, lack of controls, and frustration . . ." And Drucker and Bennis were close friends!

Okay so what is Heroic Leadership?

Here’s my definition:

Heroic Leadership is the art of influencing others to their personal best and maximum performance in accomplishing any task, objective, or project while putting their needs and those of the mission above your own.

I arrived at this definition after interviewing several hundred combat leaders of all ranks and military services who had gone on to successful careers in civilian life. Almost all claimed to have applied battle leadership for success in their careers. What were the principles of Heroic Leadership which they recommended? There are only eight. Here they are, with the most important first.

  1. Maintain Absolute Integrity
  2. Know Your Stuff
  3. Declare Your Expectations
  4. Show Uncommon Commitment
  5. Expect Positive Results
  6. Take Care of Your People
  7. Put Duty Before Self
  8. Get Out in Front


Are you a Heroic Leader? In future columns I’ll discuss these further and how you can use each principle and sharpen your own leadership skills to become more effective.