The Superhumans-Test

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The Superhumans-Test

If our life is a story, then who are the heroes? Where do we find the inspiration, the encouragement, the solace to believe that ‘everything will work out fine’ and ‘we will live happily ever after’? And if organizations are our professional homes, what would they look like without leadership, without people to believe in?

Leadership. Leaders. The words have an almost magical ring to them. When we pronounce them we may feel a thrill running through our veins. Which is is exactly why I think leader-heroes invariably continue to disappoint us. We invest our hopes in them, without scrutinizing the validity of our projections. Estimates vary and are hard to substantiate, but only about 20% of people in leadership positions actually seem to live up to our standards. When canvased -e.g. the 10.000 or so participants in the Deloitte Human Capital Trends Report- about 85% repeatedly describe ‘leadership’ as a need, as something essential but seriously below par. Ask any group of people if they see themselves as leaders and typically only a handful…hesitantly raises their hands. And when prompted for examples of great leaders, the first names that typically pop up belong to dead or distant people.

What then, are the unreasonably high standards, the irrational beliefs, we use to assess if someone is fit to be a leader? And what are the resulting leadership caricatures, or myths? What, in other words, is ‘the superhuman-test’ any living human being will fail?

Disclaimer: do I have your permission to dispute your beliefs? The trouble with beliefs is that the more irrational they are, the stickier they tend to be. And the stronger our tendency for groupthink and confirmation bias. So, before reading any further, please ask yourself: do I give permission to dispute my beliefs?

If so, then here is my description of the 5 Irrational Leadership Beliefs (& the resulting 5 Leadership Caricatures)

1. A leader is someone to look UP to

Leadership, we seem to think, is to be found at the top of the pyramid. All the lesser ‘gods’ are to be named managers or supervisors. But not leaders. We turn leadership into something positional, bestowed only on those with enough hierarchical power to inspire us with awe. In my view, there is no such thing as ‘the leadership team’ or ‘the one and only leader’. Leadership is by its nature non-hierarchical as it is a function of mutually beneficial, symbiotic, adult-adult relationships. We chose to be led and we typically follow; those who are willing to be led by us in return. So, leaders are not ‘the boss’, they are the people whose help we appreciate because we trust them, the ones we turn to for insights because we value their opinion.

2. A leader is strong always

Strength-based leadership is in many ways a remnant of the past, where we picked the biggest, strongest men to lead us in the battle for survival with competing tribes and predators. Even when we replace physical strength by a wider range of competences, the notion of strength returns in the shape of ‘the ultimate source of salvation’. Real leaders, we like to believe, either have the solution or they are the solution. They have answers, they deliver results no matter the difficulties. But such ‘heroes’ are not real, we know they’re not. Or do we? Even the most daunting superhumans have their weaknesses. And they will fail miserably if they fail to acknowledge them. If only because they will be alone.

3. A leader has a vision

One of the most stubborn misconceptions about leadership is that leaders are not concerned with the here and now, but only with the long run. As ‘prophets’, we believe it is their role to foresee the path that will lead their people to a land of milk and honey. A land they have long since ‘seen’, whilst the mere mortals are all left in the day to day darkness. But nobody can ‘know’ the future and being oblivious to the here and now turns a leader into a daydreamer or even worse: a nightmare. Oftentimes it’s simply the one who takes the initiative to figure out where to go who sets the ‘direction’ others will follow. Even if these leaders really have no clue what lies even behind the next corner. 

4. A leader is inspiring

Without a compelling philosophy or a charismatic personality, don’t even dare to call yourself a leader. We have ‘guru’-like expectations of our leaders and become downright abusive if they fail to deliver on the requirement to provide meaning and moral guidance. Because then, obviously, they are not true leaders. But rather than to rally around the exaggerated notion that leaders have to be inspiring, perhaps it is enough if they provide some guidance, helping us to makes sense of the world ourselves. Because inspiration is, like leadership, the product of meaningful interaction. Not something any individual can deliver all by herself.

5. A leader is a perfect person

As children many of us were dreaming about the perfect human being, the idol who would end all our troubles. All we wanted and needed to do was to try to be like them. Also as adults many of us crave for someone who embodies our ideals, a near deity, someone of Herculean stature. To keep this illusion alive we typically idolize dead people or people from a distance; ‘great’ leaders are rarely people we know really well. Yes, it helps if the people we follow have integrity and play it fair. But they don’t have to be exemplary, of superhuman perfection. They have to be respected for sure, but don’t have to look like Mandela or Mother Teresa -especially since all these bigger than life individuals on closer inspection turn out to be mere mortals. Just like we.

What these 5 irrational beliefs have in common is that they are intrinsically disempowering. Put together they cause dysfunctional behavior as they keep us from leading, from thinking autonomously, and turn us into ‘dedicated followers of fashion’. If leaders are not bosses, heroes, prophets, gurus or idols then it’s obvious: we are the real leaders. And not ‘they’. 

Next up: if leaders don’t have to be superhumans, what are the 5 leadership roles we -should- all play? What is the Leadership-Test we can learn to pass? Please let me know if you feel like reading on! 

Based on the book “Leadership Agility -Developing your repertoire of leadership styles”, by Ron Meyer & Ronald Meijers.

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