Heroism & Leadership- Is ‘skilling’ the missing piece of the puzzle?

Saikat Saha
September 15, 2020

Few weeks back, a former colleague from one of my previous companies pinged me on Facebook messenger requesting an urgent call. We had worked in the same company for few years & he later had multiple short stints in other companies where he got significant salary hikes.

He was desperately looking for a job and wanted to seek some help from my network. He was laid off from his last company during the COVID-19 crisis that saw many job cuts at senior levels & he was unfortunately one amongst them.

During the call, he explained about how his career went into a downward spiral from the time he got into senior leadership role that tested him on his people leadership skills. His ability to reflect has become much better over the years & it was evident in how he talked objectively about the reasons that led to his exit.

Many years back while we worked together in that company, he was regarded as a ‘Hero’. He took much pride in rescuing the project ‘alone’ during crisis. The leaders of his Business Unit kept his phone number on speed dial. He won accolades on quarterly basis. However, his feedback scores from his reportees stayed at one of the lowest percentiles. He expected a lot from his team & it was hard for anyone to live up to his high expectations.

He being the ‘Hero’ of the team, helped in creating immense value for most of the stakeholders.

However, I can’t stop imagining what ‘if’ he had kept his ‘heroism’ aside and yet continued to find ways of creating, delivering & monetizing value for his stakeholders?

In this post, I would share my reflections from the above question.

The Hero & The Leader- their association & the difference

According to the oxford dictionary, Hero is defined as “a person who is admired for their courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities”

The definition here gives much importance to the characteristics of the person instead of the skills of the person. This leads us to reflect on how much of one’s success is about her characteristics & how much is based on her skills as a leader.

Whenever we have celebrated the legacy of any legendary leader, we have been profusely appreciative of their characteristics. Most of us respect Steve Jobs for his curiosity & courage, Nelson Mandela for his perseverance & social intelligence, Mother Teresa for her compassion, Indra Nooyi for her foresight & prudence, Mahatma Gandhi for his fairness & humility, Satya Nadella for his sense of judgement & love for learning.

Most books or articles seldom have a mention about their skills. Not much is known about how some of them used their skills in doing the below:

1. How did they conduct their meetings?

2. How did they choose from multiple options available to them?

3. How did they set goals for themselves & their teams?

4. How did they delegate?

5. How did they prioritize their work?

6. How did they identify & validate a problem?

7. How did they conclude on a decision?

8. How did they convince someone to adopt their recommendations?

9. How did they share a message in a powerful manner?

10. How did they receive & give feedback?

11. How did they analyse information available to them?

The list goes on and each of the above use ‘skills’ that play important role in any Leader’s performance. They take time to be honed and their effectiveness compounds over a period of time to provide significant advantage to any leader.

However, they don’t make great stories. You are more likely to have bestseller books or popular movies on courage & foresight of a leader. How a leader conducted her meetings or set her goals would not make a publisher or a producer excited because there wouldn’t be many takers.

Characteristics of a leader are extremely valuable and that’s what makes them great. But in order to lead oneself to greatness, one must focus on becoming constantly better at few things i.e.skills.

In a similar vein, a leader could be having mastery over skills and gain phenomenal success. However, the same leader could end up in a prison. Here is a comprehensive list of such leaders. They ended up in a prison because they lacked some key characteristics that are fundamental for any leader i.e. self-regulation, honesty, care, fairness to name a few.

Hence, it’s both characteristics & skills that eventually help a leader to succeed.

While heroism is about the person relying more on her characteristics; leadership is about both-her innate characteristics as well as her skills that needs constant attention & effort to be nurtured.

Therefore, it seems as if heroism is only an important subset of leadership.

But can leaders be successful without heroism?

The answer to this is heavily dependent on what we understand about ‘heroism’. If our understanding is anchored upon its reliance on characteristics, then the answer is ‘no’. However, if the understanding is anchored upon popular misconceptions about heroism like much of charisma, machismo, aggression etc then the answer is a resounding ‘yes’.

From being a ‘hero’ to a ‘leader’- ‘Skilling’ shifts the gear

While heroism thrives in the answers to all the questions.

Leadership is about asking all the questions that can lead to the answers. And to ask those questions, it involves skills. This skill could be her coaching skills.

Heroism is about bringing out the best version (at times the best ‘looking’ version) of the self. Period. Leadership is about bringing the best version of the self AND in doing so, bringing the best version of the people around the leader. Doing this involves skills. This skill could be her storytelling skills using data.

While characteristics & mindset are most fundamental in developing a leader, she can still struggle significantly if her skills are not honed.

For example, she may display growth mindset predominantly, have the courage to take bold stand when required but if she cannot land her message clearly yet in an empathetic manner during a crucial conversation then she is not being effective as a leader. The more senior the leader becomes, unfortunately the focus on their skilling becomes less.

It’s worth reflecting upon which skills that you need to focus upon when you feel stuck as a leader. The answer will most likely be less glorious yet very sharp. And in that answer lies the beginning of your transformation from a hero to a leader.

Basketball legend, Michael Jordan once said “Earn your leadership every day”. Investing in improving the skills that need your most attention is a good way of earning your leadership every day.

Reference

Chron article: https://www.chron.com/jobs/slideshow/Famous-CEOs-and-founders-who-ve-been-to-jail-71363.php