There's a fundamental problem in how we view leadership. Most of us, and that includes most leaders, live under the false impression that good leaders are heroic superhumans. No, we don't expect them to be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Their rumored exceptionalism is actually worse. We've come to believe that one person can do it all: see and solve any problem; ideate and innovate limitlessly; and, most of all, will always have the answer. Because we expect these things, we also believe that person at the pinnacle of the organization chart should largely go unchallenged. In our hearts and through our experiences, we know the fairytale of 'leader = hero' isn't true. Even leaders know, at least for a time. But over time too many leaders forget. When they do, the tendency to forge an environment in which they are rarely if ever challenged rises. Going unchallenged however, is an enormous problem for any leader who hopes to lead well. The history of leaders and heroes proves it true.
The Journey of the Leader-Hero
It was writer Joseph Campbell who first looked back over centuries of stories of exceptional leaders and heroes and tracked the parallels in their evolution. He called that evolution the hero's journey. Notably, he also referred to it as a "monomyth," a term he coined that illuminated the disproportionate importance we give to certain parts of the journey, specifically, the adventure the hero embarks upon, the pivotal crisis they face, and their victorious return home. The Hollywood version of heroes and leaders most often focuses on those parts and those parts alone, and tends to describe the leader's journey as a linear one-time thing. The true journey of an effective leader is quite different. Indeed, Campbell made clear that there are several other factors that make the leader who she is, elements that Hollywood and many executives inconveniently forget, but you should not.
Three Forgotten Elements of The Successful Leader
Leadership beyond the leader.
The first forgotten truth Campbell identified is that, rather than being all-knowing or all-capable, most often leaders can't see the fullness of the task at hand, or the solution, at least at the start. Indeed, Campbell makes clear, they need others to help them see. The corporate world equivalent is all-too familiar, and includes stories like the one still told about Apple and Steve Jobs. In it, Jobs is cast from the get go as the inventor of the iPod and iPhone and the relentless champion others follow. In truth, not only did it take a team of hundreds, but it was others in Apple who originated the ideas and had to convince Jobs. Leaders need to be open to new ideas and to the reality that many if not most will likely come from others.
The criticality of being challenged.
The second critical misconstrued part of Campbell's theory is the belief in the singular crisis that needs solving. Campbell observed that leaders and heroes in truth face repeated challenges throughout their journey, and beyond. Importantly, those challenged include being questioned by others around them, including being challenged to change the very way they lead. Campbell suggest many leaders initially fight such challenge. But he also makes clear that the admission of the need to repeatedly evolve as a leader is inevitably the key to freeing the leader to be effective, impactful, and even heroic.
The circular nature of evolving as a leader.
The third overlooked lesson of Campbell's theory is the most important one of all: the journey of a truly impactful leader isn't linear; it's circular. Being challenged, letting others lead, and evolving as a leader are never done work.
Why Leaders Avoid Challenge - and Why They Shouldn't
Let's be blunt. Whether it's from circumstances, originates from others, or is the rarer self-initiated kind, being challenged is, at best, inconvenient. It means having to slow down - to hear the challenge, to process it, and respond appropriately. Challenge can be more bothersome still, because it can put a spotlight on the need to recalculate or to flat out change direction. It can even mean admitting you're wrong. A challenge taps not only that primordial fear of being wrong, it strikes at that twin fear among leaders that others will see it, and somehow see them as lesser. The exact opposite most often proves true. The natural and necessary cycle of challenge, reconsideration, and when need be, revision, is the most necessary part of what it means to be a great leader, and even what it means to be a hero in the truest sense.
We too often look upon senior leaders in business as we once looked upon doctors, presidents, and comic book heroes, when in fact all of them, save Superman and Wonder Woman, are inevitably ordinary human beings. Even ordinary humans are capable of great feats now and then. But organizational greatness requires repeated feats of achievement, inevitably as task for the many, not the one. In short, the greatest challenge for leaders today, is that they must be willing to be challenged.