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OK, the headline sounds a little dramatic. Or does it? By ‘survival’, I’m not talking about life vs death in the traditional sense; I am talking about life or death as a leader.

I was talking with the CEO of a large organisation recently, and the conversation led him to say he needed some help to become better at coaching his team. When I asked why, his response was, Because my people are too reliant on me for problem solving. I think I actually encourage this by always responding with ideas or solutions when they bring a challenge to me. This is chewing up far too much of my time, but I want to help them succeed”.

I have a lot of respect for this leader, and I know his team does too. His openness to believe he can still improve a skillset such as coaching, and his courage to ask for help even as a senior leader, is admirable. I hope he will continue to pursue this change in his approach to the benefit of himself and his team.

What is hero leadership?

I think many well meaning leaders have been seduced into an unproductive mindset in which they believe that being an effective leader means they must know most of the answers to challenges that arise, and that problem solving and decision making must revolve around them. These leaders may feel they must always appear knowledgeable about every topic and issue that arises within their team, or else they will be seen as weak or inadequate. Essentially, they strive to be the ‘hero leader’ who always saves the day.

Whilst there is often very little sense of consciously identifying with the ‘hero leader’ label, I see this role being played out by leaders at all levels in industries such as resources, transport, manufacturing, government, construction, and many more.

Let’s unpack for a moment the impact of hero leadership.

The impact of hero leadership on leaders:
  • Increased pressure and stress to be the one with all the answers.
  • Large amounts of time spent dispensing ideas, solutions and decisions to people. This chews up valuable chunks of a leader’s day and week, which affects work-life balance.
  • Creation of a co-dependent dynamic where your team members have this Pavlovian stimulus-response. They find a problem – they ask you for a solution.
  • Being dragged into doing the work of the level below (rather than the strategic work of their leadership role).
The impact of hero leadership on people reporting to the leader:
  • Creation of a dynamic that psychologist Martin Seligman calls ‘learned helplessness’.  This is where potentially very capable people slowly develop a habit in which they don’t really need to do the thinking because they become used to going to someone who will do it for them.
  • Increased disempowerment. Autonomy to make our own decisions is a fundamental psychological need for human beings. To have this diminished leads to disengagement and can ultimately reduce that person’s performance.
  • Less likelihood of wanting to progress in their current organisation. After all, they see the workload and stress of their manager and don’t want this for themselves.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the vast majority of leaders I come across still practice hero leadership in some way – to their own detriment and to that of others.

So what’s the alternative?

Facilitative leadership

A ‘facilitative leadership’ approach provides a much greater positive impact on the performance of team members in 70% of situations. It also gives the leader more of their time and mental and emotional headspace back. This approach helps build the capacity of team members to reach their full potential and reduces the risk of burnout for the leader, which is critical for a leader’s survival in our increasingly complex and uncertain environment.

Many leaders know this on some level. They have come across research and literature that supports facilitative leadership over hero leadership. Leadership researchers and authors like Ken Blanchard, Kouzes and Posner, and Eliot Jacques first wrote about this 30 years ago. Gallup surveyed 90,000 people worldwide, and the data supported this. Contemporary leadership thinkers such as Simon Sinek, Dan Pink, David Marquet and Amy Edmondson talk about the role of being a facilitative leader (albeit with slightly different labels).

Leaders may even entertain a vision of what letting go of hero leadership could look like for them and feel attracted to that vision. However, many still struggle to make any sort of meaningful transition from hero to facilitative leadership.

I’m going to say something some might find slightly controversial…believe too much money is spent on leadership development that attempts to build leaders’ skill sets.

What, then, is a leader’s primary role?

Don’t get me wrong, I believe there is definitely a place for some leadership development. However, I come across too many leaders who don’t really need to add too many new skills. Their development opportunity is actually about giving up something they are already good at – being the key problem solver and decision maker for their team. This should not be your primary role as a leader. The primary role should be building your people’s capability and confidence to be key problem solvers and decision makers. In the words of Peter Drucker The role of a leader is not to create more followers, the role of a leader is to create more leaders”.

Why do leaders struggle to make the transition from hero to facilitative leader? The following reasons are often the most common:

  • Concern about losing control
  • Lack of trusting others to deliver the quality that is needed
  • Fear of failure
  • An over pre-occupation with wishing to shield or protect their own people
  • An unwillingness to acknowledge there may be a better approach
  • A lack of awareness and feedback that the old way is not necessarily having the impact they would like
Facilitative leadership in action

Here are 3 examples of facilitative leadership in action that I have observed in the last few months:

Example 1 – A manager in the transport industry working long days and going in on weekends. 

This manager had traditionally used a more directive leadership approach but had received feedback from their own manager that they were not working at the right level and dipping down into the weeds.  When people would come to this person with problems, they would dispense advice or tell them what they should do and the decision to make.

To move to a facilitative leadership approach, the manager started by identifying a number of tasks to delegate, both immediately and within a 6-month timeframe. As they began to delegate, they used more of a coaching approach with their people. That is, a questioning, self discovery approach. They also clarified with their team that many problems being escalated were not actually the manager’s to solve, and a certain level of decision making needed to live at the team level. The manager still supports their people by being available to ‘coach, not tell’. 

This manager is saving a lot of time and has been able to reduce their hours, including not coming in on weekends, and they and their family are much happier as a result. They have also been pleasantly surprised at how quickly some of their team members have stepped up and shown initiative. This in part is due to the new moves the manager has made, which have sent a message they have confidence in their team. 

Example 2 – A manager in the mining industry has begun to embed the concept of peer consultation in their team. 

Instead of following their usual approach of providing answers when team members approached them for advice, this manager started redirecting people to talk to selected peers they knew had either the experience or coaching ability to help their colleague solve their issue. This has helped remove the manager from being central to all decision making, and has allowed the team to speed up their ability to take action, while still feeling supported. This has saved the manager both time and stress. 

In adopting this new approach, the manager had to find a new source from which to draw their feeling of value rather than being the “wisdom giver.” They shifted their focus towards being a “people developer” and have reported greater work satisfaction as a result.

Example 3 – Simon Sinek shares in an interview a story about one of the managers he had early in his career.  

Simon said he would approach his manager and say We’ve got an issue with XYZ, what do I do?” In response, this manager would say back to him “I don’t know Simon, what do you think you should do?” Simon would then say something like “Well I could do this, or I could do this, or maybe even this”. The manager would then say “OK which option are you going to try first?”

Simon said in the interview that at first, he got a bit frustrated because his manager would never just give him an answer or make a decision for him. But Simon came to realise that this was one of the best managers he ever had. Not because the manager played the role of advice giver, but because they facilitated his capability to think and act for himself.

If you are a leader, and you take nothing else away from reading this blog, I encourage you to just practice one thing over the coming weeks. When someone approaches you to solve their problem or make a decision, just start by saying “I don’t know; what do you think you could do?”

Scott Erskine

Scott Erskine

Scott has successfully delivered leadership and performance solutions for management across a number of industries including retail, resources, construction, government and finance and has worked with organistions such as BHP Billiton, Woodside, Rio Tinto, Veolia, Western Power, GESB, Ramsay Healthcare, Police & Nurses Mutual Banking, Flight Centre, and the Australian Defence Forces.