When I resigned from my last corporate role as international managing director in Logica in 2004, I thought that I was giving up a career in leadership to pursue a career in coaching. Yet the more that I research leadership I am realising that I gave up a career in heroic leadership to pursue a career in post-heroic leadership. I am also realising that, as well as running training courses for traditional heroic leaders to become coaches, we need more courses to train experienced coaches to become post-heroic leaders.
One research paper, in particular, has influenced my thinking on this topic. This is a paper by Cavani et al. titled ‘Shared leadership: A post-heroic perspective on leadership as a collective construction’ (Crevani et al., 2007). Despite its intimidating academic title, I found this paper a fascinating read. The authors suggest that the era of the ‘one great man’ theory of traditional heroic leadership is coming to an end and that the future lies in re-configuring leadership as a latent, shared potential of the many rather than an inherited ability of the few. A related quote from Huey and Sookdeo explains the trends that are driving this paradigm shift – ‘Post-heroic leaders don’t expect to solve all the problems themselves. They realise that no one person can deal with the colliding tyrannies of speed, quality, customer satisfaction, innovation, diversity and technology.’
Later in their paper, the authors summarise the differences between traditional heroic leadership and post-heroic leadership using the following table:-
The heroic behaviours on the left of the table are those that I was immersed in during my corporate leadership career in organisations such as British Gas, Cadbury Schweppes and Logica. In contrast, during the last ten years , as I have trained and practised as an executive coach, I have been immersed in the post-heroic behaviours on the right of the table. From this perspective, it seems that coaching might simply be another term for post-heroic leadership.
Is this just a play on words or is there something meaningful and practical in the distinction? For me, the shift is from thinking that my role is to facilitate change in others by DOING something TO them to thinking that my role is to facilitate change in others by BEING something FOR them. In other words, a shift from wanting to DO coaching to wanting to BE a post-heroic leader. If I look at my role in this way then it reminds me that, first and foremost, my responsibility is to lead by example rather than to teach by the set process, model or technique.
In many ways, this realisation has taken me back to the passion that was sparked when I was first coached. What inspired me then, and still inspires me now, is encountering people who have done more work on themselves than I have. People who have gone further down their own path than I have gone down mine and now wish to use that experience to help others grow.
This modest tribe of post-heroic leaders does not, by definition, shout its name from the rooftops yet, if you listen carefully, I believe you will be able to hear its members whispering to you persistently in the coming years. For just as surely as leaders can become coaches then coaches can become leaders too. T.S.Eliot expressed this cycle of learning and realisation more eloquently than I can when he said ‘We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and to know that place for the first time.’