The Fall of the Alpha Leader

The hero and the genius are outdated fantasies.

Modern life is too fast and complex for powerful individuals to save the day. For CEO and author of Wilful Blindness, Margaret Heffernan, the idea of the heroic individual is a fantasy.

Here she speaks to the IAI about the myth of the heroic individual, and why the most successful businesses are adopting radical new organisational structures.


In your talk on IAI TV, you suggested that when considering positions of authority and leadership we collectively buy into the myth of what you called ‘the heroic individual’. What exactly is the ‘heroic individual?’

A heroic individual is a person who thinks, “I’m the smartest guy in the room [it usually is a guy] and my job as leader is to know everything and to be able to make all the decisions, to be able to make all the right decisions faster, and better than anyone else can”.

You also suggest that we have too much faith in these leaders, treating them as messiahs to solve our problems. Why do you think this is? And why do such individuals fail in their vocations?

One reason why we accept it is because I think it’s possible that in the past that it worked. But I definitely don’t think it’s true that it works anymore. There are certainly a lot of rich narratives and mythologies around them. The kind of leaders we’re talking about are portrayed routinely as superheroes. Whether it’s the knight in shining armour who comes and rescues the situation, whether it’s the superhero who comes and saves the city or the planet, there is a very long tradition of heroic leaders portrayed in this way. Even if it was ever true, I think it’s no longer true for two main reasons: 1. The world has become too complex so that no one person can know enough. 2. That complexity has made the world very unpredictable – those are the consequences crucial in decision-making to take multiple perspectives and individuals can’t do that.

So myths often contain a grain of truth. Many of the traits that we might want our heroic individuals to possess are ones that we generally value – intelligence, decisiveness, self-confidence, knowledge, ambition etc. Are such qualities in fact detrimental to leadership, or is the problem the way these qualities are embodied by these heroic individuals?

The grain of truth in these myths is that we would like them to be true, that we often find ourselves in circumstances we don’t understand and we wish someone did. Some of that derives from nothing more complex than our own experience of childhood where we grew up with parents who seemed, at least early in our lives, to be able to solve all our problems and cater to all our needs. So on one level the belief in heroic individuals is nothing more than a kind of infantile mindset.

You’re right that there are qualities that these kinds of characters have. But my argument would be that they’re necessary but insufficient. In any leadership world we need intelligence, of course, but we need different kinds of intelligence and we need intelligence from very many perspectives, especially as the people are going to be impacted by decisions are now more varied than ever. Any decision is going to have an impact on a very wide diversity of people and my capacity to see the consequences of my decisions from all those different perspectives is impossibly complex. So I need other people to bring me different perspectives.

You also raised the issue of self-confidence. This is interesting because some of the most catastrophic leaders we’ve seen most recently have had self-confidence to the point of narcissism. Now there is a lot of evidence to suggest that narcissistic leaders make very poor leaders. They tend to take in less information from other people. They seem overly to identify their own interests with the interests of the business, and they seem to be particularly poor in perspective thinking. Self-confidence is a much more complex issue than it seems. Extreme self-belief can be very dangerous, and we’ve seen this in many business and political leaders in the last ten to fifteen years.

In your talk you argue that heroic individuals can make us passive and infantilised. But Nietzsche, for example, has argued that we want to emulate great people; that they inspire and motivate us. Do you think there is any truth to this?

There is certainly inspiration to be gained from others, but that can be gained from people at all levels from all walks of life. Many of the people that have inspired me most are not in leadership positions. They just do what they do exceptionally well or they articulate their values exceptionally well or they treat other people exceptionally well. Role models are undoubtedly really important. There’s no doubt that seeing people do something very well is inspiring and makes us want to do what we do better.

However, any organisation or culture that expects all of that to come from one person is going to be a crippled culture. The more faith we put in leaders the more we infantilise ourselves. We also project upon them impossible expectations. This means that followers may create the conditions for a leader’s failure. In addition, in our beliefs that leaders are exemplary super human beings, we also turn ourselves into bystanders. I see this in large organisations all the time. The attitude is that, “I’m not a leader, and although I can see what things are going wrong, it’s clearly not my job to do anything.” We’ve seen that at Volkswagen, for example. There’s a point at which leaders themselves, narcissistic leaders specifically, and our mythology around leadership might create bystander behaviour

One of the people you discuss in the talk is Steve Jobs, which brings to mind the close connection between the role of the heroic individual and also the myth of the genius. Is there a danger that by renouncing the heroic individual we would be giving up on the creativity and originality that we expect from those individuals?

Unfortunately, that narrative is based on a range of fallacies. The first is that one day Steve Jobs woke up and had dreamt the Mac fully formed in his mind. It’s a really nice idea but it’s a fairytale. The truth about Steve Jobs is that he stumbled into, over and around ideas and other people stumbling with him eventually turned them into great ideas. If there’s anything more dangerous than the myth of the heroic soloist it’s probably the myth of the genius idea which emerges fully formed from the human brain. Any time you dig into great ideas you discover that it took a lot of wandering around, confusions, mistakes, re-conceptions, redesigns and so on…

It’s telling then that, when asked, Steve Jobs said one of the things he was proudest of was the teams he had fostered and created within Apple. He did that and he did it really successfully. He created a culture in which people felt they all had to do their best. Jobs is more of a manifestation of our infantilising belief in the way that we portray him than the reality. The reality is that he had some good ideas, he had some good people around him who also had some good ideas, and they had the trust and stamina to beat those good ideas into great ideas from which great things emerged. But the process was long and difficult and complicated and messy – as all creativity is.

Another criticism of the genius story comes from a feminist perspective: that it privileges a masculine set of ideas and values. Historically the geniuses we recognise in the canon are white privileged men. You mention also that this is precisely the problem we have with the heroic individual story. Is this a historical coincidence or is the heroic individual an embodiment of a masculine ideal?

Unfortunately it’s impossible to carry out a controlled experiment. It’s very hard to find a matriarchal society and look at how they do leadership because there aren’t very many of them around. If women ruled the world would it be different? I don’t know. I’m very wary of generalising from characteristics which some societies describe as female or feminine to a different world view.

However, about eight years ago, I wrote a study of the lives of female entrepreneurs in the United States because that’s where the best data is. The data suggest that women in businesses grow faster, last longer and are more profitable and create more jobs than businesses on average. Now what’s really striking about that data is that it comes from a context in which women typically receive less in the way of institutional funding, and I think they receive something like 3% of venture investment. So what the data shows is that women entrepreneurs are making more with less.

Having interviewed hundreds of them, I can also say from observation that they tended to demonstrate what I would call an orchestrated leadership as opposed to a solo leadership model. Now do they do that because they’re women? Or do they do that because having been the less empowered part of society all their lives and for centuries, the only powers that they have are through others? I don’t know. All I can say is that where we are at the moment women tend to think of power as something that involves other people.

In the talk you suggest that decision-making should be a collective process where people mutually make decisions. Are there any examples of this taking place already?

Yes, there are quite a lot. It’s interesting that most people don’t look for them or write about them. One of the ones I visited most recently is an organisation called Buurtzorg, which virtually dominates the market for pro-care nursing. They treat people with chronic diseases and people in the last months, weeks, and days of life. The government has recognised that it’s a lot cheaper and more pleasant to treat people at home, so this is a very big market in terms of healthcare.

In 2013, the organisation employed some 6,500 nurses but with a back office of only 35 staff. They can do that because the organisation is broken down into self-managed teams of 10 or 12 nurses. Those nurses are responsible for their own work, their own patients, their own finances, their own scheduling, their own holidays and sick leave. They collectively make decisions about patient treatment; about what it is they want to learn, and about what equipment they need. They manage themselves completely.

One of the fantastic things that’s emerged from this is that they have reduced both cost and treatment time. The time that patients need nursing has been reduced by approximately 40%. That is because the nurses have absolute autonomy in terms of choosing what the treatment will be. What’s really striking is you would struggle to find the bosses in these groups. There is a CEO, and each team has people taking responsibility for particular pieces, but there are two things that are really striking about this. One is that, because there isn’t a leader, everybody feels intensely responsible and because there isn’t a lot of managerial bureaucratic nonsense getting in the way between nurses and patients that responsibility is felt in a very personal way. It also makes the whole process a whole lot cheaper and it proves rewarding with patients and nurses because nurses are working for the patient not for narcissistic leaders.

Many of the pathologies you identify with heroic individuals – such as the belief that they can solve the world’s problems – are not only embodied by individuals but also by companies, collectives and nation states. Firstly, can the kind of collective decision-making you expound operate at these levels? And, secondly, is there a danger of replacing heroic individuals with something like heroic states or heroic collectives, which could lead to a different form of pathology or a different form of myth?

Any behaviour is susceptible to a hyperbolised pathology. I don’t think there’s any behaviour or mindset that, taken to an extreme, isn’t going to reveal the flaws. Our worship of heroic individuals, however, has significantly deprived people of their passion for work, their sense of accountability and responsibility in their work, and their ability to tap their own creativity and ingenuity in terms of their ability to find smart ways to get the work done. Organisations like Buurtzorg and many like them around the world are finding that if you want to keep people’s passions and sense of responsibility alive, taking out heroic leadership as a model or myth is really helpful because it encourages people to make decisions and take responsibility for themselves.

How can we continue to debunk the myth of the heroic individual? It seems so engrained in our culture.

That’s why I spend a lot of my time working and writing about alternative, and very successfully scalable models. What’s really interesting is that when you start looking for different ways of working, you find them. The other thing that’s very interesting too is that you often find that organisations that do very well through collaborative work often reach a moment of such success that they start to think that they had better become like those traditional organisations. A lot of people feel that way about their parents too, incidentally. But it is important for organisations to have the courage of their convictions.

I work with a number of companies which once upon a time were radical start-ups. Now they’ve got successful businesses and they think that they suddenly need the bureaucracy that they rejected when they began. I spend a lot of time saying no! Don’t go there – you know exactly what’s going to happen and you’re smart enough and successful enough to find better ways to work.

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