Farewell to ‘manly courage’ leadership model (Guest commentary)

New kind of humble hero asks for help

Editor’s note: This column originally appeared as a blog on Canadian HR Reporter’s website. To view our blogs, visit www.hrreporter.com. New blogs (strategic HR, employment law, labour relations and editor’s blog) are posted weekly and comments from readers are welcome.

From “old blood and guts” General George Patton to the latest entrepreneur, the media idolize courage — having the sheer guts to initiate an enterprise and take the risks needed to persistently pursue it and make it work — as if it’s all personal, all the guts of just one individual.

But do we fully understand “raw courage” in this over-the-top message? Is it all about pushing ourselves ahead and shouldering all the responsibility of sending the troops out to do our bidding?

I’ve written a few times on my strategic HR blog about Marcel Proust’s “seeing the world through new eyes” and Albert Einstein’s “need for a different level of thinking than the one that created the problem.” Here’s one more — by promoting this “manly courage” model in which a sole hero on a white charger rides in with the answers, the media are overlooking the many other ways to solve a problem. These include ones that are just starting to be understood — such as the concept of crowd-sourcing, where many people are asked to make their best guesses, toss in their best ideas or pool their thinking in various ways.

As we enter an era in which no one person can come up with all the necessary ideas to survive and thrive in any particular enterprise, we have to shift to a leadership style that calls forth the best ideas from everyone and is willing to try them out and put faith in others instead of shouldering all the responsibility oneself.

Maybe the level of courage we need in leaders isn’t found so much in the individual hero who risks everything she owns in one shot and leads the troops into a new strategy, but the humble hero (to borrow a phrase from Jim Collins’ leadership strategy book Good to Great) who has the courage to ask for help and will back ideas from subordinates who seem to have a handle on what could work. It takes no less courage to shoulder the responsibility when a subordinate’s idea goes wrong than to face the firing squad when it’s your own failure.

Why do we persist in these military analogies if not for media hype about the rawness of courage required of great CEOs and leaders? In fact, it’s the day-to-day, small decisions that count, encouraging an employee with a potential solution and making it clear you’ll take the blame if need be. Of course, we want those to be carefully thought out but the risk, ultimately, isn’t really different.

Are we just not choosing the lower level of risk-thinking because we revere the higher level so much and we can’t be seen to do less? Does it have to be our idea for us to feel like we’re seen as risk-takers?

I fear that’s exactly what stops many bosses from taking risks with subordinates’ ideas. It doesn’t feel like a risk if you think you can off-load the blame on someone else. Who said “no guts, no glory?” And did they mean there are no guts involved in supporting your team’s ideas as if they were your own?

Dave Crisp is a Toronto-based consultant with a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co. where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit www.crispstrategies.com.

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