A bird does not sing because it has an answer.  It sings because it has a song.

19 April 2013

Are You Waiting for a Hero?

My mom sent me an article today that got me thinking.  The article, which does not appear to exist on the web currently other than behind a subscription wall, is by Margaret Wheatley and Debbie Frieze, and it is excerpted and adapted from ideas in their book, Walk Out Walk On: A Learning Journey Into Communities Daring to Live the Future Now.

The article itself is called "Leadership in the Age of Complexity: From Hero to Host."  Well, while it may take a rocket scientist to deal with all that complexity, it sure doesn't take one to know we are living in a complex age.  The prevalence of products and advertisements that promise a "quick fix" is ample testament to our frustration and confusion as we struggle to cope with daily chaos.  Crushed under the quantity and rate of incoming data, too many calendar appointments, bewildering news, advancing technology, we would love for someone to "fix it" -- to resolve all this complexity into something we can handle quickly and easily.  We need "Cliff Notes" for life!

In the article, the authors talk about one phenomenon that emerges from complexity.  We become "entranced by heroes." In other words, we fall in love with a fantasy of someone who knows just what to do; someone who has all the answers and can lay out a simple plan that the rest of us can follow to safety.  And this plays out in interesting ways.

How many times a day do you, or does someone you know, say "THEY should fix that." The nameless, faceless "they" need to fill the pot holes, change the laws, balance the budget, fix the schools -- and sometimes our wailing isn't even that focused.  Someone needs to fix the whole way the government or the economy or the society works.  Someone.  Not you, not me, just "someone."  That "someone" is the hero we want to respond to our desperate cries -- but of course, that hero doesn't exist.

No one person is going to solve any of these problems.  Even a group of "experts", like a body of elected officials, a board of directors or a team of scientists, is unlikely to have all the answers.  The more we wait, and complain, and pressure "someone else" to solve all of our problems, the worse the problems get.  And just to add insult to injury, the longer our appointed "heroes" stay in their positions of power, the more entrenched they become in the unhealthy hero culture, overly enamored of their power and feeling increasingly compelled to come to the rescue with an easy answer or concise plan.

So what to do?

Ms. Wheatley and Ms. Frieze suggest that a different leadership model is needed.  They call it the "leader as host."  Whereas a hero would expect, and would be expected, to do all the work and have all the answers by him- or herself, a host is a facilitator who invites collaboration among many people and groups to work the problem together.  Not unlike hosting a party (or a global trade summit), the task of a leader-as-host is to find harmony among differing points of view, smooth over small disagreements before they become enormous problems, and create an atmosphere where people can communicate and work effectively together.  When you host a party, you don't assign a hierarchy to your guest list, nor do you give your guests strict step-by-step instructions on how to attend your event.  Likewise, a leader-as-host sees people in an organization as humans first, roles second.  Hosts know that good ideas can come from anywhere, and that rank is not the same thing as value.

The world will always love its heroes, but hero work is hard, thankless, and ultimately robs others of their essential strength.  Hosts, on the other hand, can use their authority to empower others and serve as a coordination center for collaborative problem solving.

Are you waiting for a hero?  Or here's another thought-provoking question: Are you being a hero?  And if you are, who is waiting helplessly for you?