Tragic hero?

December 4, 2013 by
Filed under: The RSA, Uncategorized 


In his e-book anti-hero, Richard Wilson describes the malign characteristics of the heroic leader as over-confidence, a lack of empathy, inflexibility and being unable to recognise uncertainty. Conversely, the benign characteristics of the anti-heroic leader are being empathic, humble, self-aware, flexible and comfortable with uncertainty.

There is some tilting at windmills here. I suspect even Fred the Shred would have denied neatly fitting the former list or totally rejected the latter, but I also have a semantic quibble: Surely, to exercise the qualities Richard extols under the growing day to day pressures of organisational leadership is itself heroic? We might particularly think this having explored something rarely acknowledged, that leadership is inherently tinged with pathos.

The very pursuit of high office has elements of delusion and futility. Lacan plangently described falling in love as ‘giving something you don’t have to someone who doesn’t exist’. Our ambitions and the objects of our desire are displacements of our instinctive desires. The claim of leadership may be dishonest. We say it is to make the world better but it is really an attempt to make us feel better. While the fulfilment of that ambition is futile as we are likely to find the desire that drove us remains unfulfiled. Whisper it quietly to the young and ambitious, but they will probably one day abandon leadership not because they are satiated but because they are defeated or exhausted.

And when we give up the struggle how quickly the waters close over our heads. The one thing of which most leaders can be sure is that a few weeks after their leaving party their successor will be announcing plans for a root and branch strategic review with a mind to achieving transformational change in what the new leader sees by implication as an outdated and creaking institution. If you want to feel the full force of the transience of status try visiting somewhere you used to be a leader a few years after you’ve left it. New staff won’t know who you are and old ones will try to hide their embarrassment at the fact that it has long become a recognised fact that your reign was mediocre at best.

Finally, heroic leaders often remain unsung. We live in a short term world with a shrinking attention span and little or no respect for the recent past and those who inhabited it. Yet, a large part of good leadership is about laying down long term foundations and addressing weaknesses and risks before they turn into problems. Some of the best and bravest decisions any leader makes may remain virtually unknown until years later when a successor – who may be of little merit – gets the credit for a long since made investment. This may have been more bearable in a slower moving, more deferential world with a more settled and self-assured leadership class but when blame and reputational disaster can move so fast, it is hard  to expect leaders to await their reward in heaven. In my view Richard definitely left one leadership virtue off his list – stoicism.

None of this is to say that I would advise against the ambition to lead. It would after all be pretty hypocritical to do so. Love may be ‘the hysterical illusion we are no longer alone in the world’ (Lacan again) but it also makes life joyful and motivates great acts of courage and compassion. Leadership may be self-deceiving and futile but it also solves problems, drives progress and can release our most noble capabilities. To understand the tragedy of leadership is not to abandon it. As the stoics argued, resignation – particularly resignation we have chosen to adopt – can be a source of wisdom and comfort.

On Monday I had the honour of interviewing the great writer and practicing psychoanalyst Adam Phillips. Near the end (I won’t say when because you ought to watch the whole thing) an audience member asked about coaching for leaders. Phillips wanted to know what the purpose of the coaching was seen to be; merely to make the boss a better profit maker perhaps?

I am a supporter of leadership coaching. Partly for the reasons I have given, leaders need a safe place in which they can stop leading, unburden and be human.  But coaching, like analysis, should not promise, or perhaps even offer, to provide instrumental success. Coaching may make us wiser in part because it makes us  sadder (I have heard analysis described as ‘replacing hysterical neuroses with everyday melancholy’). Equally, and this possibility should perhaps be explicit from the outset, it might inspire us to find somewhere a little less exhausting to displace our insatiable desires.

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2 Comments on Tragic hero?

  1. Jonathanrowson on Wed, 4th Dec 2013 7:21 pm
  2. Great blog, and excellent use of ‘plangently’ (a new word for me).

    I think it’s important to remember that from a developmental perspective you can’t get to anti-heroic without going through heroic.

    In Robert Kegan or Neo-Piagetian terms, you can’t get to the fifth order of consciousness without going through the fourth. It’s all about transcending and including prior versions of oneself.

  3. Matthew Mezey on Thu, 5th Dec 2013 2:18 pm
  4. Hi Matthew,

    There’s certainly a sense, I would think, in which a person would have to have quite some grit if they’re a post-heroic leader trying to make a difference in a traditional ‘heroic’ organisation.

    Over and over again in the interviews I did with experts and post-conventional leaders for ‘Anti-Hero’, I heard that leaders who find themselves growing into a more post-heroic place will often depart (perhaps to work for a smaller consultancy, or suchlike). They apparently find their current workplaces inhospitable to their emerging thinking and preferred working styles, which are likely to be decidedly collaborative and self-transformative.

    For example, Lynne Sedgmore CBE FRSA told me:

    “One of the things that often happens to post-conventional people is they exit the organisation, I’m very unusual in staying in mainstream organisations and I have had incidents where people have wanted to exit me out of the organisation because I’ve been too big of a threat and that’s mostly to [heroic] ‘Technicians/Experts’. I’ve had a ‘Technician’ Chair who would have happily chucked me out of the organisation because he hated what I was doing, he thought it was ‘spooky’. It’s that kind of “she’s everywhere, she knows everything, what’s she doing, I don’t like it…”.

    Interestingly, Stanford University Press’ recent book ‘Maximizing the Triple Bottom Line Through Spiritual Leadership’ uses Lynne Sedgmore’s FE sector training organisation the Centre for Excellence in Leadership as its main case study.

    I personally think it would be great if there was a chance to look at such real-world applications of ‘spirituality’ as part of the spirituality project my RSA colleague Jonathan Rowson is running. (There’s an interesting discussion about the fabulous second event in his spirituality series – a lecture by Guy Claxton – in the RSA Fellows’ Linkedin group at the moment. You can join the group here: http://www.linkedin.com/groups/Royal-Society-encouragement-Arts-Manufactures-3391/about)

    Coaching, as you say, seems very valuable. I mentioned in the case study I wrote about Lynne Sedgmore in ‘AntiHero’ that she made sure that all her staff were entitled to a coach/mentor (at a cost of up to £3,500 pa).

    It’s interesting that the author of the management bestseller ‘Good To Great’, Jim Collins, found that the most effective leaders had an unexpected [and un-heroic] mix: humble, yet tenacious.

    You’re certainly right to point out that simple black-and-white dichotomies like Heroic vs Anti-Heroic can obscure as much as they might reveal.

    At a very minimum, it’s work looking at the table I made on page 68-69 of the AntiHero book – http://osca.co/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Anti-Hero-October-2013.pdf – which illustrates 8 shades of pre-Heroic/Heroic/Post-Heroic leaders, along with their characteristics, strengths, weaknesses, attitude to feedback etc).
    Once you take into account the effects of the situation, the particular task domain being focused on and generally how a leader will be more developed or less developed in each of different aspects of their life, then you start to get to something more ‘realistic’ – but perhaps verging on becoming too messily complex to talk about. And that’s before we throw Freudian psychodynamics and suchlike into the mix, for added realism – with all the displacements, projections, transferences and counter-transferences, repressed ‘Shadow’ etc.

    I like Prof Clare Graves’ notion that our lives are like a perplexing and never-ending ‘Grail Quest’, driven onwards by the latest set of values that encompass us. But we never quite notice that another – perhaps quite opposite – set of values might be emerging to animate our next Grail Quest. A bit like Groundhog Day, perhaps…

    Here’s his actual quote:
    “At each stage of human existence the adult man[/woman] is off on his quest of his holy grail, the way of life he seeks by which to live. At his first level he is on a quest for automatic physiological satisfaction. At the second level he seeks a safe mode of living, and this is followed in turn, by a search for heroic status, for power and glory, by a search for ultimate peace; a search for material pleasure, a search for affectionate relations, a search for respect of self, and a search for peace in an incomprehensible world. And, when he finds he will not find that peace, he will be off on his ninth level quest. As he sets off on each quest, he believes he will find the answer to his existence. Yet, much to his surprise and much to his dismay, he finds at every stage that the solution to existence is not the solution he has come to find. Every stage he reaches leaves him disconcerted and perplexed. It is simply that as he solves one set of human problems he finds a new set in their place. The quest he finds is never ending.”
    Jonathan makes a good point that you can’t get to post/anti-heroic without going through heroic. Though it’s worth adding that some people will have a more independent (extrovert?) approach to life, at whatever leadership stage they are at. They might still look a bit ‘heroic’ even at the most post-heroic ‘Servant Leader’ stages. By contrast others might have a more communal, self-sacrificing bent – and they could look a bit post-heroic, at whatever stage they’re at, even at the most dependent of stages, which might well avoid any leadership activity.

    Arguably this distinction maps to separate vs connected knowing, truth vs compassion, agency vs communion, justice vs care and arguably even to archetypally ‘male’ or ‘female’ approaches.

    We somehow have to see beyond any such personality/gender leanings in order to see whether someone’s really post-Heroic or not.

    (There’s a somewhat jargon heavy discussion of precisely this issue – by the ‘Integral’ philosopher Ken Wilber (who’s recommended by people as diverse as Geoff Mulgan, Bill Clinton and Richard Chartres) – here: http://www.kenwilber.com/Writings/PDF/C-jenny-don.pdf).

    Matthew Mezey
    (RSA Online Community Manager)

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