Chapter 1 Leadership: A Solution Looking for a Problem? – No Cape Required


Leadership: A Solution Looking for a Problem?

People who enjoy meetings should not be in charge of anything.

—Thomas Sowell

It’s time to explore the myth of hero leadership and why we believe that inclusive, abundant leadership is the better option for the 21st century. At the same time, this means looking at the challenges for leadership development and prioritizing that investment. At an individual level, it means flexing between a range of core leadership behaviors and styles, depending on the needs of the team, department, or division, not just the overarching needs of the organization. This is a vital first step. No leadership development activities should take place without clear definitions of an organization’s purpose and leadership needs.

Development and Reward Mechanisms

Sitting in a presentation, the new owners painted the picture: we were on the cusp of greatness, on track to be one of the top five UK financial institutions. Its growth—in the dawn of the digital era—was to be delivered by collaborative cross-selling between operational centers that offered different products. We were taken on a boat trip on London’s River Thames to celebrate the takeover. We were shown an “inspirational” video.

To embed this new dawn, and introduce our leaders to new ways of working, the top team were transported to the beautiful English Lake District for an energetic program of development activities. Our MD became the oldest man to abseil down a forty-meter crag. The top team sang campfire songs in the bus on the way back to London and greeted one another heartily in the office corridors.

And yet what changed? Within weeks, old ways of working were back. And worse, an “us and them” mentality grew up among the very people who were meant to be collaborating, as competitive internal behaviors created win/lose mentalities. And the digital revolution was won by organizations with the biggest purses. The new owners retreated, licked their wounds, and lived to fight another day.

It’s not a tale of disaster. At that time, the City of London was one of the world’s largest financial centers. Regardless of political change, it has an essential strength in its position. Get in early and you can trade with Japan and the Far East; come the afternoon, North America wakes up and there’s a big business to be done.

That organization is now truly global, with a significant European headquarters building dominating the city skyline. The time just wasn’t right for its ambitions. However, we would also argue that the City of London, like other financial centers, has suffered from the core myth of leadership: competition to reach the pinnacle of a solo leader.

Macho males demand ever higher risk-taking. Charismatic leaders pull the wool over the eyes of those people in place to ensure governance. Boardroom battles led to eye-watering salaries and bonuses. Investment in IT systems did not deliver. Mergers and acquisitions made no sense.

This win/lose mentality stems from development investment and activities that promote the hero leader myth. The point of this story isn’t to take a pop at any particular leadership development program. It’s to pose the following questions: Is leadership development the solution? Or is it actually part of the problem? What problems is it solving or creating? And what kind of leadership is truly needed for this, specific, organization? Setbacks are common in organizational development and don’t equate to “failure”—yet how can we reduce organization development risks and improve success rates?

Good leadership plays an important part in today’s rapidly changing world. Change itself, the complexities and uncertainties, and the volatility and ambiguities faced by people every day mean that it’s a must. But more of the same is not the right answer. Any organization that perpetuates traditional stereotypes and puts a man at the pinnacle of the organization, hero-like, with his cape flapping in the wind, is not going to be the most successful.

It may be “successful enough” for some, but as shareholders discover the hidden price paid for the 19th-century practices in the 21st-century climate, why settle for the second best when there’s so much untapped talent?

This isn’t an “anti-man” diatribe either. The gender of the person at the top isn’t the issue. Women are as likely to believe the hero leader myth and fall into its trap as men. And the media loves the “fallen hero” myth. It builds up people and tricks them into believing that they really are that hero. It keeps audience figures up with each new twist and turn in the plot. And when leaders fail (as inevitably they do), the media are baying for blood. And the organization sees the solution as simply replacing the old hero with a new one.

Yet where’s the evidence for an “abundant leadership” model?

A 2011 UK Parliament report quoted a European research that showed that “strong stock market growth among European companies is most likely to occur where there is a higher proportion of women in senior management teams1” and that companies with more women on their boards were found to outperform their rivals with a 42% higher return in sales, 66% higher return on invested capital and 53% higher return on equity.2

A 2015 Grant Thornton report3 showed that companies with diverse executive boards outperform peers run by all-male boards, based on listed companies in India, the United Kingdom, and the United States. This is not news. As a 1994 U.S. report4 put it: “diversity in the workplace is profitable.”

Organizations which excel at leveraging diversity … will experience better financial performance in the long run than organizations which are not effective in managing diversity.

Note the words “proportion” and “diversity” by the way. What we’re talking about here is what we call “balanced boards.” And if you’re a limited company, why wouldn’t you want to tap into a 42 percent higher return on sales? If you’re a shareholder in that company, why wouldn’t you want to see a 66 percent higher return on invested capital? Or a 53 percent higher return on equity? All of this without any increase in costs. The belief that the solution is power in the hands of a single person is what gets in the way of success. When staff and shareholders see that the only thing standing in their way to greater success is a collective myth of the hero leader; and that all that’s needed to get started is a shift toward a more inclusive, more abundant, leadership, then the game is afoot.

A different approach to leadership, tailored to the needs of the organization, is needed. Leadership is delivered by the abundance of talented people across the organization, who each contribute their different skills, strengths, and experience to a cohesive whole. This book is not about targets for diversity and inclusion, or new legislation. Our focus is the development of abundant leadership so that organizations have the capabilities to better succeed. The Forton Group’s Abundant Leadership Model, where emotionally engaging styles (based on the Goleman et al.5 model), observable behaviors (based on the Schroder6 high performance model), within an ever-changing context, is central to this book (Figure 1.1):

Figure 1.1 The Abundant Leadership Model; develop leadership behaviors and engaging styles, appropriate to the context

Source: © The Forton Group, 2018.

We’re using words like “abundant,” “inclusive,” and “engaging” to describe this next level of leadership development. However, we encourage you not to get hung up on the adjectives, because it’s about the kind of leadership your organization needs, not our definitions. We’re using “abundant” because we like it best. You get to choose the word you prefer.

Once the organization has addressed the central questions about what it needs to be successful in the future, a picture of the needed balanced leadership profile will emerge. And if people see that more women, younger people, people from diverse backgrounds, experience, and talents are needed, then they can be supported and developed to achieve those goals.

The “Hero” Is Dead: Long Live True Heroes

Since we’re no longer talking about “hero leadership,” let’s regain the lost meaning of the word “hero” and confine it to the people in our society who truly deserve the term—the “Gold Star” heroes; the work of our blue light services; the lifesaving successes of our doctors and nurses; or people fundraising for their favorite charity, whose crazy challenges really do translate into scientific breakthroughs.

The myth of the hero leader is embedded in our cultures. As Joseph Campbell’s scholarship7 into archetypal mythologies demonstrated, the traditional hero leader who was called by need to slay the dragon, rescue the princess, and return home with treasures is global. The need to be a hero in the eyes of others is a primal one—to demonstrate strength, cunning, and, ultimately, wisdom. Of course, many heroes fail at that last hurdle.

Yet just as we no longer send men out to hunt for woolly mammoth or saber-toothed tigers, we no longer need that stereotype at the pinnacle of organizational power. It’s a tough myth to bust. Hero films, featuring ever more battles between “superheroes,” are being made at an increasing rate since 2000 and have never been more popular. There’s a problem with this: the target audience8 for these films are young males, aged 12 to 18 years, with older men as the secondary audience, reliving their comic-reading youth.

The dragon we need to slay today is the hero myth that’s stuck in the past, in a nostalgic memory of male youth. One part of the myth that everyone prefers to forget is the annual replacement of the hero. An individual was given elevated status, but only for a defined period of time, before he was slain and replaced. Another part of this myth is about going solo. Don’t people watch what happens when someone says, “let’s split up” in those superhero films?

So, let’s slay these “solo hero” myths and get real about developing leadership. It’s not that we’re killjoys, out to spoil peoples’ fun or dismiss popular culture. We’re far from it. The point is that it’s great in the movie world but dysfunctional in the world of organizational development. Today’s world of work demands different realities, not yesterday’s myths.

Hero leadership masks other problems, too. It’s closely allied to the “command and control” myth, where that leader believes that success comes from telling people what to do and “what’s measured, gets done.” This functional, transactional approach to leadership and delivery just isn’t enough anymore. It’s fine if we’re talking about widgets or any kind of product that needs a consistent quality, churned out day after day. And even there, a more inclusive style of leadership will be more successful.

Going back to our aging leaders abseiling down the cliff front, the mythical and heroic style of physical challenge, embedded in the dark ages, really didn’t address that organization’s needs. Saluting someone for that achievement perpetuates the single hero leader myth, when the organization needed better collaboration and communications. They needed to get over their competitive mind set, not embed it.

These are specific leadership behaviors that can be developed in people willing to make that mindset shift. And it makes sense to identify people who have innate talent in this, as a starting point. Their age, gender, or culture are no bars to these ways of working. Once we’ve separated the real needs and contexts from the outdated myth of hero leadership; when we identify the needed leadership behaviors and styles, we can finally get to grips with the issues.

Today’s Abundant Leadership Is about People Who Care

As part of a talent management program, I worked with a leader running a factory making the cement for joint operations (hips and knees, typically). What was once a rare and risky intervention to reduce pain and restore function is now routine; these operations transform peoples’ lives.

As well as the skill of the surgeon and operating team, there are two key elements that need to be at a consistent high quality: the replacement joint and the cement that fixes it in place. As you’d expect, the cement is made in strict and clinically clean conditions to a tight specification. Even small variations in the environment can render batches unusable—at great expense. The organizational challenge is to get it right, every day.

Telling wasn’t the answer: people knew what to do. Nor was measuring, because a batch delivered is a batch completed, right? What’s vital are the smallest details: changes in humidity; accuracy in the mix; ambient temperature. These are the tiny elements that made up the bigger picture. You need employees who are alert and responsive to the slightest variations. And the solution lay in looking at the employee-engagement scores. Compare the high-quality production shifts to that of the lower quality. Their levels of engagement, interest, and feelings of fulfillment in a job well done were noticeably different in both groups.

This is an example of abundant leadership: people leading from wherever they are, making the needed adjustments because they care about the details and the quality. Today, the power to make a difference lies at the edges, not at the center of command. The boss can’t be there 24/7; collectively, the shift workers can. All of them can deliver technically; the challenge is to get them to care about the detail. No one should wait for someone higher up the authority chain to tell them to make adjustments, when the information that drives the decision is in front of them.

Valuing and applying employee-engagement methods are a success story that combines metrics with human behavior. It also demands a different style of leadership—people who can inspire, motivate, and support teams of people to work together and succeed, and to be genuinely interested in those tiny details that make all the difference. The good news was that this leader saw the need for a flex to a different leadership style and was willing to give it a go. And because the technical team was as willing as he was to achieve a more consistently high-quality product, they were open to a team response that led to reduced wastage and a more successful plant.

We’re regularly asked to measure the impacts of our leadership development work or to produce evidence for employee engagement, both of which are achievable and affordable. Fewer organizations are willing to explore the impacts of poor leadership: the avoidable costs of wastage, yet this is where better leadership can have an impact. The most successful leadership programs start with this fundamental question: What kind of leadership does this organization need?

What Do We Mean by Leadership Development?

One size does not fit all. A sales or marketing function and culture will need a very different style of leadership to a technical, IT, or finance function and culture. At an individual level, organizations need to support leaders to develop their organizational awareness and decision-making skills so that their approaches are relevant to the context and make sense to people.

Help people understand that leadership styles are flexible. Different situations will demand different responses; from different people. Drawing on organizational diversity is a strength. Step one in the journey toward successful leadership development has to be identifying what you really need. And if the answer is better team work—from the top to the bottom in the organization—then traditional leadership development may get in your way.

Or it may be that tapping into your talent is the key first step. Look at people with potential who don’t fit in the traditional mold of “leader.” That includes women, young people, and those from different cultures to the majority, to escape from the leadership monoculture.

Understand the context within which you are operating, and can foresee operating, at your desired future point. Define the organizational purpose; align and adapt that for each part of the organization. For each part of the organization to be successful, look at the leadership behaviors needed for that part.

Leadership Development: Not the First Step

Leadership development is an integral part of the organizational improvement pipeline, but it’s not the first step. To build capabilities, there are some questions to address along the way:

  • Decide what kinds of leadership the organization really needs to be successful.
  • Replace the competitive, solo hero mentality with balanced teams who work well together.
  • Create a consistent leadership culture from top to bottom in the organization based on behaviors, styles, and context.

The question of purpose is vital: finding out what’s important about achieving that vision as well as seeing and defining the vision.

It’s important to make the purpose as tangible as possible: to identify what it’s going to take to make this a reality and not let it remain a dream. You may need pioneers and iconoclasts to challenge the status quo. Or you may need your current leaders to develop their coaching and mentoring skills to support the emerging generation of leaders. Whatever you discover, we confidently predict that the answer won’t be a rerun of the “hero leader” stereotype. It will be a more inclusive and balanced solution.

We also predict that leadership development will focus on behaviors, competences, and styles. And the right solution might be to invest in team building or employee engagement first, because you’ll flex to your context, not an “off the shelf” solution. Whatever the solution for your organization, start with the key question, “What’s the leadership your organization needs to make real the purpose you want?” This creates focus for your future success.

What’s interesting about this method is that consensus reduces kickback. When people are invited to consider what’s best for the organization, it depersonalizes the challenge. It helps to see the need in a less personal light and to see oneself as part of the solution. Because the experiences that gave people those gray hairs over the years are valuable, their insight and experiences can support the next generation of leaders to speed up their development. Mentoring and coaching helps today’s top team feel connected to the future, in ways that create a win/win/win for the new leaders, today’s leaders and the organization.

Use the No Cape Required Worksheet to Get Started

Get started with the No Cape Required worksheet; then build your own questions through a co-creative process with others to find out what questions you need to be asking about your own organization’s leadership. Some of the methods come from the thinking behind paradigm shifts. The questions are designed to get the brain to step out of its normal transactional flow.

In this way, you’ll discover the iconoclasts and the pioneers in your organization, ready to look at leadership in new ways. You’ll also find the cynics who don’t see the point, because, after all, nothing changes, right? And then you’ll find a majority of people who, when presented with good ideas and compelling evidence, are prepared to give it a go and come along with you on the journey.

In Chapter 2, we explore different ways of defining the leadership development challenge: a puzzle or a problem?

Worksheet: Stimulus Questions

Flexing between a range of core leadership behaviors and styles depends on the needs of the team, department, or division, not just the overarching needs of the organization.

No leadership development investment or activities should take place without first clearly defining the organization purpose and leadership needs.

We call this the leadership development purpose vision statement. Use these questions to create your statement:

  1. 1.Paradigm shift question: What’s impossible to do today in your organization that, if it were possible today, would fundamentally change the organization?9
  2. 2.The voice of the customer: What are customers and other stakeholders telling you?
  3. 3.Leadership development purpose: Create a leadership development purpose statement based around these questions:
  4. What does success look like?
  5. How will people know it’s successful?
  6. What will they be saying about the new leadership culture?
  7. What values will still be important at that time?
  8. What needs to be different to achieve this?
  9. 4.Suppose you wake up tomorrow and a miracle has happened: leadership in this organization has happened, exactly the way you hoped. What changed to make this happen?
  10. 5.Leadership development purpose vision statement:
  11. From the answers to the questions above, create a statement that clearly and concisely states your leadership development purpose.
  12. Feel free to play about with it, test it on friends and colleagues, and then edit it a bit more.


1.McKinsey & Company. 2007. Women Matter: Gender Diversity: A Corporate Performance Driver (Report) (New York, NY: McKinsey & Company).

2.L. Joy, N.M. Carter, H.M. Wagener, and S. Narayanan. 2007. “The Bottom Line: Corporate Performance and Women’s Representation on Boards,” Catalyst.

3.F. Lagerberg. 2015. The Value of Diversity (Report) (Chicago, IL: Grant Thornton).

4.U.S. Glass Ceiling Commission. 1995. “Good for Business: Making Full Use of the Nation’s Human Capital: A Fact-finding Report of the Federal Glass Ceiling Commission,” Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office.

5.See D. Goleman, R. Boyatzis, and A. McKee. 2002. The New Leaders: Transforming the Art of Leadership into the Science of Results (London, UK: Little Brown). (AKA “Primal Leadership in the US”)

6.H.M. Schroder. 1989. Managerial Competence: The Key to Excellence (Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt).

7.J. Campbell. [1949] 2008. Hero with a Thousand Faces, 3rd ed. (New York, NY: Pantheon Press).

8.Superhero Films., (accessed May 15, 2018).

9.With acknowledgments to Joel A. Barker, 2001. “The New Business of Paradigms,” Classic Edition.