Do We Want Leaders to Be Heroes?

Recent events, such as Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker’s actions to save neighbors from their burning home and Navy SEAL Tyrone Woods fighting to his death to save his comrades in Benghazi, have caused many people to equate these actions with leadership.

We normally think of heroes or heroines as people who, forsaking their personal security (physical and financial), comfort and well-being, put themselves at physical and economic risk to preserve those things for others. Is it necessary for leaders to be heroes? While the acts of Booker and Woods draw praise and adulation, and deservedly so, are they leadership traits?

I think they have little to do with leadership, but a lot to do with character. There are many situations in the hurried life that we live these days where someone needs to step forward and take action to come to the rescue of those in danger or distress, or to remedy a challenging situation. It is good that there are people who take those actions. Some say that we don’t have enough of it. There seem to be too many situations where people watch but do nothing to help others in obvious distress and danger. (Have you seen the TV show “What Would You Do?”)

Leaders don’t need to be heroes to be effective. More times than not, those who do try to be heroic create an example that causes others to be heroic in situations where heroic behavior is not needed and not even desirable, as it may increase risks for others. I can make the case that for the greater good, leaders should not put themselves at risk, because such behavior may put many others at risk too, since it takes the leader from timely actions and decisions necessary to ensure the survival and future well-being of those who follow.

As my co-author and I wrote in Measure of a Leader, the measure of a leader is the behavior of the followers.  Effectiveness is not determined by the behavior of the leaders but the followers.  If followers fail to take action or behave in ways that are detrimental to the good of others, I don’t care how many heroic actions leaders take; it has little to say about their effectiveness as a leader but a lot about their character and character matters.

To paraphrase Adlai Stevenson, President Kennedy’s Ambassador to the U.N., “When I give a speech, people say ‘Good speech,’ but when Kennedy gives a speech, people say, ‘Let’s march.’”