The death and re-birth of “The Hero Leader”

The Heroic stereotype as perpetuated by the media as a dominant leadership archetype is not the true hero – it is the “Spurious Hero”. The “True Hero”, as portrayed in our great myths, is one who has subsumed their self-referencing ego into an experientially-based understanding of the greater good within a higher reality. Current social and technological dynamics mean that the credibility of the Spurious Hero is set to diminish. As human consciousness develops in the coming decades, the Spurious Hero will be replaced by the True Hero.

Christopher Vogler’s (2007) analysis of Hollywood films outlines the 12 stages of the journey

1.Ordinary World – The hero’s normal world before the story begins

2.Call to Adventure – The hero is presented with a problem, challenge or adventure

3.Refusal of the Call – The hero refuses the challenge or journey, usually because he’s scared??

4.Meeting with the Mentor – The hero meets a mentor to gain advice or training for the adventure??

5.Crossing the First Threshold – The hero crosses leaves the ordinary world and goes into the special world??

6.Tests, Allies, Enemies – The hero faces tests, meets allies, confronts enemies and learns the rules of the Special World.??

7.Approach – The hero has hit setbacks during tests and may need to try a new idea

8.Ordeal – The biggest life or death crisis

9.Reward – The hero has survived death, overcomes his fear and now earns the reward ?

10.The Road Back – The hero must return to the Ordinary World.

11.Resurrection Hero – another test where the hero faces death – he has to use everything he’s learned

12.Return with Elixir – The hero returns from the journey with the “elixir”, and uses it to help everyone in the Ordinary World

Stages 1 to 4 and 11 to 12 occur in what is called the “ordinary world” – the social reality of the Hero.

Stages 5 to 10 take place in the “special world” – a world of magic or another dimension in myths and art, and the individual subconscious in psychology.

As well as the age-old expression in all forms of storytelling, The Hero’s Journey has recently been the basis of many psychotherapeutic, leadership development and coaching models, the purpose of which is expressed by Dilts and Gilligan (2009) quoting Martha Graham:

“There is a vitality, a life-force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. If you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not yours to determine how good it is, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep the channel open.”

In any form, the purpose or end-point of the journey is for The Hero to move from a state in which his purpose is to serve himself and the needs of his individual ego, to a state in which he understands his purpose to be to serve the greater good/broader community – from a “lower” to a “higher” level of consciousness. Great teachers of the major traditions exemplify this9, as well as current cultural heroes such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Aung San Suu Kyi.

The Hero in Everyday Experience

In whatever scenario, The Hero, of course, is the one who will save us. The Hero is stronger, braver, more knowledgeable, more proficient, more ethical, more self-sacrificing – more of whatever it is we need – than we ordinary folk. These qualities are aspects of the “elixir” that The Hero has discovered through the trials of his journey, unique to him and firmly grounded through hard-won experience.

Unfortunately, the most common expressions of The Hero fail to achieve this ideal. For reasons of individual psychology and social conditioning too numerous to go into here, the mantle of The Hero is assumed without the proving forge of The Journey, with more or less damaging consequences. So strong is the paradigm of The Hero in our psyche that, under pressure, we attempt to copy the qualities and behaviours of The Hero without the underpinning of the experience of our individual, inner journey.

This means that, however well we may emulate those qualities, they are expressed through the lower, ego- focused consciousness and end up serving the individual rather than the common good. The result may be termed the “spurious Hero”.

Haslam, in his analysis of the social psychology of leadership (Haslam et al 2011), gives a good example of how the remaining ego results in the undermining of the spurious Hero’s purpose, and cites this as the reason for the truth of the assertion that in politics “all political lives … end in failure …”. Haslam also points out how the difference in leadership purpose, or consciousness, underlies the distinction between “effective” and “good” leadership:

“Leadership is effective when it is successful in mobilizing followers and wielding the group as a powerful social force; but it is only good if the mobilization of that social force helps achieve laudable and desirable social outcomes (Burns & Sorensen, 2006; Conger 1998)”.

“Tyrants”, whether on the world stage or in the meeting room, serve only their self interest (however much they may attempt to delude themselves that they serve a higher purpose, e.g. from Hitler’s lebensraum for the super race to the middle manager’s “Don’t question me – I know I’m right”). Thus, the remaining ego of the spurious Hero causes the degeneration of The Hero into the master, the monster or the tyrant.

The Hero in Business

Our leadership development work over the past decade through Extraordinary Leadership Limited(www.xleadership.comwith senior individuals, teams and organisations has shown us that, in business, this spurious Hero continues to command the meeting room despite the many works of leadership analysis available. Examples of such analyses include Jim Collins’ (2001) distinction between the “Level 4” leader with “professional will” and the “Level 5” leader with their “paradoxical blend of professional will and personal humility”, and Goleman et al’s (2003) study showing that “Visionary” and “Coaching” leadership are the most positive styles – even though the perils of a “Hero Culture” are widely recognised. As our clients say when asked: “The problem with a “Hero Culture”, or “Hero” Boss, is that the hero needs an emergency to fix, and if there isn’t one available for him to prove his worth to himself and everyone else, he’ll make one up!” Yet, despite this understanding, CEOs continue to model the spurious Hero, young and middle managers feel that they have to replicate it and so the limiting, short-term, individualistic, competitive, ego/fear-driven culture persists.

Forces perpetuating spurious hero role models

Robert Sutton (2010) calls this, graphically, “asshole management” in his book “The No Asshole Rule”. In hierarchical organisations where dependency and fear are generated, the behaviours of those at the top of the hierarchy are replicated by those below. As Richard Barrett points out (2006):

“An organisation cannot operate at a higher level of consciousness than the personal consciousness of the leadership group … In general, most organisations operate with a “default” culture because it arises unconsciously … the culture is simply recognised as “the way things are done around here”.”

In politics, The Hero – also known as “the strong” leader – is well established. In the UK, much commentary has been made over the past decades about the shift to a “presidential”, personality-based style of political leadership, indicating that the impact of mass media is undermining even those systems designed to hold the Spurious Hero in check as issues are simplified and personalised. Elsewhere, particularly in more paternalistic/hierarchical societies that operate a more feudal system of power and patronage, the paradigm of the all-powerful “Emperor/saviour” is more obviously alive and well and is exploited by the Spurious Hero.

The recent history of many African states, such as Zimbabwe, and North Korea are clear examples of how theself-serving purpose of the Spurious Hero leads to repression and dictatorship. Such societies show clearly how power-based hierarchies generate a “feudal” search for the “grace and favour” of those in power, an effect seen less clearly in most any corporation anywhere in the world.

And as soon as one Hero lets us down (or gets torn down) through revealing his ordinariness or through one form of scandal or another, we promote another in his place. We willfully support the delusion of heroic superiority through the cycle of adulation, dependency and rejection that the Spurious Hero paradigm generates, lacking as it does the firm foundation of developmental experience.

Why do we perpetuate the Spurious Hero?

Just as leaders cannot exist without followers … so Heroes cannot exist without those who worship them.

The status of The Hero, like that of any leader, is granted, not taken. Why do we, increasingly knowingly, support this cycle? Why are we continually looking for A Hero who will help us believe our delusions are real?

Some may see it as the constant swing between the poles of the paradox of authority as described by Smith and Berg (1987) in their book Paradoxes of Group Life – we want strong leaders but we do not want to be told what to do! Others may see it as a social manifestation of the child-parent relationship of Transactional Analysis, the projection of deep individual/group psychologies, or a function of the need for belonging and the search for social identity (Haslam, op.cit). Whatever the cause, the result is the same. Lacking the means to discriminate between the spurious Hero and the essence of the true Hero returning from his journey with his “treasure”, we project our fears and insecurities, our need for dependency, on those who claim the attributes of The Hero, or on those upon whom we thrust those attributes – “Please, guide us, help us, protect us, save us, … take responsibility, do it for us and save us the pain …” (Gemmill, 1992).

Running out of Credibility

The pace of change is increasing rapidly in all spheres (Laszlo & Dennis, 2013). From those in major cities throughout the world exposed to 24 hour news and internet access, to those in rural villages whose lives have been transformed through the mobile phone and micro-investment programmes, the increasing complexity of our world becomes ever more obvious and harder to ignore. Unavoidable exposure to other viewpoints and cultures is dissolving cultural certainties and driving those who wish to maintain them to increasingly desperate measures.

We are living in an increasingly “VUCA” (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) world (Johansen, 2007), surrounded by “Wicked” (insolvably complex) problems (Camilus, 2008). It is no longer possible to believe that one person has the answers. The cult of the Hero is cracking. Witness European politicians

trying to assure everyone that they have answers to the current economic issues at the same time as they were discussing sanctioning one of their member states to steal 10% of its citizens’ bank accounts. Note the rejection of authoritarian governments in the Arab spring, and more recently in Turkey and Brazil. Across the globe, people are increasingly holding their leaders to account due to the widespread distribution of information via the Internet and other digital media. It is less and less possible to hide aspects of yourself or information about yourself, or to create spurious reasons for political action or repression.

Things fall apart…

Old certainties dissolve, and the institutions, systems, loyalties and frames of reference built on them creak and collapse. Expectations and credible references change. The generation entering social adulthood, “Generation Y”, is less interested than previous generations in material things and more interested in meaningful work experience and things they feel good about …. Their reference groups are their peers rather than loyalty to organisations.” 10

Within this increasingly transparent world, the old-style heroic leader cuts an increasingly forlorn and pathetic figure. In the past, the more our belief systems came under pressure, the more we cleaved to the saving Hero, and history is full of examples of the damage wrought by this willful self delusion on the part of various populations. But now, under the glare of our increasingly global consciousness as a species, we just cannot believe in the “great” leaders any more, nor do the institutions they would “save” for us have sufficient credibility, however much we may try to delude ourselves. In the UK, past “pillars of society” such as the banks, the police, the health service, the BBC, parliament, have fallen to scandal one by one. We know this, but hang on to the increasingly moth-eaten paradigm through lack of a trusted alternative.


But that dying paradigm was never that of the true Hero. It was a specious abstraction, simplified to the point of inversion through the filter of immature egos, untested in the fire of their own journey, and therefore centered still on their own protection and power.

The basic truth of the Hero as leader today remains what it has always been – that true leaders do not “know”. They have a good working hypothesis, an awareness of the changing moment and a deep connection with their purpose. They do not expect or demand loyalty or followership – these are granted by those who resonate with that purpose in a constant state of assessment and co-creation. The relationship between the true Hero leader and followers is not one of fear and dependency, of parent to child (as it is with the Spurious Hero), but one of transparent cooperation and enlightened, adult-to-adult, mutual self- interest.

Accepting that it is not possible to know The Truth – that, if anything, ignorance is the truth of the situation – and being comfortable with this, gives new strength and substance to the leadership proposition – we all know it is true. It re-sets and catalyses a new relationship between leader and follower.

Shakespeare’s Henry V Crispin Day speech is a prime example of this11. The King does not begin his speech by trying to justify his position, or to convince his soldiers that all will be well. He meets them on the ground oftheir truth – that they are all set to die:

“If we are marked to die, we are enough To do our country loss …

… he that hath no stomach to this fight,

Let him depart. His passport shall be made,

And crowns for convoy put into his purse.

We would not die in that man’s company

That fears his fellowship to die with us.”

(The rest, as they say, is history …)

This acknowledgement, that knowing the “truth” or the “right” answer in any given situation is not possible, undermines the old paradigm of “I’m the leader – follow me!” It means that the starting point of good leadership today is “What do you think?”, “What do you see?” This immediately promotes awareness and understanding. It promotes environments based on collaboration, connection, trust and cooperation for the greater good. It undermines the old orders based on fear, greed, division and competition. The primacy of the need to explore the views and gain the input of others completely displaces the possibility of domination, of command and control/bullying leadership.

Differentiating between Spurious and True Hero leaders

In fact, it is the need to demonstrate “I know” that is the clearest differentiator between the Spurious Hero leader and the true Hero leader. The true Hero, fairly grounded in his connection with self as a result of his journey, is able to see and connect with others and co-create with them a beneficial result. The Spurious Hero is constantly trying to reinforce his false sense of self that has no foundation in experience, and, focused on self rather than the common good, must dominate others to maintain this falsehood.

What replaces the fear upon which the dominance and control of the Spurious Hero leader was based?

Purpose and intention, understanding and powerful, realistic, dynamic humility …

This increased connection as the basis of leadership will promote the continual recognition and removal ofself-orientated, unnecessary, diminishing fears of the socially-created personality that defines itself by separation and thereby gives rise to the fears that block growth. The need to define ourselves by “heroic acts” and by the gratitude/admiration of others will be replaced by the need to enable harmonic action within and by the group. The beginnings of this evolution are seen in the recent growth of Community Interest Companies, Social Enterprises and social entrepreneurship.

Instead of trying to impose a pre-conceived vision, leadership becomes a continual dance of action, reassessment and further action, integrating the views of those involved within the ever-changing context of the VUCA environment of which the leader’s and team’s actions are a dynamic element.

Unlike the Heroic Leader, this new, connected leader’s purpose is not to be the best, the first, the most valuable; it is not about recognition or praise or the leaving of a legacy; it is not even to be the most harmonious, the most aware and connected, or the most humble, contributing servant. These are all facets of the isolated, self-referencing ego and its constant efforts to define itself.

These fears of self-concern are dissolved in the aim of serving the harmonious development of the whole. The great selfless leaders of our time – e.g. Gandhi, Mandela – do not represent aspirational aberrations unattainable by normal folk. They provide the template of the leadership qualities that will become the norm

Even though those who follow may not reach their levels of Heroic leadership, these figures continue to act as aspirational guides …

and this, of course, clarifies the new “Heroic” leader – the person who has completed their inner journey, conquered the dragon of their ego and returned to help the progress of the whole through a vibrant connection with their followers focused on the common good. The true “Hero”, in fact.


Barrett, Richard (2006) Building a Values-Drive Organisation, Butterworth-HeinemannBerne, Eric (1964). Games People Play, Penguin

Camillus, J C (2008), Strategy as a Wicked Problem, Harvard Business Review, May 2008, pages 98-106Campbell, Joseph (1968). The Hero With A Thousand Faces 2nd Edition, Princeton University Press Collins, James (2001). Good to Great, Random House Business

Dilts and Gilligan (2009) The Hero’s Journey; A Voyage Of Self-Discovery, Crown House Publishing Ltd. Gemmill, G. and Oakley, J. (1992) ‘Leadership: An Alienating Social Myth?’ Human Relations, 45(2), pp. 113-129.

Goleman, Boyatzis, McKee (2003). The New Leaders: Transforming the Art of Leadership, Sphere

Haslam, Reicher and Platow (2011). The New Psychology of Leadership, Psychology Press, pages 214-215Johansen, Robert (2007). Get There Early: Sensing the Future to Compete in the Present, Berrett-Koehler

Laszlo, E and Dennis, K (2013). Dawn of the Akashik Age: New Consciousness, Quantum resonance and the Future of the World, Inner Traditions, page 69

Smith and Berg (1987) Paradoxes of Group Life: Understanding Conflict, Paralysis and Movement in Group Dynamics, Jossey Bass Business and Management

Sutton, Robert (2010). The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilised Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t, Piatkus

Vogler, Christopher (2007). The Writer’s Journey 3rd Edition, Michael Wise Productions

About the author

Jefferson Cann has worked with leadership development for individuals, teams and organisations for the past 10 years. Prior to that, he had a successful 23-year international career in industry. He is co-founder of Extraordinary Leadership Limited (www.xleadership.comwith Nigel Linacre. The cornerstone of his work is

“self leadership”, rooted in a deep connection with one’s personal truth and purpose, which forms the basis for each person’s unique contribution to the greater good. E-mail

This article first appeared in e-O&P Vol 20 No 3, Autumn 2013 and is reproduced by kind permission of AMED

Cann Cannefferson CannJefferson Cann

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