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Heroic leadership: the order of the day?


Across the country we have been applauding our key workers, often described as heroes, in ways never experienced before, each of us wanting to demonstrate our immense gratitude and admiration. So what does the idea of being a ‘hero’ mean for leaders in health and care?

Even in ordinary times people can make their leader a hero – and sometimes a scapegoat. Leaders become public property onto whom others project things and, whether they like it or not, leaders can be burdened with unrealistic expectations. We are all dealing with circumstances that none of us could have imagined a few months ago, so it is no wonder we want someone to show us the way and take care of us. Yet how can leaders possibly have all the answers in these unprecedented times? The heroic label can feel like just another miserable weight on your shoulders.

As a leaders it will be hard for you to avoid these dynamics, but you can work with them (Binney et al 2005). For many years now evidence has suggested that heroic leadership – a model in which a single individual is perceived as driving an organisation to success – does not create better outcomes for leaders or teams. Leadership is about relationships, not being a superhero. Keeping the five points below in mind can help you to let go of this and support your teams to keep hold of their collective strength.

Five points to keep in mind

  • Remember we are all just human and you are doing your best.

  • Your imperfections make you valuable as a leader – people can relate to you and trust you with their own uncertainties if they know you have some too.

  • In moments of stress, draw a breath, keep in touch with your humanity, emotions and intuition.

  • Ask others for their views – they will have ideas you haven’t thought of.

  • There is no need to constantly be the superhero. Keep hold of your courage for those moments when you do need to speak up or out.

Reference: Binney G, Williams C, Wilke G (third edition 2012). Living leadership: a practical guide for ordinary heroes. London: Financial Times Publishing International.

Want to know more?

Dig a little deeper into this topic by exploring ‘Is heroic leadership all bad?’, a 10-minute read by Mitch McCrimmon in the Ivey Business Journal.

You can also read our report, The future of leadership and management in the NHS: no more heroes.

Leading through Covid-19

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