Heroic leadership: the order of the day?

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Part of Leading through Covid-19

Leading through Covid-19

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.


Emi Inetianbor

Paediatric registrar,
NHS District general hospital
Comment date
01 May 2020

The covid crisis has brought out the leadership in all of us. We have all teamed up and made brand new rotas in less than a week. We have organised ourselves to work more for the common good of ourselves , our colleagues and our patients. We are each taking up more responsibilities / providing more support for our colleagues bearing in mind that we are all affected. Our new rotas take into account some of our colleagues who might be sick or self isolating. It bears in mind our colleagues who might come in later than usual for childcare reasons.
Our handovers are more precise and more structured as we all want to achieve more in a short times.
We have embraced technology and used it to our advantage and as a group we have been happy to move forward and face our challenges as opportunities to better our practice and our service delivery.
We have become more compassionate and appreciative of our teams realising that we could not have achieved it on our own.

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