COVID-19: Shifting hero leadership dynamics that bring overwhelm

Take off your cape! Your hero leadership leaves you shouldering too much


We love talking with incredible leaders who are giving so much in these crazy times. You have risen to the challenge and are a powerful force for your schools and communities.

But we also hear you are tired. You feel the weight of all that you have to figure out. It’s as if the whole organization handed you a cape, expected you to be a hero and are watching to see what tall building (or remote strategy) you will leap in a single bound.

Today, we want to encourage you to take the cape off.

And, lovingly, we want to help you see that your heroic moves just might be fueling the very dynamics that leave you feeling so alone.


The paradox of hero leadership

COVID-19 turned the world upside down, and after the shock you may have turned around to see a giant crowd looking to you for the answer. Empathetic leaders saw their team and families in distress. Courageously, they dove in and battled with the unknown until they could offer a clear solution. And, like all heroes, they did it at great personal sacrifice.

But there is a fatal flaw in hero leadership. Each time you save the day, the crowd learns how much they need you. And they begin to see themselves as victims that need saving the next time complexity and ambiguity arises.



Three leadership moves that reinforce hero/victim dynamics

Let’s look at three ways you may be shouldering too much:

  • Rescuing others from discomfort. Typically, you create a plan, put clarity around what your team needs to do - and assign them manageable tasks. But let’s be real; COVID-19 left us all swimming in an ocean of ambiguity. With empathetic muscles on overdrive, the risk is that hero leaders respond to others’ discomfort by heaping new work on themselves.

  • Doing too much of the heavy thinking. We see hero leaders say “I’ll figure exactly out what needs to be done, and then my team can run the play.” This happens especially in moments leaders just might not trust the work product that might come back to them. So hero leaders default to being the brains, hoping their people will be the hands. This is exhausting for you - and leaves others with weak muscles to wrestle with complexity. As a result, all of the later challenges that arise come back to the hero to get solved.

  • Sharing once it’s perfect. Hero leaders have high standards for themselves. They may say “Just give me two weeks to come up with a really strong solution, and I’ll get back to you.” The challenge is that leaves you working day and night while others grow increasingly impatient. Once you produce the beautiful plan (ta da!) they poke holes in it because they haven’t been through the thinking with you. In the end, you are all exasperated and exhausted.


Moves to shift out of hero mode

You don’t have to shoulder so much; it is possible to create something powerful together. You know there are other smart, capable people around you. But how to shift?

Ironically, embracing your humanity is the biggest invitation you can give your people to step up to their greatness. It doesn’t mean that you leave them in chaos. But you can make three moves to shift to a place of shared discovery, partnership, and abundance.

  • Shift to an “imperfect; together” culture shift. Resilient, creative leaders find ways to reorient toward iterative, collaborative work. They express their faith in what they collectively do. And they are honest in saying that they are human too. They tell people that they need them and what they can give, and they ask for help before they reach their limits. Simply put, they celebrate how good work done together is far superior to perfect work achieved alone.

  • Share guardrails, don’t build the road. Resilient, creative leaders leave some of the exciting thinking left to be done. They let go of control, but they do it in smart ways. They tap delegation muscles and align with people upfront on the rationale, their picture of success, and how they might collaborate together. And - especially for team members where this may be a stretch - they create ways for team members to internalize and share their early thinking back. (Check out these two tools - a delegation tool and a “first steps” repeat back form that can bring some rigor to your delegation.)

  • Create ways to share early work products. Resilient, creative leaders show work that is still in progress to get feedback on it. (It might take courage to show something that is messy! They take a breath and do it anyway.) They know that sharing early helps others to orient in the same direction, and reserves their capacity to respond to suggestions before it’s too late. They realize that feedback doesn’t signal failure, and they ask authentic questions and adopt a curious, learner mindset to help them adjust.

  • Provide for flexibility by keeping it simple. Resilient, creative leaders know that doing these moves take time. They build in space for the team to work on their pieces, bring them back together to share and then go back out to iterate and finalize. Keeping it simple makes it easier to adjust to bumps in the road, so the need for heroic rescues is reduced.


Start the shift today

Sometimes it takes a moment to get positioned for others to do heavy lifting. We get it!

But there are small things you can do today to create head space and share the spotlight. We wanted to close with a reflection tool to help you think about how to distribute that work, bit by bit, so that you all can do superhuman work, together.




Other Leading Elephants Resources That You Might Find Helpful

The Roadmap for Schools and Systems - in partnership with Catalyst:Ed <New> Check out the Guide for Leadership Team conversations

Blog Article: Guiding principles of Resilient Leadership

Blog Article: Creating Clarity and a “New Normal” for Your Team


How Leading Elephants is Supporting During Times of Change

As a Leading Elephants team, we hope that you are able to take care of yourself, your families, and your teams in the coming weeks.


Common Ways We are Plugging in with Leaders

  • FREE leadership coaching consultations: Advising leaders in managing team needs, shifting priorities, and their own personal challenges.

  • Change management support: More than ever, change is the new normal. Most organizations pivoted under COVID-19 by making quick centralized decisions. We can help ensure your planning for the fall will engage and motivate teachers, leaders and families in the ongoing shifts ahead.

  • Prototyping solutions: We help leaders scope out and prototyping answers on small/mid-size challenges to help them get solutions in motion.

If we can support you in any way, we would be thrilled to be a companion to you during this unprecedented time. Please contact us if you have any questions.

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