Monday, December 05, 2022

How Leaders Avoid Hero Syndrome

This week Kellogg Insight features a conversation with Colonel Fred Maddox, an assistant professor at the U.S. Army War College and Chief of Staff of the Army senior fellow at the Kellogg School.  Maddox discusses how leaders should react when the execution of a very important project falters badly.   He suggests that many leaders enjoy being the heroes, swooping into the situation and trying to solve the problem personally.   Maddox cautions against this approach, "When leaders act like they’re the only ones who can solve something, it can become an issue for the whole organization because they’re not focused on strategy and they’re doing someone else’s job.”  Moreover, he argues that such "heroic" action can demoralize team members, because they feel as though their skills and voice are not respected.   

Why don't leaders trust their team members in these spots?   Maddox argues that leaders often don't believe in the skills and expertise of their team members.  However, leaders do believe in themselves, yet sometimes that confidence is not well-grounded.  The situation may be far more complex and/or novel than the leader would like to admit.  They need help from their team members; they cannot solve it alone.  However, they somehow convince themselves that they can rectify the situation without assistance.   It's hero complex 101.  

Maddox explains how the military uses various simulations and training exercises to develop the skills of team members.  An investment in training and development does not only help the team members hone their skills; it builds the leaders' confidence in their team members.  Leaders need to find time to see their team members in action in a lower-risk, safer space.  

He explains that a good leader doesn't simply issue orders in these training scenarios.  Instead, the effective leader inquires as to how various people on the team would try to solve a specific probelm.  He calls this Socratic approach "walking in autonomy."  It's essentially a conversation in which the leader coaches and mentors, rather than solving the problem directly. Then, Maddox advocates using the "after-action review" to analyze the decisions that have been made and the impact those choices had on the results - good or bad. Providing time for reflection, feedback, and learning proves crucial for employee development, and these activities help build the leader's confidence in the people throughout the organization.

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