Of heroes and role models: the leadership’s archetypes


Michael Kraushaar,

Santiago G. Ponce.

For many years, Paul has been the CEO of a successful multinational company in the FMCG business. He is seen as a charismatic leader and often emphasizes the company’s purpose and the values the company agreed to promote and to adhere to. Open-mindedness, responsibility, respect, cooperation, and an empowering team spirit are examples of the values he frequently repeats.

A couple of years ago, two Country Managers for two emerging markets with growing importance to the company were recruited: Steve and Marc. As part of their onboarding program, Steve and Marc spent some time with Paul. Paul used this opportunity to share his excitement about the vision and the values of the company with the two newcomers.  Both were impressed and expressed their strong commitment to what they heard from Paul.

Our three characters regularly met, together with other senior managers, in the bi-monthly management team meetings of the company. Amazingly fast, Steve developed the image of a rising star. He was a brilliant presenter and reported results that developed beyond expectations. It seemed that he had an answer to all questions, and in case of problems, his analysis was fast and sharply identified external circumstances or the lacking quality of some of his team members as the source of the issue. He usually reacted fast and fixed it.

Marc was different. The results in his area of responsibility developed with a steadily increasing growth rate but not as spectacular as the results of Steve. When facing challenges, he rarely gave a spontaneous answer. He went back to develop the solutions together with his team. To report successful achievements, he often brought members of his team to the meeting who presented the successes. When things went wrong in his market, he openly spoke about it, stood up for his team, and stressed the learnings discovered together.

Recently Paul had to make an important decision. The Managing Director of an important end market retired, and a successor needed to be identified. For Paul, the choice was obvious. The star of Steve was shining bright based on the results he delivered, and consequently, Steve was promoted. Shortly after Steve’s promotion, Marc was offered an exciting challenge by a competitor and left the company.

While the first indications from Steve in his new role were again promising, the results of his former area of responsibility started to stagnate and fall. It seemed that the former “powerhouse” was imploding after the departure of Steve. Quite different the market of Marc: Paul had regretted the sudden departure of Marc and had been concerned about the potential consequences. But he now saw the positive trend continuing and within short surpassing the results of Steve’s area.

For the first time since long, Paul had some sleepless nights, which helped him to understand what happened. Steve had paid lip service to the values of the company Paul had shared in their introductory meeting. In his daily behavior, Steve certainly was result-driven. He generated results that helped his star to shine, and everything else, whether his team, values, or relations, was just a means towards this end. Marc, on the other hand, consciously acted as a role model for the values and, by doing so, created a team and a culture sustainably delivering results long after his departure.

Today Paul understands that all stars carry the destiny of lapsing sooner or later while role models are like snowballs growing continuously.

The story told above did not really happen in its entirety, nor is it entirely invented. It is the collection of experiences with different leaders in different companies composed into one narrative. The names of all actors are fictitious. However, it illustrates the importance and impact of role model behavior of leaders.

Steve and Marc are two examples that we identify as “heroes” and “role models.” Although, in practice, it is difficult to draw an exact line between these two approaches, with the help of the following three dimensions, we can better understand what influences leader’s behavior towards one or the other extreme: leadership style, ego management, and the conscious practice of behaviors.

Leadership style

Regarding the leadership style, we believe that servant and transformational leaders are closer to the idea of a role model, while charismatic leaders are more identifiable with heroes. Essentially, servant leadership places a strong emphasis on leaders’ selfless behaviors and motivation to serve others (Reb et al. 2015; Liden et al. 2008)

On the other hand, charismatic leadership is characterized by the leaders’ appearance of being extraordinary and visionary and by followers’ identification and social identification (Conger et al. 2000)

Marc, behaving as a role model, fits into the description of servant leadership, being aware of his own needs, employees’ needs, as well as how he can support his employees (Reb et al. 2015). In our example, Marc also acts as a transformational leader by actively reinforcing organizational values. After his departure, the team maintained the virtues of focussed, driven, and supportive behavior, which in the long run, proved how groups could be empowered and energized with humble leadership.

Steve, endowed with a heroic halo, when fixing all the issues and proving immediate results, sometimes at his team’s expenses, revealed patterns of a negative charismatic leader.   This type of leadership focuses on a personalized power orientation, with the emphasis of followership towards themselves rather than to the guiding values (House and Howell 1992; Musser 1987). The team’s implosion, after his departure, proves the importance of the group over individuals, no matter how skilled and efficient they seemed to be.

Ego management

We believe that managing the ego is a fundamental task that every leader should embrace. In our story, it seems that Steve was driven by his ego, obtaining outstanding results in the short run, while compromising the team’s ability to react and evolve to changes. In this sense, an inflated ego could ignite competition and eventually drive to results. Still, long term consequences of this behavior could harm the group dynamics as well as the psychological safety of its members, ending up in stress and burn out, leading to an unhealthy working environment.

Transcending the ego means connecting to something bigger, such as the team, the organization, the world. It requires a certain detachment and transcendence of the immediate pursuit of personal needs, and to prioritize those of others. (Reb et al. 2015) Humble leaders like Marc, prioritize people, empowering them, and creating trustworthy relationships. In the short run, results might not be so astonishing, but ultimately, the fruits of creating a healthy working environment pay off.

The conscious practice of behaviors

Heroes and role models put in practice behaviors that have an impact on the people around them. However, the conscious practice of behaviors makes a difference. While a hero, controlled by his/her ego, could assume patterns of positive behavior, it is mostly driven by a cloaked goal. The problem here is that the goal always complies with the ego instead of the group or the organization. The ego creates the illusion of being the engine, the heart of the group. The truth is that the ego casts a shadow around, underestimating the value of others. Therefore, the team’s ability to evolve, turning into a more collaborative and agile system, gets blocked by the leader’s inflated ego.

A role model acts transcending the ego, creating a genuine sense of purpose and duty. The behaviors practiced by this kind of leaders are not intended to be a means to achieve the ego’s goals. Instead, every act is an end, where leading with the example and serving others, creates an environment where people can unleash their full potential.

Whilst it is an essential building block to analyze leadership archetypes and to understand their impact, leadership is much more complex than that – it is an ongoing journey in demanding territory. Far from being a comfortable one, it is full of challenges that test the leader’s endurance and perseverance to never give up against the internal and external obstacles, such as the ego and the demands of instant success.  The key to success lies in constantly balancing these demands.  This can only be achieved with a systematic leadership approach based on measuring, identifying, acting, and tracking the core elements of what we call “the enterprise environment” (mindset, behavior, and processes) and the resulting people’ experiences (understanding and trust, commonalities, needs addressed and empowerment) which are the catalyst for the full deployment of people strength.

Publication Bibliography

Conger, Jay A.; Kanungo, Rabindra N.; Menon, Sanjay T. (2000): Charismatic leadership and follower effects. In Journal of Organizational Behavior: The International Journal of Industrial, Occupational and Organizational Psychology and Behavior 21 (7), pp. 747–767.

House, Robert J.; Howell, Jane M. (1992): Personality and charismatic leadership. In The leadership quarterly 3 (2), pp. 81–108.

Liden, Robert C.; Wayne, Sandy J.; Zhao, Hao; Henderson, David (2008): Servant leadership: Development of a multidimensional measure and multi-level assessment. In The leadership quarterly 19 (2), pp. 161–177.

Musser, S. J. (1987): The determination of positive and negative charismatic leadership. In Grantham, PA: Messiah College.

Reb, Jochen; Sim, Samantha; Chintakananda, Kraivin; Bhave, Devasheesh P. (2015): Leading with mindfulness: Exploring the relation of mindfulness with leadership behaviors, styles, and development. In Mindfulness in organizations: Foundations, research, and applications, pp. 256–284.