If you boiled leadership down to two primary styles, you might find something like this: 1) the “hero” leaders, like Steve Jobs and Lee Iacocca, who are exceedingly smart and driven, with a clear vision and strategy and who, while perhaps lacking bedside manner, always get the job done; and 2) the “guide” leaders, like Kenneth Chenault and Mary T. Barra, who excel at communicating, inspiring others and encouraging cooperation among team members to strive for a common goal.
Those labels are, at least somewhat, oversimplifications. In reality, there are no pure heroes or pure guides, Ted Bililies, management director and chief talent officer for AlixPartners, told attendees at a roundtable sponsored by the management consulting firm. “But there are certainly CEOs and CHROs and people that we’re interacting with and reading about every day that tend towards one or the other.”
So which is better? The short answer is: it depends. “It depends on the state of the organization at the time that person is in position,” says Yvette Segura, vice president and general manager of USAA, a financial services association serving members of the U.S. military. “Do they need more collaboration? Do they need to better leverage the talent of all the folks? Or do they need somebody in there who’s going to be that smartest person in the room and say, ‘No, this is what we need to do’?”
Susan Jacobs, vice president, HR & administration of Newport News Shipbuilding, pointed out that her company is currently undergoing a transition period and has a new CEO leading them through it. “She is, without a doubt, a hero [leader]. She’s really very dynamic, very engaging. And she makes you believe you can do this really huge thing. I think that’s really important, especially in a time of transformation,” Jacobs said. “But I can also understand why the guides tend to be more effective in the long run.”
Heroes are ideal in times of disruption, agreed Jorge Quintana, director of human resources for Champlain Cable. “But in a general daily sense, I prefer guides. But you need balance. Balance is a wonderful thing.”
Underscoring that notion, Clark Perry, director, AlixPartners, cited results from a forthcoming study by leadership development consultancy, Zenger Folkman, which compared the effectiveness of each style of leadership based on thousands of criteria and found that guides were, overall, more effective than heroes, but those who had a mixture of the two did better than either one, scoring in the 90th percentile. “The research is conclusive—if they have [both of] those qualities, it has a huge impact on business outcomes,” said Perry.
That made perfect sense to Wayne Johnson, CEO of Accuform, a facility identification solutions company in Brooksville, Florida. “Because that’s exactly what you want. You want a combination of both. When I think about all the great CEOs I’ve heard speak, they all have this crystal-clear vision, and they can articulate it really well. But I don’t think that they think they’re going to go do it. They all believe that they have to inspire people and guide them along the way to get it done and make it happen.”
But it’s a tall order for one leader to have both sets of qualities, said Mike Todd, vice president of operations for Hydro-Gear. “I know the best is a combination person, but it’s hard to actually have it. If you’re a really strong hero, you’re going to be a hero. If you’re a really strong mentor, you’re going to be a mentor.”
Some argued that the leadership qualities needed by the team or the organization really depend on the function. Hero leaders are best at setting strategy, said Johnson. “Because if you have a bunch of guides trying to set strategy, you’re probably just going to get a lot of ‘feel good’ stuff.” But for execution of that strategy, the company might be best served by a guide, said Segura. “For longevity, for succession in an organization, if you have just one or a few people making all the calls, that’s not an effective way to continue the legacy of your organization,” she noted. “You need to do that hand-off to those coming in behind you, and the guide is that personality, the style of leadership that can affect that.”
But therein lies a paradox, said Matthew Robinson, CEO of W.A. Robinson Asset Management: it’s often because of hero-type skills that an individual rises to the top. “And then you’re supposed to automatically have the skill set to take care of everybody else,” he said. “So there’s a paradigm shift that has to happen there.”
Ideally, the skills of guiding a team and inspiring others are acquired on the way up the ladder over the course of a career. Jacobs referred to Jim Collins’s book, Good to Great, which describes the five progressive levels of leadership. “The fifth level is where you begin to be that guide, where you’re developing people who are leaders who are then developing other people. But at different points in your career, at the different levels, you have to be something different. As you go through your leadership lifecycle, you mature, and you should change.”
Robinson said that a CEO really must change in that regard, if a company is to be successful. “I’ll bet you that 90 percent of the people in my company are smarter than me at something. Actually, no—100 percent. Every single person in my company is smarter than me at something. So why would I be the hero and say, ‘This is how you have to do it?’ Where’s the creativity in that?”
Having too dominant a hero at the top can also impede the company’s succession planning and, ultimately, its sustainability. Robinson recalled the period before he bought his company from his father, Wayne Robinson, in 2014. “You know what the biggest worry for investors was before I came along, and even through the transition? What happens if Wayne gets killed? What happens if the hero takes the kryptonite? Who steps up into that role who might not have all of those abilities?” he said. “As I look at this whole hero thing, it’s got some real flaws.”
Grooming Millennials to Lead
On the other hand, much ado is made about the preferences of millennials, and the notion that leaders have to adapt their styles to meet those needs if they want to attract and retain them. Often characterized as the “collaboration generation,” millennials are known for preferring to work cooperatively in teams. “Millennials seem to want the guide approach,” said Todd. “But maybe to the detriment [of the company]. We have to reinstall some heroes among the millennials to take on challenges and take responsibility.” In 2008, for example, companies needed heroes to step in and make powerful, critical decisions. “I think we need to make sure we’re bringing that talent along as well.”
For millennials to grow into leaders with both hero and guide skills, “you have to give them the opportunity to do both early in their career—to be a hero and to be creative; to lead a project, and then to help others,” said Jacobs, adding that, in her experience, millennials do seem to want a coach more than a manager. “They want that person like their parent who is encouraging and telling them they’re great, and giving them an award just for showing up.”
But millennials have also taught their predecessor generations some new tools, Jacobs added. “They’ve taught us to think differently and organize ourselves differently. And I do think that if you give them opportunities early in their career, they’ll be prepared when it’s time for them to step into leadership roles.”
In response to the “engage millennials” movement, Champlain Cable set up teams of 10 people each and gave them each projects to work on together. “We gave them engagement starters, and said, ‘Okay, come up with an action plan,’” recalled Quintana. “There were a few people in each group who ended up becoming the heroes.” Some of those were expected, given their personalities. “But there were a few who really surprised us as part of that. It was very interesting. We’re seeing the collaboration, but we’re also starting to see, not the term hero, but some natural leaders coming out.”
Todd pointed out that in a flat organization like his, it’s hard to create opportunities for upward movement internally, but that millennials expect that “or they’ll go externally,” he said. “And we don’t want that. We’re investing so much in people.”
As the lone millennial at the table, Rachel Bode, regional HR manager for RailWorks, said that her generation is often misunderstood. They aren’t looking for an easy upward climb, but rather the opportunity to learn. “What we’re looking for is to not do the same thing every day for the rest of our lives. We’ve seen a lot of our parents do that for 15, 20, 30 years and be miserable. We don’t want that. We want to learn, and once we’ve mastered a skill, we want to master a new skill. Does there need to be a promotion every year, every six months? No. But we need new projects and new learning experiences.”
As for heroes vs. guides, millennials may want both. “It is wonderful for someone in the beginning of their career to have a guide,” said Bode. “But personally, I don’t want someone hand-holding me my entire career. I want someone I can look up to, someone who says, ‘Okay, this is what we’re doing. Go for it.’ That’s not really a guide—that’s more of a hero.”
Some felt the notion of hero vs. guide was misleading. “You can’t boil it down into two categories,” said Taylor Goodall, vice president, distribution for Dixon Valve & Coupling. “To me, the whole conversation of which is better, it’s kind of like, ‘decide which hamburger is better,’ because everybody’s got their own preference.” Some will respond better to a guide; others to a leader, he added.
But while it is more complex than black and white, Segura argued, “stereotypes become stereotypes for a reason. It’s because people have the propensity to fall into a description of one versus another.” The key is for CEOs to be introspective enough to know themselves and the camp in which they tend to fall so they can rein themselves in when necessary. “We all know that under stress, we’ll always revert to habits, it’s just human nature,” said Perry.
“That’s where situational awareness is important,” Segura noted. “You have to have that EQ to self-reflect and say, ‘if I have a tendency to just jump out there and start barking orders when things get tough, I’ve got to kind of pull back. I’ve got to recognize that and figure out, if I’m going to really enlist the support, and motivate or inspire my team, what are those things I need to do?’”
Ultimately, the way a CEO is perceived—whether as hero or guide—can influence the company’s image, its culture, and even how it attracts and retains talent, Bililies said. “People do make choices of who they work for and who they will follow based on, ‘Where am I going to get the best training? Where am I going to get the best development?’ At the end of the day, whether it’s perception, reality or some combination of both, people do choose companies to work for based on how they see the leader.”