The Myth of the Super Leader

The Myth of the Super LeaderThe cover of a recent publication shouts, “Wanted: Super Leaders”.  Obviously, they’re wanted because they’ve not yet been found.  Expectations continue to build for finding people who combine a set of traits that are a cross between the Dalai Lama’s serenity, Steve Jobs’ drive, Einstein’s intellect, and God’s omniscience.  Are you ready to take on the challenge?

Casting aside rational reflection on the likelihood we can meet these inflated expectations, we all wind up striving to be these ‘Super Leaders’ of heroic proportions.  And feeling like failures when we can’t meet our own blowup doll image of what we should be.

Let’s take a look at the realistic ‘super leader’ (note lower case letters).

A super leader understands limits.  The best leaders know that trying to be everything often results in not being really good at anything.  More than that, someone who tries to be all things creates bottlenecks in decision-making and blockages in the talent pipeline for others to come to the fore.  The best leaders understand what they do well, use those strengths fully to the organization’s ends, and actively develop other leaders to fill in their own talent gaps.

A super leader sets development goals, not development targets.  Great leaders don’t stop learning and growing.  They carefully assess in what areas they need to enhance their skills in order to best play out their strengths – and guide others to do the same.  They invest in new knowledge and skills for themselves where it counts most for the organization.  They do not put notches in their belts.  An MBA is not an end, but a means to be better at something important.  Strategic thinking may be important to learn, but being a good strategic planner might be better left to someone who brings experience, tools, and passion to the job.  The best leaders understand the difference between goals and pins on maps.

A super leader looks under the covers of competency assessment vehicles.  What’s the first thing we all do when we get the results of a 360 assessment, or a performance review?  We look to the ‘bad’ grades, and make plans for improving grades in the next assessment cycle.  But let’s get real – we’re not, any of us, going to be A+ at everything.  Consider a few things more closely when looking at such results:

  • How many competencies are being rated? Some assessments rate 70 or more, with the intent of driving toward groupings of competencies that may need strengthening.  Trying to build a development plan around a single under-rated competency is at best suboptimal use of the assessment results, and at worst, misdirected energy.  Instead, look for the broad themes.
  • Is there an accompanying rating of importance of each competency to the job you’re doing (or the one you want to do next)? If yes, it’s good information to consider.  How much time do I want to invest in developing a competency that isn’t very critical to my role?  If the assessment doesn’t give that information, it’s wise to ask respected people how important it would be for you to develop yourself in a given area before taking it on.
  • Is the assessment better viewed as a team assessment? If I’ve selected leaders to work with who tend to have complementary strengths, should we look to see where – as a combined group – we might still be missing critical competency?

A super leader stores trend information.  Different competencies come to the foreground in different situations and in different times.  Change management skills may always be useful, but if your company is establishing a strategy of growth through acquisitions, it may become a much more critical competency to master.  What are competencies that are emerging as more important over time, like global team development?  What does an overheated economy demand, like greater acceptance of risk?  Good leaders make sure their competencies stay ahead of the game.

Beware the quest for mythic proportions in your leadership.  The word ‘myth’ comes from the Greek word for ‘story’.  Remember that fashioning a Super Leader image for yourself is more story than actuality.  What you are really striving for is being your very own best – not the composite expectations of the world for the embodiment of perfection.


Written by Marge Combe, VMC Consultant

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