Leadership Myth #5: To be a great leader, you need to be a Superhero
"If you could be the superhero of your choice for a day at work, which one would you be?"
This was the starting question to a team exercise we were invited to do at a workshop I recently attended. Each team was given 20 minutes to prepare a presentation of the team's purpose, its members and their roles, and how they were going to reach their common goal.
Oh, each team was also requested to choose its emblem, which would be in the form of a superhero, endowed with the necessary "powers" in order to accomplish the team's purpose. This is where we, in our team, got stuck: Someone suggested "the Batman"*, upon which a slightly geeky-looking, spectacled male member retorted: "Batman is not a superhero: He doesn't have superpowers". Needless to say, we spent most of our precious preparation time arguing about what distinguished a superhero from a hero...
So how does that fit into Leadership? Well, many companies have spent decades trying to identify and clone the mythical superhero leader, only to find that individual doesn't exist, nor is it what companies need. In a recent McKinsey survey (Jan 2013) carried out on a population of five thousand executives over the past decade, it was revealed that you need three key ingredients for a workplace to perform at peak level: IQ (i.e. tools and resources), EQ (the "glue inbetween") and - here comes a post-Daniel Goleman term - MQ, also known as the Meaning Quotient (or as the Batman calls it: the "Driving Force"). A generous dose of each enables co-workers to raise their game, having been given clear roles and responsibility (IQ), trust-based relationships and team spirit (EQ), and a feeling that their work matters beyond the monthly paycheck (MQ). A highly IQ-ed person will not necessarily be the best candidate for a leader. Just as Albert Einstein once quoted: "We should take care not to make intellect our god. It has, of course, powerful muscles but no personality. It cannot lead, it can only serve." And a highly EQ-ed person, whilst talented in fostering an open learning environment and failure-tolerant workplace, (and together with a solid IQ), would also need to figure out how to bring a new dimension – a Meaning - to their co-workers' everyday work life, so that it meets the need of Self-actualization (Maslow's hierarchy of basic human needs) or, as Tony Robbins likes to call it, Significance. Because self-actualized individuals are a JOY to have in your team: they have realistic perceptions, they are concerned with solving problems outside of themselves due to a sense of personal responsibility, and they are spontaneous (great for innovative ideas) as well as capable of conforming to rules and social expectations. Maslow also explains that self-actualized people are a source of inspiration because they experience peak performance levels, which strengthen and transform them.
Now just before you think: "Wow: Yet another leadership trait I need to master", how about if we look at all three key elements as an interconnected unity rather than stand-alones? After all, what's the point of having a great team feeling of "we're all in this together" if the team's energy is misdirected due to undefined goals? How could you cultivate a culture of constructive conflict if there was no greater cause (i.e. Meaning) your coworkers were working towards? And what use would the "Driving Force" be if your co-workers didn't have the necessary tools and knowledge to carry out their work?
Now here's the secret: You don't need to have all the superpowers required (neither are you expected to) to ensure your workplace/team has the perfect equilibrium of all three ingredients. Instead, you could for instance reach out to others in the workplace to pool together skills, knowledge, resourcefulness and other powers to fill the gaps. This approach also sends out underlying (yet crucial) messages such as: your co-workers matter, they have their part of responsibility in achieving that common goal, and that you are – after all – only human. After all, I'd be slightly less intimidated to work with the Batman than my favourite (and sole female?) superhero Wonder Woman...
* Unlike most superheroes, he does not possess any superpowers; he makes use of intellect, detective skills, science and technology, wealth, physical prowess, martial arts skills, an indomitable will, fear, and intimidation in his continuous war on crime.