3 Reasons Why Your Company’s “Superhero” Leadership Strategy Isn’t Working

Guest post from Mark Busine:
Would
you describe your company’s CEO as Wonder Woman, or your executive vice
president as Batman? Do the regional managers remind you of the Fantastic Four?
I’d
guess it’s unlikely that you think of your leadership team in this way. So you
might be surprised when I say that many companies including yours are following
a Superhero leadership strategy. And the research suggests it’s probably not
working.
A
Superhero strategy is a leadership strategy in which an organization focuses most
of its time and energy on developing a small, exclusive group of people who are
destined for major roles in the company. Often called a high-potential pool,
this group is usually very hard to get into, and once in, people are reluctant
to leave it. These people are given the bulk of leadership development resources,
get first shot at exciting new opportunities, and are first in line for
promotions.
In
other words, if you’ve noticed that your organization consistently relies on
the same small group of people to take on any and every new challenge facing
the company, then your company is probably following the Superhero strategy.
A
Superhero strategy isn’t necessarily bad, and it’s certainly better than having
no leadership strategy at all. But as companies continue to struggle with
employee engagement, a rapidly changing business landscape and the pressures of
disruption in nearly every industry, Superhero strategies alone are insufficient.
Here are three big problems with Superhero strategies, and how to fix them:
Problem #1: Thinking of
leadership potential like a super power
Whether
they can fly, become invisible, or run at lightning speed, most superheroes possess
natural abilities that no ordinary human could possibly learn. Many
organizations approach leadership potential in the same way, assuming that it’s
a natural quality that very few people have. That view of leadership potential
worked fine in the past when organizations were more hierarchical, and requirements
of leadership were left to a select few. But today’s businesses need to be more
agile and rely increasingly on shared leadership. They need people to show more
leadership behavior across their organizations, not just those who carry the
title of manager or leader.
The Fix: Grow
leadership potential like physical strength
Start
thinking of leadership potential like you would physical strength. In other
words, everyone has different starting points and different areas of strength.
For example, some may have more leg strength while others have more upper body
strength, and some have more stamina while others are faster. But everyone has
the potential to get stronger. Organizations that think of leadership potential
as a set of strengths and weaknesses that can be improved will be able to build
a much stronger overall organization than one that spends its time searching
for one or two Hulk-like characters.
Problem #2: Thinking
you know who the bad guys are
Whether
it’s Superman vs. Lex Luther or Batman vs. the Joker, Superhero sagas often
include an everlasting battle between a superhero and an equally-matched
supervillain. Knowing each other’s strengths and weaknesses, they could devise
clever ways to beat their opponents. This scenario once described the
competitive landscape for many businesses, who typically knew a lot about rival
companies, enabling them to build a team of people who had the skills and
abilities to meet the competition. But in today’s world, companies are more
likely to face disruption from a start-up they never heard of or a college
student testing a new theory. Their existing group of Superheroes may be
completely unprepared to face a new form of disruption.
The fix: Expand your
definition of leadership potential
Many
organizations have a narrow definition of leadership potential which is often
closely modeled after current and past company leaders. These narrow
definitions often cause organizations to continuously choose high-potential
leaders who look and think like the same leaders that the company has
traditionally had. Instead, organizations need to broaden their definition of
leadership potential to uncover diverse skill sets and mind sets that may be
better suited to meet new challenges facing the company.
Problem #3: Waiting for
the superheroes to save the day
The
most satisfying part of any Superhero story is when the Superhero swoops in at
the last moment to save the day. But while the drama makes for a great movie or
comic storyline, it’s a major problem in the workplace. Putting so much
pressure on the organization’s Superheroes can cause them to feel overwhelmed
and burned out. Meanwhile, the rest of the workforce feel unempowered and
becomes disengaged from their jobs as they wait for orders from the
organization’s Superheroes.
The fix: Get more
people in the game
Getting
more people in the game starts with giving more people low-risk opportunities
to own and manage a project or initiative. By getting more people involved in
these small test scenarios, organizations can keep their workforce engaged and
activate leadership potential among a much larger group of people. This
approach eases pressure on the organization’s Superheroes while enabling the
company to become more agile and innovative.
Even
though Superheroes are still bringing in big bucks at the box office,
organizations that rely too heavily on a superhero leadership strategy may find
themselves unable to rapidly respond to competitive threats and disruption. Companies
that expand their focus to unleashing leadership potential among more than just
a select group of company Superheroes will better prepare themselves to lead in
innovation and handle constant change and disruption in their industries.
Mark
Busine
is general manager at global leadership company
DDI.