March 18, 2022
Donald Miller is an avid student of stories who carefully analyzed countless movies and books to learn the common factors these stories held. Miller determined that a key element of great stories is the hero: Luke Skywalker, Batman, James Bond, Harry Potter—the list goes on and on. However, these stories also contained guides, without whom our heroes would have struggled and possibly failed: Yoda, Alfred, Ian Fleming’s M, and Dumbledore.
Heroes are always smarter, stronger, quicker, and better-looking than the average person. Miller explains that rather than making themselves the hero, companies should be the guide who makes the customer the hero. This idea made me wonder if I could classify leaders as heroes or guides, and if so, which would prove to be the more effective leadership approach. The stories we read or watch generate notions of how a person ought to act, creating examples that people subconsciously emulate.
Hero leaders are exceedingly clever and able to solve the most complex problems. They are usually portrayed as working independently, and only occasionally do they have a permanent partner. Several years ago, I was working with a technology company and learned of a group that was drastically behind on a software release. The group leader was understandably frustrated when he left work at the end of the day. The next day he did not show up to work and left no messages about where he was. Several days later, he returned to the office, bleary-eyed and exhausted. He had been camped out in his basement at home and had re-written the entire software program by himself—working over 20 hours a day! Most heroes are not solicitous about or open to feedback. Often portrayed as driven individuals with exceptionally high standards of excellence, heroes invariably have a clear vision of what needs to be done and a strategy to get there. They make change happen quickly and possess extraordinary courage.
Guide leaders are excellent role models, communicate well, and inspire and energize others. They are concerned for the needs of others and are deeply trusted, with a strong desire to coach others and provide them with feedback. Guides are thrilled to help others develop new skills, encourage cooperation in the group rather than competition, and are often trusted to represent the group.
Are heroes or guides the more effective leader? To understand each group better, I analyzed our 360-degree feedback assessment data describing over 70,000 global leaders. I first created a 30-item index that described each of the two kinds of leaders. I then examined the ratings from managers, peers, direct reports, and others to identify those leaders who primarily displayed one characteristic or the other.
For these characteristics to stand out, I only classified 26% of the leaders in our dataset. The graph below shows that guide was a common classification for leaders, with 48% of our target group displaying those qualities. We found that 35% of the leaders were rated high in both hero and guide characteristics, and only 8% of the leaders were pure heroes. I classified the remaining leaders, who had neither the characteristics of the heroes nor the guides, as “zeros.”
Heroes often believe that they are the most effective leaders. However, as the graph below shows, both guide and hero-guide leaders surpass heroes in their overall effectiveness. I postulate this is because heroes tend to only lead themselves—leaving others to try and keep up. As expected, zero leaders are the least effective.
I examined trends in these leadership approaches across several demographics, beginning with leader levels. Heroes comprised 15% of top managers but only 3% of supervisors. As expected, the numbers jumped when we looked at guides, with 51% of top managers and 44% of supervisors falling into that category. It is apparent that a high percentage of top managers see themselves as heroes, but the guide approach is more prevalent. Most top managers realize early on that there is very little they can control in an organization.
I next looked at how these approaches varied with the leader’s gender. Only 7% of men and 6% of women are viewed as heroes, while 48% of men and 53% of women are viewed as guides.
Finally, I explored the trends in these approaches according to the leader’s age. The graph below shows the percentage of each type of leader by age group. Note that 55% of leaders under 30 are the combined style of hero-guide. However, as people age, guide grows by 20%, while hero grows by 9%. It is unknown if this shift occurs consciously or is what inexorably comes with maturity and age.
Zeros are decidedly ineffective. Not only is their perceived leadership effectiveness extremely low, but the engagement level of their direct reports is also at the 38th percentile. Leadership makes a great difference. If you’re a zero, try to adopt either a hero or a guide approach. Heroes are more effective than zeros, with direct report engagement levels at the 67th percentile. However, guides are rated as more effective than heroes and have slightly higher engagement scores—69th percentile—from their direct reports.
It’s clear that the most effective style is the combined approach of hero-guide. With leadership effectiveness scores at the 95th percentile and engagement scores of direct reports in the 83rd percentile, they are some of the most effective leaders in our database. This combined approach results in a leader who has great courage and is willing to make tough decisions and take risks. This leader might be direct and push for results, but they are also concerned about others and willing to listen to their feedback and concerns. They gather lots of input before they make decisions and look for opportunities to make their direct reports look like heroes.
As you think about heroes and guides, ponder which approach you identify with most. Consider that while there is value in being a hero like James Bond, or a guide like M, that they were most effective when working together. In a similar vein, the most effective leaders utilize the hero-guide approach. While almost half of our population of leaders is more guide-oriented, there is value in at times taking the part of the hero.
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(This article first appeared on Forbes)
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