From hero leaders to engaging leadership

on Mar 8, 2015 in Blog


A tough job that needs both women and men

If you’re the kind of person who wakes up in the morning feeling like a heroic leader, ready to jump into their super(wo)man suit and save the world, then this article probably isn’t for you.

But it should be.

Because the working world is becoming more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA), and no hero can do it alone any more. Organisations are facing unknown monsters and are embarking on great quests with unknowable ends. With so much going on, the job of leadership is simply too tough for individual heroes.

Instead we need a more multi-facetted view of leadership in a VUCA world. We need leadership that goes up and down and across organisations, leadership that spans and connects organisations.

In a changing world, we need leaders across organisations who can tune into what’s going on, who notice and share what they notice, who can connect with others to make sense, and who can respond in different ways. In a changing world, we need leaders who bring different perspectives and who think differently.

While social diversity doesn’t necessarily mean thought diversity, it’s probably a pretty good place to start. Engaging leadership means more leadership, and more diverse leaders. It’s a tough job. And it’s one that needs both women and men.

8th March is International Women’s Day and the rallying cry for 2015 is #MakeItHappen.

The question I’m asking is; how do we make an engaging leadership culture happen? A culture where both women and men can flourish as leaders?

To develop engaging leadership in organisations, we need more people who see themselves as leaders, who recognise that the qualities they bring that are so valuable in a VUCA world. And we need more people who recognise those leadership qualities in others.

To achieve that, here’s what we need to do:

  1. ditch the old stereotypes of heroic leaders
  2. be far more ambitious about gender diversity in leadership.

Ditch the old stereotypes

The old might and fight stereotypes of heroic leaders and their younger cousin, the ‘rockstar CEO’, are out of step with the leadership required in a VUCA world. And because these stereotypes tend to value a small number of more typically masculine qualities, it makes it easier for men to see themselves as leaders and for us all to recognise men as leaders.

Be far more ambitious about gender diversity in leadership

The good news is that, in the UK there has been measurable progress in the number of women on FTSE 100 boards since 2011. In October 2014 it reached 22.8% and there were no longer any all male FTSE 100 boards. But the ambitions for women on FTSE 100 boards (a target of 25% in the 2011 Davis Report) keep women firmly in a minority in senior leadership positions. Being in a minority often means assimilating, rather than including difference, so we can lose the different perspectives and thinking that we need in a VUCA world. [For more on this, check out my previous post on the complexity science case for more women on Boards).


If, like me, you wake up in the morning wanting to make a difference rather than being a hero, then join me in a conversation about engaging leadership.

Let’s develop a new understanding of leadership that enables women, men and organisations to flourish in a VUCA world. And let’s be far more ambitious in our  aspirations about who holds senior leadership positions.

Let’s change the culture one conversation at a time.