June 25, 2013

The Hero Leader

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I am a list guy. I love creating lists, working off of lists, and scanning other people’s lists.


I love how a well-crafted list can capture the salient details of research, and then wrap those details in an easily digestible package. I love that lists inspire dialogue and debate, which often lead to insight. Lists make us evaluate our own thinking on a particular topic, and can even force us to measure ourselves against some standard.

Fortunately for me, lists are everywhere. Seemingly every blog, website, and magazine regularly features lists of one kind or another. In fact, not too long ago Forbes published a list of the top reasons why we love lists…it was a great list. Nowhere, though, are lists more ubiquitous than in the world of sports media. Sports talk show hosts can, and will, make a list about the most trivial items while simultaneously starting an argument about that list.

Lessons from One of the Best

Perhaps my favorite sports list is the “Top NFL Quarterbacks” list. No position in the sports world is so uniquely akin to executive leadership. The quarterback is the CEO of the team, the face of the franchise. It’s the most important position on the field, and because of this, few lists get people more riled up than this one. Should Brady or Manning be #1? Why isn’t Aaron Rodgers higher? Should Eli even be on the list? How did Jay Cutler get on there?

Regardless of who draws up the infamous Top QB list, you’ll be hard pressed to find one that doesn’t have Peyton Manning near the top. Over the past 16 years since Peyton entered the league, he has been a nearly unparalleled portrait of sustained success. With the possible exception of Tom Brady, no one has done his job as well as Manning has, for as long as he has.

The Fallacies of Omni-Competence and One-Dimensional Leadership

What, then, has made Manning so successful?

We often look upon great leaders from afar with a sense of awe. Being too far removed to see their flaws, we assume that they do all things with an equal measure of excellence. This, of course, is rarely the case for any leader and certainly isn’t the case for Manning. In fact, last season, ESPN NFL Analyst Ron Jaworski identified the 10 most important attributes for an NFL quarterback, and there are several for which Manning wouldn’t rank in the top five. He doesn’t have the strongest arm. He certainly isn’t the fastest, and he is nowhere near the biggest.

Perhaps, then, we might suppose that Manning has taken the advice of so many leadership gurus and simply leaned into his strengths. Maybe he found the one thing he does really well, and ignored the rest. If you know anything about the NFL, you know that this also isn’t true. One-dimensional quarterbacks never last. Look at Jamarcus Russell, the former number one pick of the Oakland Raiders. Russell had unbelievable arm strength. The guy could throw a ball through a brick wall, but he was so lacking in the other necessary skills that he took exactly the same number of snaps under center that I did last year: 0.

No, Manning isn’t great because he’s an omni-competent quarterback doing all things perfectly, and he isn’t great because he’s a one-trick pony that only does one thing extraordinarily well. He is great because he is a complete quarterback. While he may not have been in the top five for all of Jaworski’s categories, he also wasn’t in the bottom five for any. He does everything with at least an acceptable degree of competence. Sure, he is off the charts in the areas where he is naturally gifted, but more importantly, he hasn’t let his weaknesses derail him. He has reached, what I call, conscious competence across the board.

A New Era of Leadership

Leaders in the 21st century find themselves in much the same situation as NFL quarterbacks. We are caught between two dueling realities:


  1. Omni-competence is impossible. We can’t be perfect in every category. BUT
  2. What you can’t do will be your downfall. Being one-dimensional means you are also destined to be unemployed.


These two competing realities define the parameters of the modern executive’s greatest challenge: how to deal with the unrelenting pressure to be all, know all, and do all.

Our Response

Too often, leaders have dealt with these pressures by falling into one of the two traps described above. Some have tried to become the perfect leader, excelling in every area. This approach inevitably leads to frustration and burnout as they realize that there simply aren’t enough hours in the day or skills in their arsenal to master all things.

On the other hand, some leaders have pursued the path of the “executive specialist,” excelling in one area and ignoring the rest. This approach is often met with a certain degree of success, particularly at lower levels within an organization. Unfortunately, as these leaders progress in their careers, their weaknesses become unsustainable liabilities and they are shown to be ill equipped for the challenges of management.

The Hero Leader

Fortunately, these are not our only options. In my upcoming book, The Hero Leader, I discuss a different approach—one in which we embrace our strengths, but don’t simply stop there. We begin by acknowledging that we are innately wired and built for certain skills, and we nourish those skills. But we also identify the other skills that are most needed, and we work to develop them. We take classes, we read books, we have conversations, and we work to become better. We don’t obsess about being omni-competent, but we work to be multi-competent. We strive for excellence, but accept adequacy where needed (not mediocrity).

In The Hero Leader, I identify seven collective skillsets, which I believe are indispensable for the modern leader.


  1. Being Results Driven AND People Focused
  2. Doing Friday’s Payroll AND Inventing the Future
  3. Having Heart AND Using Your Head
  4. Thinking Corporately AND Working Functionally
  5. Leading Others AND Managing Yourself
  6. Feeling Confident AND Being Humble
  7. Embracing Team AND Performing Alone


Each set consciously pushes against the tendencies of the specialist by forcing leaders to evaluate both their strengths and their weaknesses. We are all hardwired toward one side in each set, and that’s OK. The market, however, requires that we develop at least conscious competence in all of these areas of effective leadership, even if it doesn’t come naturally.

This, of course, is no easy task. It requires sustained effort and focus. As Peter Drucker wrote a half century ago, “In forty-five years of work as a consultant with a large number of executives in a wide variety of organizations—large and small; businesses, government agencies, labor unions, hospitals, universities, community services; American, European, Latin American and Japanese—I have not come across a single ‘natural’: an executive leader who was born effective. All the effective ones had to learn to be effective.”

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