Superheroes Are Fun in the Movies But a Myth in the Workplace
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The superhero craze endures. Black Panther picked up a gong for best picture at this year’s Screen Actors Guild Awards, and 2019 will see more blockbuster hero movies being produced than ever before. I guess in an era of climate disaster, global conflict and geopolitical turbulence, we are strangely comforted by the notion of an everyday citizen slipping into a super suit and performing super extraordinary things. We give our kids plastic figurines to reassure them that there are forces out there that keep the world safe and that there is a superhero inside all of us.
For more than 200 years, we have encouraged a cult of superherodom in the workplace. The original 18th century mills and factories had strong patriarchs, and the 19th century promoted an innatist view of great men as captains of industry. The early 20th century raised hierarchical structures and appointed strong charismatic leaders to head them.
Unlike in the movies, the idea of a heroic figure single-handedly saving the day has been debunked. Abrasive leaders such as Uber’s Travis Kalanick, who in the past would have been applauded for strong leadership, are now being exposed as emotional train wrecks -- mere mortals with personality disorders. Happily, the workplace is a better place now that the supers have checked themselves in for rehabilitation. The fact is, there is no longer any need for organizational superheroes because the business world has changed considerably since the 1950s. As I discuss in my recent book, with the rise of the digital economy and a more empowered consumer, traditional hierarchies are flattening out. With that comes the need for super leaders to influence, motivate and steer. Today’s business with its 4IR technologies, ecostructures, self-organizing teams and collaborative cross-boundary networks, requires a different kind of leadership -- more responsive and decidedly less heroic.
So how do we cultivate and develop a more responsive leadership? The answer lies in fixing the overall leadership ecosystem rather than sending out bat-signals to lone ego-driven leaders. In short, we need to adopt a more systemwide, holistic approach to developing our leaders. Listed below are three symbiotic forces that shape contemporary workplaces. Organizations need to adopt these principles if they are to force superhero bosses into exile and achieve more collaborative working environments.
Winston Churchill once said in a speech about rebuilding the war damaged Commons Chamber, “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.” Organizational structures can shape and define the culture and mindset of the enterprise, oftentimes using subtle forms of operant conditioning. Rigid hierarchies implicitly lead to a closed culture where power and decisions gravitate to the top and reinforce positional leadership and deferential workforces. Here, the hero leader crusades in the boardroom and is rewarded with an executive office and a special place to park their car. Today, business leadership is no longer a position, it is a process. This egostructure needs to be replaced by an ecostructure -- a more decentralized form that encourages a freer flow of ideas, product innovation and decisions between employees, customers, suppliers and competitors.
Organizations need to evolve from leading though structures to leading through networks. Collaborative networks flourish in decentralized open systems where innovation, ideas and decisions are part of a collective initiative which is self-organizing and emergent rather than fixed and predefined. Companies such as Daimler and Spotify are applying swarm theory, or the collective intelligence of emergent systems or agents, to create collaborative and self-organizing environments. Swarming is inspired by the natural world where certain animal groups act collectively for the sake of vigilance, migration and foraging. AI collaborative tools are proving to be key enablers in filtering the data and ideas coming out of such swarm activity.
For many years, companies have been dependent on event-based leadership training programs, teaching mainly university graduates cerebral models and tools that help them categorize, influence and manage the hierarchy. This reinforces the mindset of leaders as the chosen ones, part of a succession rite for those who embark on a hero’s journey to save the enterprise. As organizations shift from ego to eco to reflect the new global realities, leadership needs to evolve away from influencing others toward more collaborative and collective behaviors. It must take into account the new mindsets around swarm intelligence, multiple intelligences, situationalism, sense-making and digital quotient. This creates exciting opportunities to embrace advanced methodologies such as developing leaders using virtual immersion.
In The Incredibles, the superheroes are compelled to join a superhero relocation program and stop being heroes. The rejection of heroes in the workplace has evolved more naturally. The leadership ecosystem has transfigured away from the leader calling the shots to the system generating swarms of ideas and decisions channeled through self-organizing networks and filtered by digital AI and cloud technology. This complex and adaptive ecosystem requires a more responsive leadership -- not a superhero. This responsiveness cannot be taught in classrooms using out-of-date categorization models, but must emerge through a systemwide approach of leadership development which takes into account the structure, connections and progressive mindsets required to develop a new generation of adaptive and collaborative leaders.