January 3, 2022
Leader as Hero: Are We Overvaluing Leadership?

Dr Rozhan Othman

Senior Fellow

Do we need strong leaders or strong institutions? Do our leaders need to be heroes who can protect and save us all the time or do we need leaders who build capabilities so that the organisation can remain strong even in their absence?

Do we need strong leaders or strong institutions? Do our leaders need to be heroes who can protect and save us all the time or do we need leaders who build capabilities so that the organization can remain strong even in their absence?

James Meindl first introduced the notion of Romance of Leadership to describe the tendency for people to romanticize and overstate the role of leaders by attributing to them their organization’s success. This view sees leaders as indispensable to the organization’s success and ignores the contribution of other variables. Gary Yukl argues that this line of thinking presents leadership as a top-down process and treats leaders as heroes.

Meindl argues that this perception of leaders as heroes arise as a form of cognitive process simplification whereby we develop short-cuts in explaining corporate success by attributing it to the leader. Instead of developing a complete causal model that explains the role of other variables such as external conditions, contribution of followers, adaptable organizational system and processes, and resource endowment, we simply credit the leader for the success. In a way, this view that sees leaders as heroes is a lazy person’s way of explaining a complex phenomenon.

Anyone who is a fan of team sports like football can recognize the prestige and fame strikers of top teams have. Yet, we also know that in team sports winning requires teamwork. The striker alone cannot ensure their team’s success. What makes a team great is a combination of many requisite variables. This includes the contribution of other players in the team, the quality of training, the planning and formation used in a match, and in some cases the intelligence gathered about the opposing team. Take any top striker and place them in a low-ranking team such as Sri Lanka or Guam and get them to play against Brazil or Argentina. In spite of his prowess, it is very unlikely that this top striker can help his new team beat Brazil or Argentina.  

Among the offshoot from this view of leaders as heroes includes the notion of transformational leadership. Many writers are endeared to this notion of transformational leadership. A search on transformational leadership in Google Scholar yielded 687,000 hits whereas a search on transactional leadership only yielded 215,000 hits. It is very evident that there is considerably more interest and fascination with transformational leadership which emphasizes the role of leaders in inspiring and motivating followers.

Yukl, however, is of the view that the notion of transformational leadership is too focused on the relationship aspect in leadership. It ignores the role of developing a sound strategy, designing the organization, resource management etc. Discussions on transformational leadership also tend to see influence as flowing one-way i.e. top-bottom.

Meindl is credited with having created a shift in leadership research. He is said to have given birth to a follower-centric approach in understanding the role of leadership and performance. Among the stream of research that is based on this understanding is the notion of implicit leadership theories (ILT). The ILT concept argues that followers develop a cognitive model i.e., their ILT, of what they consider to be appropriate leadership behaviours. Leaders whose behaviour resembles the expectations in this ILT will be more accepted by their followers. On the other hand, followers are more likely to be less accepting of leaders who deviate far from their ILT. The ILT held by followers have been shown to differ across cultures and even industries and organizations. Empirical evidence shows that followers in Malaysia expect their leaders to also be logical thinkers, are able to organize activities effectively and are able to anticipate the future.

Some cultures are more likely to elevate the status of leaders to heroes. This is common in high power distance societies where the sense of hierarchy is very strong. Leaders are often seen as all-knowing and the saviour of their followers. On the other hand, some cultures are more egalitarian. In some Scandinavian countries work culture is shaped by The Law of Jante which discourages people from standing out from others. Leaders are not seen as superhuman or heroes. Switzerland is a country that rely on strong institutions instead of strong leaders. Most non-Swiss do not know who the president of Switzerland is. And most also do not know that the Swiss president holds office for only one year. It is not a coincident that countries that believe in developing strong institutions have highly competent civil service. Switzerland and the Scandinavian countries are ranked in the top 10 in the International Civil Service Effectiveness Index.

Other ideas that are contributing to the shift in thinking on leadership includes the notion of distributed leadership (DL). This concept sees power and knowledge as being dispersed throughout an organization. Thus, the leader does not have sole control over power and knowledge. As such, the exercise of leadership requires that leaders develop relationships and networks to share the power and knowledge in the organization. The exercise of leadership involves incorporating others, sometime even those who do not hold any leadership position, as a part of the leadership process.

These shifts in thinking about leadership have a number of implications. First, it is important to recognize the role of other requisite variables in creating organizational success and not overstate the role of leaders. Second, leadership effectiveness depends on the relationship leaders develop with their followers. This is shaped by the extent leaders behave in ways that resemble followers’ ILT. We need to examine ILT research more closely to understand the dynamics of this relationship. Finally, this discussion brings into focus the issue of how do we develop leaders. Should it be about leader development or leadership development? If we accept the arguments from the theory on Distributed Leadership, there is a need to shift away from leader development and move towards leadership development. We will be discussing this further in the next posting.


Anusuiya Subramaniam, Rozhan Othman and Murali Sambisivan. (2010). “Implicit leadership theory among Malaysian managers: Impact of the leadership expectation gap on leader-member exchange quality”. Leadership and Organizational Development Journal, 31(4).  

Meindl, J, Ehrlich, S., and Dukerich, J (1985). “The romance of leadership”. Administrative Science Quarterly, 30(1).

Schyns, B, Meindl, J and Croon, M. (2007) “The  Romance  of  Leadership Scale  –  Cross-cultural testing  and refinement”. Leadership, 3:1.

Yukl, G. (1999). “An evaluation of conceptual weaknesses in transformational and charismatic leadership theories”. The Leadership Quarterly, 10.

Yukl, G. (2008). “How leaders influence organizational effectiveness.” The Leadership Quarterly, 19.

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