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Should Leaders Be Heroes or Relationship Builders?

Executives better serve their companies when they act as co-creators, rather than solo artists.

As I walked through the airport recently, a quick scan of the magazine rack showed a preponderance of glossy covers featuring photographs of single individuals: a CEO, a celebrity, a politician. This focus on the individual is an extension of a narrative tradition that goes back at least as far as Homer. We like stories about heroes, villains, and victims, and those stories are brought to life through compelling characters.

This tradition is also reflected in how we think about leaders. We relate the rise and fall of organizations through the stories of their executives, the successes and failures of armies through the exploits of their generals, and the triumph or defeat of social movements through the journeys of their most visible advocates. Jobs. Patton. Bezos. Mandela. Schultz.

But the reality is not that simple. Leaders never act alone—rarely, if ever, do breakthrough ideas have a single parent.

Successful strategies, tactics, negotiations, and operations are usually not the product of sitting alone in one's room. Researchers use the term “agency” to describe the actions of individuals. The leaders described above are portrayed as individual agents—think “my idea,” “my vision,” or the title of a regular feature on CEOs in Harvard Business Review, “How I Did It.”

In my experience and research, however, leaders are more often co-creators or joint agents. I may have an idea, but you and several others add to it before it becomes the next big thing. Jeff Bezos has contributed mightily to Amazon’s success, but he certainly didn’t do it alone. Alan Mulally didn’t turn Ford around all by himself. Even the legendary Welch, Gerstner, and Iacocca were not the solo acts they are so often portrayed to be. Employees, investors, suppliers, customers, and even competitors played important roles in making the companies these leaders ran successful.

Research on nonlinear systems at the Santa Fe Institute and elsewhere, which I first encountered through the work of Margaret Wheatley, holds that change in a system comes not from the actions of one agent but rather from the interactions of two or more agents. If you view global organizations as complex systems, as I do, then evaluating and developing leaders as individual agents is foolhardy at best. These efforts are much better directed at improving how leaders foster communication and build relationships.

Most giants of the leadership canon—from James McGregor Burns to Jim Collins—focus on the efforts of the individual rather than the individual as part of a group. But some, like Warren Bennis, write that triumph in creation requires more of a group effort. Bennis wrote about “great groups” at Apple and other innovative companies as the successors to the “great man” tradition of leadership. He wrote about “the myth of the triumphant individual” that underlies much leadership thinking. Individuals have value, but that value is best viewed in the larger context of the system, not separate from it.

Creation is wonderful, but co-creation opens up far greater possibilities, unlocks more resources, and more effectively hedges the risk of overlooking either opportunities or pitfalls. Co-creation gives you the freedom to say, “I’m not sure. What do you think?” It allows you to more deeply engage followers, peers, and even potential naysayers. It doesn’t diminish what you do; it amplifies it.
As you think about your own leadership journey, I encourage you to keep agency in mind. Yes, you must think about what you will do, but try placing it in the context of what you will enable others to contribute, how you will remove obstacles to others' success, how you catalyze collaboration, and how you can ensure that credit is shared as widely as is deserved.

Heroic narratives may be easy—perhaps even essential—in storytelling, but do not confuse them with what is actually essential to your success as a leader.
Truly great leaders are masters of co-creation. So, what can you do?

Watch the credits. The next time that you see a film, stay through the credits. You will see that while the stars’ names may be in larger type, there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of others who were essential to creating the film. Eliminate any of them and you would have a lesser experience or perhaps no movie at all.

Create a genealogy chart for a great idea. Look at the last (or next) successful initiative in your organization and trace its lineage. From where did the seed emerge? Who was at the meeting where it was first surfaced? Who was it bounced off as it matured? How did you or another leader nurture the idea? Try to include everyone who contributed in some way to its development—and then post it on the wall for everyone to see.

• As you keep your leadership journal (and I encourage everyone to do so), periodically note the times when your actions have either encouraged or discouraged co-creation. Think about what worked and what you might have done differently.

Eric McNulty

Eric J. McNulty is the associate director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative. He is the coauthor of You're It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When It Matters Most (PublicAffairs, 2019). He writes frequently about leadership, change, and organizational culture.

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