Africa and the world need fewer hero leaders and more virtuous leaders

Africa and the world need fewer hero leaders and more virtuous leaders
Africa and the world need fewer hero leaders and more virtuous leaders.

Prof Marius Ungerer* is an emeritus professor from Stellenbosch Business School and a business consultant.


The Industrial Age leadership model of the 20th century has created the prodigious image of successful leaders as supermen or superwomen who possess special gifts related to insights about what needs to be done in a crisis and how to achieve a better and brighter future.

This created a larger-than-life heroic leadership benchmark, implying that leadership is mostly about a showmanship facade, and saving others and organisations from disasters. It also implied that leadership is extensively based on personal charisma. The cumulative effect of this heroic view of leadership is a deep dependency by followers on one person, the hero leader.

Hero leaders expect absolute loyalty from followers and exert their power over others by demanding zero dissents. They are also known for their lack of willingness (intent) or capability (means) to develop other leaders. This ongoing dependency on one leader with magical attributes creates a huge successor vacuum when this type of leader moves on, retires or dies.

The downside includes the inability of movements and organisations – as a manifestation of individual and collective effort – to learn and think independently, to develop core organisational capabilities for competitive advantageous benefits, and to develop appropriate internal leadership capacities. Instead of saving organisations, the self-centricity and self-interest focus of the charismatic and hero leader has caused many corporate and societal crises and scandals. The charismatic leader model is clearly of dubious value and has to be replaced.

Research on narcissism shows that individuals with higher levels of narcissism are likely to “(a) harbour feelings of superiority driven by an inflated or grandiose sense of self, (b) have a dysfunctional need for excessive attention and admiration, (c) have a propensity for engaging in exploitive acts or behaviours, and (d) lack empathy, tending toward callousness”. Other narcissistic behaviours confirmed by researchers include interpersonally exploitive acts, intense envy, aggression, and exhibitionism, as well as narcissistic vulnerability, which manifests in experiences of helplessness, emptiness, low self-esteem, and shame. The features associated with narcissistic behaviour bring to the fore images of behaviour also associated with hero leadership.

Narcissists are individuals who have an inflated view of self along with delusions of grandeur, which leads to the desire to self-promote and engage in attention-seeking behaviour. Research on the relationship between narcissism and performance shows a negative trend, and is significant for individuals working in positions of authority. The relationship between narcissism and performance was negative and stronger for cultures with higher levels of in-group collectivism. This means that narcissists in leadership positions who work in cultures that foster collective actions have a negative influence on organisational performance. These toxic leadership and maladaptive behavioural tendencies are in general also associated with a hero leadership approach, which is clearly not what we need from leaders who are expected to produce better futures and prosperity for their stakeholders.

It is now the time for us as followers, supporters, and voters to relinquish our deep desire and dependency on and for an uber-hero leader that will save us from our current dilemmas and lead us into a land of “milk and honey”.

The promises to solve all problems and deliver prosperity to all is just too good to be true. This easy way out is not an option we should allow ourselves to be seduced into anymore. We live in a complex and inter-connected world that requires leaders to serve the needs of multiple interest groups – the whole of humanity, and not only their narrow followership interests and self-serving needs. We need leaders who embrace serving others over being served by others, and who prioritise the interest of the whole over the interest of a narrow and selected few. We should resist populistic offerings by leaders of dubious character and track record to a much greater extent than in the past.

Research by Jim Collins on leadership shows that successful leaders are those with a paradoxical combination of deep personal humility and an intense professional will. Collins’s findings on excellent leaders who transformed their institutions from “good to great” disprove the myth of the hero leader. Most are unpretentious, modest, and even a bit shy – often avoiding public attention and adulation. They are not soft and meek, however, showing their humility through “window” behaviour by crediting others and acknowledging good luck and external factors for their institution’s success. When results are poor they take responsibility and blame themselves, not others – the so-called “mirror” behaviour. They display a fierce and unwavering resolve to do what needs to be done to produce outstanding results, no matter how difficult, and to achieve high aspirational goals. They channel their ambitions into the organisation to ensure enduring greatness for it – not to serve their personal interest or ego.

Collins indicated that charisma is as much a liability for leaders as it is an asset. Leaders who rise to celebrity status tend to have big egos which negatively influence the longer-term performance of an organisation. Charisma is clearly an asset for any leader. But how is this asset utilised? Great leaders focus their charismatic energy and skills on the larger intent, goal or aspiration, not only on self-serving needs, thereby creating an enduring high-performing institution that benefits multiple stakeholders. Charisma, while valuable, should be channeled toward serving larger goals and aspirations rather than serving personal interests. The movement is clearly from a hero leader to a positive, authentic virtuous leader whose intent is to serve others.

A virtuous perspective on leadership and life represents old wisdom about mankind, going back to the beginning of the recorded history of manhood. Virtues form the basis of classical Greek philosophy from the West as well as Chinese Confucianism from the East. A virtue can be desribed as moral excellence and righteousness; goodness; and a particular efficacious, good or beneficial quality and advantage.

Virtues (as there are many) represent principles of moral character that motivate and guide behaviour towards positive ethical outcomes. Examples of virtues include justice, humanity, wisdom and courage. Virtuous leaders embody moral goodness and strive to make a positive impact beyond self-interest. They create sustainable positive energy and inspire excellence through habitual virtuous actions.

Virtues are universally valued, but may be practised in different ways depending on culture, which makes virtues sensitive to cultural differences or contexts. Virtues are ubiquitous in the sense that people all over the world can associate with them as a general guideline on the question: What do good people do to make life a success and worth living? The intent with which we drive virtuous behaviour is important for realising virtuous outcomes. This implies that we will act and be virtuous when we desire to be virtuous, and when we intend to be good human beings who are of service to others. The authenticity of the virtue is determined by the motive behind the action.

We are currently living in a moral vacuum or moral wilderness where ethical thinking and behaviour are not the dominant patterns in business and governments. This is why virtues are a helpful departure point for leaders as virtues allow them to embed a moral identity and ethical perspective in their idealised behaviour and practices. Virtues provide leaders with a moral compass and guide their behaviour and practices.

In general, three assumptions are associated with the concept of virtuousness to explain why it represents such an essential basis for guiding the behaviour of leaders and followers in the 21st century:

  • An inclination exists in all humans to lean towards moral goodness, and this tendency has been confirmed by various researchers. Human beings naturally strive to do good. This positive deviance stance assists leaders to set for themselves and others (followers) high performance and ethical standards as possibilities to live into and to have a positive impact in each interaction with other people and communities.
  • The impact of virtuousness extends beyond mere self-interest as virtuous leadership is not a means to achieve another end. Instead, it is an end in itself. Virtuous leaders impact all people who cross their path with more hope for themselves, their organisation, their community, their country, and our planet.
  • Virtuousness creates and fosters sustainable positive energy. Virtuous leaders through their interactions, relationships, and information flow with and through other people energise all to execute various impactful, sustainable actions.

A capacity for excellence forms the basis of virtues, and excellence is formed through habit. The idea is that we develop excellence through repetitive actions; we become what we repeatedly do. This means excellence is not an act, but a habit. In fulfilling our human nature, we harmonise ourselves as individuals, even if we are living in a world and continent inundated by disharmony. In virtuous individuals, reason renders sound judgements. Life happens in continuous dynamic cycles. Language becomes less a way of describing an ever-changing world and more a way of provoking thought within the world so that we can become exemplary individuals and leaders.

We need a world where the de facto starting point for leaders centre on an aspiration to do good things to all people, to be a good person with high integrity, and to energise ourselves and others through positive interactions. Virtuous leadership is an approach that provides people with meaning to help satisfy holistic needs. In a societal and global context, this includes a balanced view where organisations and governments, and their members, are at the same time both competitive, world-class and responsible corporate citizens and leaders.

The practices associated with leadership need to move towards leading from a moral and ethical base far beyond the desire to meet the minimum criteria of an ethical code. Virtuous leadership practices represent a clear stance to lead in an extraordinary way for positive impacts. A virtuous leadership approach creates the basis for a deep desire to do both good and well at the same time. Virtuous leadership contains a message of hope to be fair and just, as well as to create prosperity. Virtuous leadership goes beyond meeting ethical standards; it aims to have a profound positive impact and brings hope for fairness, justice, and prosperity.

We need leaders who focus their leadership contributions on achieving greatness by bringing out the greatness in others. True individual greatness is not about conquering an empire. It is about human, spiritual growth. Greatness is the result of the practice of the virtue of generosity; service is the result of the practice of the virtue of humility. Virtuous leadership offers a path to achieve greatness while simultaneously creating a just and prosperous society.


*This view is an extract from the book Afro-global management innovation practices by Prof Marius Ungerer.