Life would indeed be dull without people rousing us to lift our game, try harder or aspire to bigger things. We are surrounded by people who do just that. Many are popular heroes like Adam Goodes and Rosie Batty who were each named Australian of the Year in recent times. Adam is a credible spokesperson for social reform in the areas of Aboriginal rights and racism. Rosie’s personal tragedy propelled her into the limelight and she is now a high-profile and influential campaigner for an end to family violence.
Popular heroes like these reveal the power of a compelling vision and a desire to share a passion for change with others. We find popular heroes in all parts of society, including business, sport, community service and politics. In business we could point to people like Richard Branson, Gail Kelly and Bill Gates. In the military we have heroes like VC winner Ben Roberts-Smith.
Many of these heroes seem like larger-than-life characters but that is because we put them on a pedestal. In reality, they are mostly ordinary people like the rest of us. What sets them apart is their desire to make a difference and their courage in following their own path. They want to take others along with them so they lead from within, not from above.
Popular heroes have much in common with the best business leaders. As author Jim Collins (Good to Great) discovered, the exceptional business leaders in his study had a steely determination to make things happen. However, they did not have special personalities – in fact, they were humble people who were not motivated to stand out from the crowd. Had they had big egos they would have been reluctant to surround themselves with good people for fear of being shown up. And as Collins noted, a good team of willing followers is just what those leaders needed to help them succeed.
To lead like a popular hero you first need a vision that you can share. It does not have to be grand or original but it does need to be something worthwhile that will shine a light through the difficult moments. Some leaders find inspiration in corporate vision statements but often these are too sterile or removed from the action.
Some of the best guiding visions come from the experience of the team working together and finding meaning in what they do every day. Good leaders listen and reflect what the team is saying and, over time, together they form a vision that they can own. For Paul Featherstone, one of Australia’s best-known paramedics in rescue operations (interviewed by Andrew Denton on Enough Rope), his team was guided by a determination to get people in dire circumstances back to their families. It helped them through each tough job while doing their work to the highest standards.
As you can see, having a vision or purpose helps people focus on the things that really matter. What often happens, though, is that we become bogged down in minutiae of the everyday and focus primarily on getting through to the end of the work day or shift. We lose sight of our role in making a difference to clients or customers. This is something that leaders who model themselves on popular heroes try to prevent from happening.
Popular heroes also remind us that leadership is a marathon effort and not a sprint. Their desire to make a difference is backed by persistence and hard work over the long haul. It takes time to build a solid reputation, and like Jim Collins’ successful business leaders, their effort is consistent and tireless.
To sum up, from popular leaders we learn about the important of a guiding vision, courage, persistence and humility. Every person who aspires to leadership has a choice to make. They can see a leadership role as just the first step in their progression up the hierarchy, or they can take on the mantle of leadership, and become a respected influencer in their profession.