Leadership
May 7, 2012

Dimensions of heroic leadership

CGE Vol.13 No.3 March 2007

The Six Dimensions of Leadership
Andrew Brown
Random House, 229 pages, $53.95

There are many formulae around for leaders, based on observation or hypothesis. But one I like best, because it is so clear and easy to remember, comes from a book that has received little attention, Cambridge lecturer Andrew Brown’s The Six Dimensions of Leadership, initially published in 1999.

He sets out six roles that leaders play in carrying out their work. You’re undoubtedly familiar with some of them, from the demands placed on your own leadership, but others may seem a touch flamboyant and even unsettling:
1.     Heroes: Great leaders are liberating heroes and role models who devote themselves to the collective good.
2.     Actors: The best leaders are skilled actors, able to deliver authentic and convincing performances.
3.     Immortalists: Admirable leaders are visionaries with high self-esteem, whose organizations take on their personalities.
4.     Power brokers: Top leaders are shrewd dealers in power, who accomplish goals by mobilizing others to act on their behalf.
5.     Ambassadors: High performing leaders are diplomats, who use their interpersonal skills to develop valuable networks of external supporters.
6.     Willing victims: Effective leaders are, when necessary, content to make a personal sacrifice for the sake of a cause in which they believe.

“To be fully effective, leaders need to be adept in all these dimensions of leadership,” Brown asserts.

He points to Nelson Mandela, who exemplified each trait. He is an epic hero, whose experiences impress and amaze us. He is a skilled actor, capable of impassioned and uplifting oratory. He is an idealist – an immortalist whose vision has captivated his country and millions of people around the world. He had the power-broking talents to unite his political party and nation. At one time he was an ambassador for revolution in his country and today he is an elder statesman for justice in world affairs. And he made a great sacrifice by going to prison for his beliefs and refusing to renounce them in exchange for the offer of an early release.

Of course, you’re not Mandela. But every leader must play those roles, to some extent or another. The danger, Brown warns, is “role capture,” in which you only concentrate on one of those roles or a few that are linked together.

The power broker and ambassador role are often mentioned in the leadership literature, so I’ll pass over them. But the first dimension, hero, may well have led you to gulp. We tend to be unsung heroes in our own mind, fighting battles every day to make our organizations better, but it seems unlikely that anyone outside our immediate families might see us as a Mandela-like hero.

But Brown puts it in more achievable terms: “Heroes are characters with whom we naturally identify, and those processes of identification diminish our own anxieties, fears and loneliness. Such people make success seem attainable for ordinary employees, symbolize the culture of the organization and what is unique about it, and foster loyalty in others. Most importantly of all, heroes are role models for other employees, personifying organizational strengths and setting standards for performance. People learn a lot from modelling themselves on others, and the privileged position of leaders as the most obviously available models in organizations, makes it imperative that they play their heroic roles with flair and guile.”

He sets out four genres of heroes that we need to be sensitive to.
§     The first is the epic hero, who undertakes a perilous journey involving a crucial struggle. In general, the more problems the hero faces and the more hurdles that are overcome, the more venerated the leader will become. “Successful leaders are able to cast themselves as epic heroes. They tell stories about themselves and encourage others to tell stories about them that illustrate the qualities they wish to inspire in others – tenacity, determination, single-mindedness, clarity of vision, and so forth,” he says.
§     Leaders must also become symbolic heroes, representing something significant to others, usually by being associated with an idea or movement. The idea you choose to represent can be critical, because it will have implications for subordinate commitment and performance.
§     Leaders must be playful heroes, bringing humour to the workplace, be it gentle witticisms or the outrageous antics of Virgin founder Richard Branson.
§     Finally, leaders must be warrior heroes, willing to slay other organizations that stand in the way of their own.

Many government executives might chafe at the notion they must be actors, since that seems inauthentic. But Brown argues leaders exert much of their influence through their roles as poets, rhetoricians, storytellers, and showmen and showwomen, with success coming if those performances are authentic, believable and convincing. By contrast, leaders who perform poorly as actors are contrived and self-conscious.

Much has been written about leaders as storytellers, of course – but poets? Isn’t that a stretch? “Just as great poets are able to frame images that guide the sensitivities of their readers, so great leaders develop images that mould the behaviours of their subordinates,” says Brown. Like poets searching for a theme or aspect of existence that no one else sees in quite the same way, leaders must wrest a coherent image of the way ahead from the chaos of conflicting trends, data and political signals with which they are bombarded.

Rhetoric is related, the art of writing and speaking with persuasion and power. “The most important aspect of the leader as rhetorician is the ability to use the language in ways that are emotionally expressive, and which energize, motivate and inspire others to action. A focus on the role of the leader as rhetorician is useful because the many textbook reminders that leaders need to be effective communicators are still ignored or at best only partially understood. In short, there are still many executives who, like second-rate actors, are careless of speech, inattentive to words, pronounce them in a thoughtless and slipshod manner, and thus end up with completely mutilated, incomprehensible phrases,” he says.

Immortalists, according to the dictionary, hold the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. Brown is adapting that to the organizational context, and how it can be kept going forever through visionary leaders whose high self-esteem and desire to succeed stands as a beacon to their followers. His examples are of corporate leaders, entrepreneurs who took their companies to new heights. Applying his dimension to leadership in government, where the ultimate power resides with elected officials, is more delicate.

Still, government executives have to fulfill the visionary elements of leadership he sets out: Providing a statement to followers of why the organization exists; showing what the leader wants it to become and how that can be achieved; and motivating them to attain that desired state. He warns against destructive immortalists, who have an unhealthy impact on the organizations they lead. Destructive im

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