The Myth of the Super Leader

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I don't know one person who would sit on a single-legged stool. Yet, I know many who believe that a single super-hero leader can sustain companies. You know them too. Heck, you might even be one of them. We want to believe that—it makes the story easier to understand. And we love stories, don't we?

We buy that Steve Jobs was Apple, that Elon Musk is Tesla. The world bombards us with success stories and quasi-mythological characters that explain a firm's success in shows we watch, in the news we read, in conversation, everywhere. Believing these narratives creates one big problem: We coddle bad Leaders because "they're brilliant."

Leaders who cause dependence are bad, no matter how brilliant they seem. They create two issues in their organizations: Fragility and Bad Culture.


Depending on a single person, a company becomes fragile. One obvious way in which it's fragile is to this person's death or serious illness. One less obvious way is that it becomes less adaptable.

One person has only their experience, their context, and what they know. They are not the best person to handle every decision. They can't have the context to tackle all the problems and get the right answers. Whatever is a blind spot to them will become a blind spot to the company.

As things change, it becomes harder to use their experience to deal with the new challenges. The company's dependence on that person weakens the people around them, and they will also not be ready to deal with what comes next. That brings me to the next problem, bad culture.

Bad Culture

Dependence comes from not empowering people around us–from not building the team. It comes from a drive for results that is not worried about coaching people to know how to achieve those results themselves. It comes from short-sightedness, from our need to feel important. The people around us see this, know this, and act accordingly.

Soon the rest of the leaders of the company will mimic this behavior. Those who don't want to follow this will leave. The company's culture slowly becomes one of finding Super-Heroes, instead of one based on empowering others. In turn, these super-heroes will scorch the earth behind them when they leave their teams. At that point, no individualist brilliancy can save the company.

Leaders who fail to make themselves obsolete, to imprint their brilliance in the company's culture, and who breed weak leaders around them cannot be considered brilliant–even if they were critical to a firm's success at specific points in time. A good leader builds a solid foundation on top of which their organization will thrive for many years, even after they're long gone. We should favor those. After all, we can only balance ourselves on a single-legged stool for so long.