John Wayne Must Die!

I know that The Duke has been dead for over 30 years but, unfortunately for American organizations, his shadow continues to hang on as a model for how a leader should act.

Take your typical John Wayne western. He rides into town (or is hired for his gun), and analyzes the scene, trying to understand what’s gone wrong. Once he figures things out (usually on his own) he provokes a conflict designed to smoke out the bad guys. He kills the bad guys, kisses the girl, and rides out of town – triumphant as always and in less than two hours. Amazing!

Wayne never got the trains to run on time; he never picked up the trash; he never did any of the mundane but necessary tasks needed to make towns (or organizations) work successfully over time. He rarely avoided problems, and was always ready to make a quick decision, and then try to enforce his will, even if others disagreed. Wayne was your typical “hero” manager and, like all hero managers, he would much rather “fight fires” than prevent them. You can see Wayne’s shadow simply by looking at a list of current and recent leadership titles – If it Isn’t Broke, Break It; Winning, Alpha Leaders; Warrior’s Art; Playing to Win; Break All the Rules; and on and on.

The problem is that hero managers often do more harm than good. They crave a quick success, and they want any success attributed to their decisions and actions. They feel compelled to take action, even if they lack critical information, or if a little patience might lead to a lot of insight. They often disrupt effective operations in their desire to DO SOMETHING, since you can’t be a hero unless you take action. And perhaps worst of all, they rarely leave behind the kind of systems that will sustain any changes that actually work well.  In short, hero managers love to play John Wayne!

So, what are you supposed to do if you run into the shadow of The Duke (especially if he or she is your manager)? Following are some key steps that may help you reign in the hero and start providing leadership for sustainable success.
1. Clarify purpose. When heroes race to make quick decisions, it’s often useful to ask about the purpose behind these decisions – how do you define measure success? And, if the hero manager pushes back (why are you wasting my time with these questions?) then talk about how you don’t want to fail the hero simply because you didn’t clarify the definition of success.
2. Stay away from code. Most heroes love to talk in code. They use empty words – like ownership, accountability, responsibility – to rationalize their desire to control decisions and impose their will. If a hero manager talks in code (“I need you to own this one!”), make sure that you unpack the code by asking for SPECIFIC actions and results that others expect you to produce.
3. Keep the hero engaged. Hero managers often want to make decisions but then avoid any role in execution. Sometimes you cannot avoid the assignment, but you can clarify the role you need others to play (including the hero), you can describe the resources you need to complete the task successfully, and you can manage any boundaries you have about what others expect you to do.
4. Create sustainable solutions. Whenever possible, build your solutions for sustainable success. Reuse or re-purpose, instead of starting from scratch like the heroes love to do. Document what you create, so others can use and maintain it. And never create a “one-off” solution that only fits one situation.

I may never kill The Duke, because his myth is too popular and it serves the wannabe heroes far too well. However, for those of you who also believe that heroes typically do more harm than good, I hope these ideas can help you reign in the heroes you need to manage!

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