Looking for post-heroic leaders


they write:
Tamara Valenčič, expert in people development at work
Saša Mrak Hendrickson, Beep Institute consultant

'People don't leave companies, they leave their leaders,' is the sentence with which Gallup concluded its 2013 engagement survey1 and we have reheated this phrase for the last two years of a large-scale crisis. We also say that we cannot choose our family. But you can be a leader. In times of epidemiological, logistical, energy and, as I like to call it, "crises of all kinds", leaders are once again under heavy attack. So it's no wonder that today, when we talk about them, we talk about post-heroic leadership.

From an economic point of view, managers are expected to have supernatural abilities to foresee and plan and to juggle many unknowns in this VUCA world, where nothing is predictable anymore. We don't know whether business will be affected tomorrow by a natural disaster, geopolitical conflict, local strife, an epidemic or something else. So how to plan strategic business results? But even more difficult are the expectations that a leader master all the skills to manage people, retain talent and knowledge, play with organizational structures and (agile) ways of working, while remaining humble, connecting and the first among equals. For example, as employees, we have changed our values and greatly raised our expectations of what constitutes a good working environment today. Good coffee, a lunch break, fresh fruit on the table, normal relationships, paid sick leave and weeks of vacation are no longer enough.

The "Zeitgeist"* of post-heroic leaders

Research "Zeitgeit Leadership"2 from 2005 beautifully demonstrates how a leader's long-term success does not come from sheer strength of personality or breadth and depth of skills. It shows that without the ability to read and adapt to changing business conditions, personality and skill are only temporary advantages. Understanding the zeitgeist and its implications has historically played a crucial but unheralded role in some of the biggest business wins of all time, according to international experts Anthony J. Mayo and Nitin Nohria of Harvard Business School. In order to better understand the connection between business performance and the context, or zeitgeist, they studied a thousand great American business leaders of the twentieth century; individuals who have shaped the way Americans and people around the world live, work, and interact. Detailed historical research points out that when choosing the right and suitable leader, it is crucial to take into account, in addition to achieved results and charisma, the so-called context intelligence (contextual intelligence).

One of the better examples that offers us an understanding is, for example, Jack Welch, who is generally credited with the exceptional performance of one of the world's largest conglomerates, General Electrics, in the 1980s and 1990s, or until his retirement in 2001. His predecessor, Reginald Jones, then decided to appoint Welch as his successor despite the fact that Jack, as a junior manager at the time, was considered too inexperienced, too impatient and too reckless for the position and a completely different personality type to Jones. But it turned out that although they were complete opposites, they were both examples of how to run such a large and demanding company8. Why?

An accountant by training, reserved and without much energy, Jones ran the company in the 1970s - a time of simultaneous recession and inflation, when he nevertheless managed to maintain strong revenue and profit growth. It was very suitable for the environment of the time, where rational planning and prudent investments were the order of the day. It was also a time of rigorous regulation, and Jones' statesmanlike demeanor made him particularly effective in negotiating with government regulators. But Jones also knew in time that global competition was heating up and that the company's future success would depend on the skills and greater ability to change, and thus a different leader. Young Welch, a boundary-breaker, who read and understood the zeitgeist and himself saw big changes on the horizon, was the ideal person to grow the company in tough times.8

The bottom line is that a leader who excels in a period of relative freedom, for example, can derail in a time of heavy government intervention, when the ability to navigate rules and manage relationships can trump an inventive mind. However, this does not mean that each era was ideally suited to only one type of leader. In each decade, there were many forces at play that affected the context of individual companies in different ways and offered different opportunities. The ideal leader of one company was not necessarily the right person in one era, but could be in another. In this, the leaders and founders themselves played an important role in defining the context in which they lived and worked, as they not only took advantage of the opportunities of a certain time and its spirit, but also created opportunities that influenced it.8

Tim Cook, the successor of Steve Jobs, is also a good example. Cook was doubted by many, he was different from Jobs, he was accused, among other things, of not having the charisma to lead. But he managed to find a new path to success when taking over Apple and increased its value by eight times during his period of managing the company. Also by taking into account new social norms and not just by changing the product. The last example is Elon Musk, who by taking over Twitter proved that being a superhero in one industry or in one era does not mean that you can continue undisturbed in another industry or in a specific time period, summarizes author Raffaella Sadun, professor at Harvard Business School .3

Therefore, the leaders of the future cannot and must no longer be the true and only heroes who promise us quick solutions to all our problems. And people also need to change our expectations of leaders. 

The first among equals leaves the ego at the door

It is not necessary to repeat again what time we live in and what the future predictions are. If we focus only on one of the pressing problems, the talent and knowledge crisis, then it is clear that the leader of the new era must heroically take into account his shortcomings, especially in the light of contradictions, variability, uncertainty and complexity. We want post-heroic leaders, who will remain with us even after the end of the crises, in the introduction to the book Postheroic leadership, Dr. Miha Škerlavaj, vice-dean for research work and doctoral studies, full-time professor in the field of management at the Faculty of Economics in Ljubljana and associate full-time professor of management and organizational behavior at BI Norwegian Business School.4

As he adds, the leaders of the future will have to leave their egos at the door and start very actively involving and connecting all important stakeholders with the appropriate knowledge and resources. Many academics have already written about post-heroic leadership, Dr. In the spirit of today's times, Škerlavaj condensed his findings, supported by examples, into completely simple directions.

It is about "service" and "shared" management, primarily oriented towards people. These may be scary words for an old-fashioned leader's ego, but they are certainly of vital importance to society and the general well-being. What does that mean? Shared leadership is nothing more than the fact that it redirects us from recognizing individual achievements to emphasizing joint achievements and the importance of teamwork and mutual responsibility. Servant leadership, on the other hand, has the characteristics of empowering colleagues and assisting in development, as well as humility, leader authenticity, mutual acceptance, direction and stewardship.

Therefore, the leaders of the future cannot and must no longer be the true and only heroes who promise us quick solutions to all our problems. And people also need to change our expectations of leaders. We will create the realization of our potential together, i.e. leaders with their employees, not in a forced authoritative way, but through involvement and cooperation. Good leaders themselves like to say today that they are, after all, just first among equals.

Management as a profession or occupation

Organizations prioritize their leaders from among their existing employees. Their advantage is that they have a good knowledge of the organization and the industry and are experts in the sought-after field, in which the organization has already invested a lot of time and energy. The most common career path is still the transition from expert to manager. Why is this important information?

In the last decade, the need for soft leadership skills has become much more pronounced. The research "How the Theory of Mind Helps Us Understand Others" by Charlotte Ruhl of Harvard University, covering data from 2000 to 2017 and examining approximately five thousand managerial job descriptions, shows a sharp rise in the need for managerial soft skills since 2007 , as the curve turned upward.5

Since 2015, a drastic decline in requirements for financial and business and expert knowledge and a steep rise in soft skills can be seen. Leaders today need to know how to motivate different profiles of people, technologically advanced colleagues, dispersed global teams and much more. This requires skills that are difficult to measure, but they come from a high level of personal maturity, self-awareness, the ability to listen and communicate, the ability to work with diverse people and groups, and the ability to have an extremely high level of empathy. We have to understand the latter more broadly. Psychologists also call it Theory of mind6. It is the ability to judge the mental states of oneself and others, more precisely what we believe, what we plan, what we want, what we feel and what we know. Having a theory of mind allows us to understand that others have unique beliefs and desires that differ from our own, which allows us to participate in everyday social interaction as we interpret the mental states and make inferences about the behavior of the people around us.9

Managers must therefore understand complexity holistically and be able to manage it well. They are expected to know how to manage organizational knowledge well, successfully coordinate problems with people who know how to solve them, and last but not least, they must know how to communicate very well.7 Successful organizations have long established their leadership standards, and leadership competencies are also well defined. It is time to start understanding management as a profession or a profession and treat it as such.

How to choose the right manager or why your best expert is not necessarily the best manager?

In my workshops, I meet a lot of "newly minted" leaders, and I often meet people who didn't really want to become leaders and were "pushed" into the role. But the fact, confirmed by experience and research, is that we need to adapt and more carefully design the way we find leaders and plan succession. We have to start using different recognition and search tools, new ways of psychological assessment, and above all we have to look at the potential of our people from a different perspective. The fact that someone is an expert, or that he is communicative, extroverted, loud does not mean that he will be a good leader.

When we start the process of selecting managers or building a succession system, we must be aware that we are placing managers in this position for a longer period, i.e. in the long term, during which they will ensure the sustainable development of the organization. Before embarking on selection, we must set the structured conditions of leadership as a profession. We need to provide support, training, coaching and peer-to-peer learning. It is important to set progressive career paths and consequently customized career development for leaders, but we also need to consider expanding the pool of potential leaders.

In my own practice of selecting leaders from talent potential, I have repeatedly used even the most dramatic explanations of what awaits them in the future if they become leaders. Many thanked me for the opportunity and recognized themselves in the long-term in the continuing role of an expert. With the graphic presentation of the work of a leader, as we expect, many recognized themselves in the challenge and are successful today, in my opinion, even post-heroic leaders. "Becoming a leader should be an honor and a responsibility," says Dr. Skerlavaj in ours podcast.

A call to reconsider

Regardless of whether you already have a leadership structure in place in your organization or whether you are looking for new leaders, I suggest a thorough consideration. Leadership has a multiplier effect. Not only on the organization, but also on the individual and society.

I also suggest considering the possible need to redefine leadership standards in your organization. Consider the "zeitgeist", consider the future, your vision and direction.
If your organization is looking to fill a key leadership position, you need to move away from the candidate's performance and understand the contextual environment when selecting. Consider global events and upcoming regulations and the role technology could play in future success. And keep your business goals in mind. Namely, if a company wants to maximize growth, a manager may be the best choice for CEO. In times of crisis or decline, a leader may be needed. Boards should refrain from hiring celebrity CEOs if that person's strengths are not properly aligned with the direction the company is going or needs to go. Instead, we can learn from our predecessors the value of respecting and understanding the conditions that affect the business environment. This can help us choose the right people for this time.8

It seems that the expectations of individuals and society are ahead of us, there are new generations with completely new principles and behaviors. The concept of zeitgeist may be intangible, but the risks of contextual insensitivity are very concrete. If a leader does not know how to read the business landscape, he risks leading his organization in the wrong direction or choosing the wrong successors. This is often not taken into account when choosing a company.

*Zeitgeist is a German term and means "spirit of the age" or "spirit of the times" or the general intellectual, moral and cultural climate of an era ("Geist" in translation means spirit, "Zeit" means time). The origin of the term is said to have been introduced by the German philosopher, theologian and literary critic Johann Gottfried Herder in the 18th century


  1. State of American Workplace Report, Gallup, 2013
  2. Zeitgeist Leadership, Mayo and Nohria (2005)
  3. The Myth of a Brilliant, Charismatic Leader, Sadun, Harvard Business Review, November 2022
  4. Post-horizontal management: context, process and results; Miha Škerlavaj, Faculty of Economics, 2022, Maksima Publishing
  5. (Russell Reynolds Associates)
  6. Theory of Mind, Premack & Woodruff, 1978
  7. The C-Suite Skills That Matter Most, Sadun, Fuller, Hansen, Neal, Harvard Business Review, July-August 2022)
  8. Zeitgeist Leadership (hbr.org)
  9. Theory of Mind - Simply Psychology

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