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Romanticizing Leaders as Heroes

I've been as guilty of this as anyone.

In the past few days after the swearing in of Jenny Durkan as mayor of Seattle I've thought, "Maybe we have a chance now with a new leader for progress to be made on the issue of unreinforced masonry buildings (URM) in the city of Seattle."

You could call that romanticizing the leader ...

I've also heard the opposite about people who characterize leaders as the devil incarnate, leading us to hell and damnation. 

With that in mind, see this text I copied from an email:

"Why romanticising [Brit spelling I guess] leaders as heroes is dangerous

• The West has become too reliant on romanticising the power of leaders
• The image of the leader as a hero endures in today's thinking on leadership
• This romantic view shapes our concept of leaders and followers
• Romanticising leaders re-inforces men rising to positions of authority

‘Romanticising’ political leaders such as Donald Trump can be harmful because it excludes the logic of their policies, according to new research into the popular leadership theory. Romanticised leadership can be thought of as the tendency to over-attribute organisational success and failure to a leader, even if they don’t deserve it.

Academics believe we make these unconscious ascriptions to simplify the complex factors involved in significant organisational outcomes. As a result, we view the leader as the driving force behind everything that happens to an organisation during their tenure.

As the world’s voting public expresses anger towards what they view as the distant, impersonal, technocratic and corrupt power ruling over them in the European Union and in the US, they are turning to politicians and parties, who promise a return to mythical golden eras.

The notion of 'the Hero' has had an enduring influence in leadership theory and practice, particularly in the US where this way of thinking resonates strongly with the dominant culture of individualism. However, in 'No More Heroes': Critical Perspectives on Leadership Romanticism, published in Organization Studies, academics argue that in placing their trust in heroic leaders, the public neglect or avoid the tensions and contradictions in the heroes’ practices and theories.

Should leaders be seen as heroes?

“Romanticising leadership is bewitching because it offers an account of leadership drenched with imprecise mystique. It asks that we view leaders as privileged, holding a transcendent position above the fray of political or historical critique,” said Keith Grint, Professor of Public Leadership & Management at Warwick Business School, who conducted the study along with David Collinson, of Lancaster University, and Owain Smolovic Jones, of The Open University.

“However, this is just a romanticised mirror image of an ideology that promises salvation. What happens in the post-romantic phase, when followers become disenchanted with the leaders they previously placed on a pedestal? "The study of leadership continues to be characterised by romanticising tendencies in many of its most influential theories, such as spiritual and authentic leadership. "While romanticism, an enduring tradition that has survived and evolved since the mid-18th century, can also shape thinking about followers as well." When success or failure occurs, these romanticised leaders — who tend to possess strong vision, dissatisfaction with the status quo, and out of the ordinary behaviour — are more likely to be praised as protagonists or blamed for the failure. 

The researchers argue that power and identity may be to some degree socially constructed and manufactured, through self-romanticism and self-mythologising. They also write that romanticised leadership can reinforce the gendered dynamics through which men may be especially prone to elevate other men as leaders, and to try to reinforce male leaders’ power and authority, while securing themselves through forms of masculine prestige by association. This raises important issues about gender and masculinity, as well as race and ethnicity."

For a copy of the paper, email

Warwick Business School, located in central England, is the largest department of the University of Warwick and ranked in the world’s top one percent of business schools by the Financial Times. WBS is triple-accredited by the leading global business education associations and was the first in the UK to attain this accreditation. Offering the full portfolio of business education courses, from undergraduate through to MBAs, and with a strong Doctoral Programme, WBS is the complete business school. Students at WBS currently number around 6,500, and come from 125 countries. Just under half of faculty are non-UK, or have worked abroad.  

Keith Grint is Professor of Public Leadership & Management at Warwick Business School. He was Professor of Defence Leadership at Cranfield University and prior to that he was Professor of Leadership Studies and Director of the Lancaster Leadership Centre at Lancaster University Management School. Before that he taught in Oxford for 12 years and was Director of Research at Saïd Business School and Fellow in Organizational Behaviour at Templeton College. Professor Grint spent 10 years in industry before switching to an academic career. He is a founding co-editor of the journal Leadership published by Sage, and founding co-organiser of the International Conference in Leadership Research. He remains a Visiting Research Professor at Lancaster University, an Associate Fellow of Templeton College, a Fellow of the Windsor Leadership Trust, and a Fellow of the Sunningdale Institute, a research arm of the UK’s National School of Government. He wrote the literature review for ‘Strengthening Leadership in the Public Sector’ (2000) a project of the Performance and Innovation Unit (Cabinet Office)."


This is Eric writing again. I've been an active reader about leadership for all of my adult life. As a military officer, I've read biographies of great generals: Grant, Lee, Washington, MacArthur, etc. Lately I've read Doris Goodwin books on Lincoln, and both Roosevelt presidents. I also have read just about every book I could get my hands on about the rise of Adolf Hitler and how that happened "somewhat peacefully" in the German Weimar Republic. Because of my readings, I remembered this picture of Hitler depicting him as a knight riding to the rescue. The cult of personality taken to the extreme. I'd say the same is true today in North Korea. 

As the short article above states, we should not confer too much miraculous capabilities on our leaders. Many have feet of clay. None can deliver all that they have promised and what we hoped for. Coming down off of hero worship can be a long fall. 


Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.