I've always been a bit of a hero. Beating the odds, I shifted my life story from high school dropout, teen mum, and no-hope foster kid to university graduate and business owner. I stayed off welfare and out of prison. My kids have a safe, happy, and healthy home. It was a bumpy road, but I got there.

I knew my future wasn’t guaranteed. If I wanted something different, I was the only one who could make it happen - so I worked every hour under the sun to make that future a reality. In the process, I became an insufferable control freak.

If you want something done right, you do it yourself… right? Wrong. You can’t be trusted. The hero model is a risky strategy cleverly disguised as a safe option.

I see this in leaders all the time. They’ve reached the top through sheer grit, and not only are they exhausted, but they’ve reached the ceiling of their effort. Heroes get hooked on the buzz and start to experience cognitive dissonance. We don’t see the balls we’re dropping, the risks we’re taking or the limitations of our efforts. When you’re the white knight who saves the day, always pulling off the impossible, you start to believe in and rely on the fairytale.

When we’re heroes, we don’t trust others to deliver, stunting our potential to go further.

Three kinds of leaders

Most leaders, by virtue of promotion or realisation, eventually figure that out, so they learn to delegate and become people leaders. This is a great start—when heroes redirect their energy into leading people, they reduce the single point of risk and spread it more thinly across a team. There are more points of failure, sure, but there is more diversification.

A special few keep going. They become systems leaders, because they know that while heroes beat the odds, systems change them. 

Systems leadership takes an entirely different approach. It’s no longer just about what you can do or what your teams can achieve. It’s about shifting the default so that our rules, processes, and relationships make it work.

Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets. If your system depends on heroes, it’s broken.

Screenshot 2024-07-02 at 2.37.40 PM

*Extract from You Don't Need An MBA, p.102. Get your copy here.

System leaders change the odds

Here’s a test: how much do you know about Reed Hastings? Anything?

…What about Netflix?

Reed Hastings, the founding CEO of Netflix, isn’t an amazing leader because he’s a hero but because he built a powerful and unique system for content and video streaming. Netflix changed how people experience entertainment, the way content is created, and, you could argue, how people live.

Examples of systems leaders are rife throughout history, but sometimes we confuse them with heroes.

Nelson Mandela isn’t a hero because he worked so hard but because he instigated the system change that overturned apartheid.

Richard Branson isn’t a hero because he’s at work longer than anyone else or hires the best people, but because he developed systems that changed how industries work – from music production to air travel.

Systems leaders make success sustainable

Systems leadership is the undiscovered frontier in leadership that counts, and it’s a completely different kettle of fish from what we’re taught in an MBA. Systems leaders see differently. They focus on how all the puzzle pieces fit together and join them in useful and unique ways.

When we think in systems, our view changes. Suddenly, how much we know, how hard we work, and how good our people are less important. Systems help us create new ways of thinking and working the default. Systems leaders set up their environment to maximise success, even when people are fallible.

Systems make our success sustainable. When we understand how our business runs and build robust systems, things change. We reduce dependence on key people, decrease risk, and save time and money. Thanks to that, we boost productivity and performance.

Are you hero leader, a people leader, or a systems leader?

Worth a thought.


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