Heroship and Leaving a Legacy aren’t Part of Leadership

This is an excerpt from Chapter 3: Revealing Traditional Leadership and Assumptions in Nine Practices of 21st Century Leadership: A Guide for Inspiring Creativity, Innovation, and Engagement. For this format, some minor editing was necessary.

Imagine the following American cinematic experience: During the 19th century, you’re watching just about any western taking place somewhere in a small town. Here, heroes save towns from outlaws. Not even the local government and sheriffs could protect the town in the same way that these heroes could.

Like the heroes of this image of the old west, leaders behave as if they are the heroes, and their teams are incapable of solving problems without leaders. The leader alone steps into the situation, issues orders, salvages the situation, and dramatically rides off into the sunset.

I call this heroship rather than leadership.

In addition to being the hero, some leaders talk about leaving their legacy within an organization. Through their accomplishments, they believe that the organization and its employees will recognize a legacy left behind after leaders move on to another organization or retire. Freiberg and Freiberg describe the assumption.

The Leader as Hero Myth – Intellectually, most of us would agree that no one person—no matter how great—does it alone. Yet we have been conditioned to think of leadership in terms of the heroic figure who comes to the rescue of people who are either too dumb or too weak to help themselves. — Freiberg and Freiberg

Leadership isn’t heroism. Maxwell describes the heroship assumption:

There are still leaders who hold up the Lone Ranger as their model for leadership…There are no Lone Ranger leaders. Think about it: If you’re alone, you’re not leading anybody, are you?
— John C. Maxwell

Kouzes and Posner write about what leadership is not:

What Leadership Is Not About – We’ve focused on everyday leaders because leadership is not about position or title. It’s not about organizational power or authority. It’s not about fame or wealth. It’s not about the family you are born into. It’s not about being a CEO, president, general, or prime minister. And it’s definitely not about being a hero.
— Kouzes and Posner

Leadership isn’t about being the hero but helping everyday heroes

In the Star Wars movie, leadership aligns less with Luke Skywalker and more with Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi or Yoda. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell describes common themes found in mythology and religion about the hero and the hero’s journey. In the hero’s journey, the hero encounters a protective figure who provides aid to help the hero when facing challenges. With 21st Century Leadership, those practicing leadership do so in the background. Like the protective figure, these leadership practitioners provide aid to others—enabling them to face their challenges and overcome barriers. Practicing leadership this way doesn’t include rescuing teams in a heroic fashion or taking credit for a team’s accomplishments.

In 21st Century Leadership, those practicing leadership don’t consider the possibility of leaving a legacy

A focus on leaving a legacy is a focus on oneself. In contrast, leadership is about focusing on others and helping them mature their mental and moral qualities, capabilities, and behaviors. Ideally, when an effective leadership practitioner leaves an organization, those who remain continue to excel.


Freiberg, Kevin, and Jackie Freiberg. Nuts! Southwest Airlines’ Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success. Austin, TX: Bard Press, 1996. See pages 301-02.

Maxwell, John C. The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Follow Them and People Will Follow You. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2007. See page 130.

Kouzes, James M., and Barry Z. Posner. The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations, 5th edn. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2012. See page 329.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces Third Printing. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1949, 1973. See pages vii and 69.

Published by

Gary A. DePaul, PhD, CPT

"I help organizations become more effective at leadership development." Gary A. DePaul is an expert on how leadership is radically changing. He has two decades of experience as a practitioner and scholar of leadership, has worked as a manager in fortune 500 companies, and consults with organizations to improve leadership practices. He completed his Ph.D. and Ed.M. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) and a bachelor's degree at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). ISPI has designated him as a Certified Performance Technologist (CPT). https://www.garyadepaul.com https://twitter.com https://www.linkedin.com/in/garydepaul https://www.facebook.com/garyadepaul