There’s an old saying that goes, “Don’t ever meet your heroes.” The theory goes that the moment you actually meet the people you admire most, you’ll come to find they aren’t what you always thought they would be. This is a common trope that has made it into various forms of media – that moment where the young, starry eyed protagonist finally meets the object of their worship only to be disappointed (but it’s the journey to the hero that matters, right?). But what actually puts leaders into these positions? And why is it dangerous?
Simon Walker talks about how leaders become “defended” – or how they protect their own insecurities. While in part it comes from the leader themselves, at other times it comes from the followers. Walker breaks it down into three things leaders experience:
- Idealization. More commonly known as “hero worship”. Walker writes, “Many followers need their leaders to be everything they themselves struggle to be: they need to believe in someone who doesn’t doubt, who is never defeated, who doesn’t fall for the same routine petty temptations that they do.”
- Idealism. Because most leaders are idealists to some extent, “the leader lives all the time with a discrepancy between the world that she wants (and wants others) to inhabit and the world she (and others) actually do inhabit.” This cognitive dissonance can be both constructive and destructive as they try to hold on to the ideal for better or worse.
- Unmet Emotional Needs. Walker writes, “Leadership happens when a person takes responsibility for someone other than herself.” However, when the leader feels he or she must always bear the burden of others’ emotional needs, he or she begins to wear thin as they begin to neglect their own emotional needs.
As Walker unfolds these challenges and walls leaders build around themselves, it becomes clear that leaders lock themselves away out of fear of rejection. If we stop and really think about it, the pressure that we put on leaders is insurmountable. It’s no wonder that so many leaders eventually crack under the pressure they face. Our culture embraces strength over weakness, but does this only further harden our hearts in the end?
In response to Walker’s three observations, I offer three counters as a means of seeking balance to them:
- “Meet” Your Heroes. The reason why we should never meet our heroes is the exact reason why we shouldmeet our heroes. It does not need to be a physical meeting, but diving into their story and their lives in an attempt to understand who they are goes a long way. The moment we meet our heroes is the moment the façade is dropped. They are no longer the Herculean demigod of our imagination, but rather they are…human. The mask is removed and they are seen for who they are: A real person. What mask have we ourselves been wearing?
- Seek a Communal Vision. When all we know is what’s swimming around in our head, the line between reality and imagination becomes blurred. We see the world through our eyes and can lose sight of what’s really around us. This is why it’s so important to bring people into our work and to share the vision and goal with others. Has our vision driven us? Or have we driven our vision?
- Find a Guide. During my time in university, professor told us, “There are two types of people in this world: People who have been counseled and people who need counseling.” Bearing the weight of people’s emotional needs is exhausting. Having a neutral party to unload these feelings and to share your own is vital to maintaining emotional health. Who can I turn to in my hour of need?
 Ibid., 28.