Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

When Heroes Fall

Written by: on March 8, 2021

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:

  1. 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.”[1]
  1. 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.”[2] This cognitive dissonance can be both constructive and destructive as they try to hold on to the ideal for better or worse.
  1. Unmet Emotional Needs. Walker writes, “Leadership happens when a person takes responsibility for someone other than herself.”[3] 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:

  1. “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?
  1. 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?
  1. 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?


[1] Simon Walker, Leading Out of Who You Are: Discovering the Secret of Undefended Leadership (Carlisle: Piquant Editions Ltd, 2007), 27.

[2] Ibid., 28.

[3] Ibid.

About the Author

Dylan Branson

Small town Kentuckian living and learning in the big city of Hong Kong.

11 responses to “When Heroes Fall”

  1. Jer Swigart says:

    I, too, really locked in with Walker in this opening section. As he wrote, I resonated deeply with the co-dependent relationships that are forged between “leader” and “follower.” Thank you for the counter-points that you offer. I wonder if you’d be willing to offer an illustration of what it has looked like for you to “seek a communal vision” and/or how this counter will come to bear within your leadership in Hong Kong.

    • Dylan Branson says:

      I think one example comes from the history of my church here. In talking with people who have been on staff and even in my observations, it appears every person in the leadership team has their own vision of the direction the church should go or what it should be. In one of my other posts or in a comment somewhere, I mentioned the idea of the priesthood of all believers and how instead of the typical pyramid of trickle down leadership, what if it was turned upside down to where the CHURCH receives the vision and it funnels down to the leadership, who act as facilitators to it.

      Having individual vision for what you want to see change isn’t a bad thing, but I think of Bonhoeffer’s words in Life Together that “God hates a visionary leader.” Vision isn’t a bad thing; but when we conform to OUR vision of what the church should look like, we miss the vision of what GOD wants the church to look like.

  2. Darcy Hansen says:

    Gosh, so many heroes of contemporary Christianity are falling hard right now. I’m curious who was/is the hero you looked up to, but then discovered they were human? What did that do to your perception of them? What warnings or encouragements did you take away from that interaction? How does that impact the masks you choose to wear in your leadership roles?

    • Dylan Branson says:

      If I’m being honest, I don’t have any “heroes” in today’s pantheon of “Christian leadership.” Many of my friends have touted the praises of Keller, Piper, Francis Chan, etc., but I’ve never fully resonated with anyone (or rather, I’ve always been cautious of “celebrity” pastors/teachers).

      I think just in following the rise and fall of various leaders, what sticks out is how alone they are. The inability (or lack of desire) to actually reach out to others for accountability is troubling. Leadership is lonely and without a network of friends, the isolation is poisonous.

  3. Shawn Cramer says:

    Seeking a Communal Vision is a strong counter, my friend. A mentor of a mentor (a grand-mentor?) told me “Dream out loud,” and others, but not everyone, will find they align and inform and collaborate with the dreaming.

    • Dylan Branson says:

      For sure. There’s always going to be someone who’s outspoke against the vision that’s being cast. But when people feel their own desires are articulated in a way that gives their own heart words, that can be an eye opening and life changing moment.

  4. Greg Reich says:

    I think we can all resonate with Walker’s first section and the idea of protecting our insecurities. I see others have interacted with your communal vision suggestions so I will look at a different area.
    It is a humbling thing to look at ones child ego’s and how they effect us. One of the things that I truly appreciate about the bible is it that it shows the hero’s of the faith in their humanity and brokenness not in their perfection. Coach Wooden has always been a hero of mine. What made him a hero is he wasn’t perfect, he made mistakes and learned from them. Meeting our hero’s is a good idea. Until we do there is the tendency to idolize them. I often wonder what we would think if we met Jesus face to face away from all the modern day speculations in his historical jewish setting. I have no doubt I would still follow him. How different would our experience be without the Americanization affect?

    • Dylan Branson says:

      That’s a good question, Greg. When my friends have posed this question in the past, one of the things that always comes out is that Jesus would still be rejected in today’s society. A lot of Jesus’s ideas and teachings sound good on paper, but in reality, it’s something that would force us to give up so much more.

  5. John McLarty says:

    Good stuff here, Dylan. But I’ll humble add one more. To quote Shakespeare, “to thine own self be true.” So many leaders become more defended because they’ve started believing their own hype. They develop a sense of entitlement that removes them from reality and who they were. You’re right that mentors and community can help to keep a person accountable and grounded, but so can a clear sense of self and differentiation, a personal integrity to be the same person with or without the spotlight and attention. Leaders who can remember who they are and be true to that don’t have to put on an act.

    • Dylan Branson says:

      100%. Thanks for adding that! Lack of self-awareness is a big detriment to leadership (and life in general). When we’re constantly switching back and forth between our various masks, we lose sight of who we truly are. I think that’s difficult because we’re told who to be and often have to reconcile other’s view of us with how we view ourselves. It’s a massive project of untangling the narratives.

  6. Chris Pollock says:

    Dylan, I appreciate your personal interaction with the text.

    Thank you for touching on accountability when it comes to idolizing leaders and hero worship. I think we like to have people to ‘look up to’ in our lives. How, then, do they become the measuring stick of our lives?

    The ego stroke, for the wrong kind of person/leader, kinda gives me a bit of sick feeling (sends a shiver down my back). Because, it encourages them. Ultimately, God makes things right and opens eyes. We all, each one of us, can become quite vulnerable under the spotlight.

    How are you careful with who you give the credit of inspiration to in your life?

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