What Do You Do When Your Heroes And Leaders Aren’t What They Seem?

Leadership Lesson: It’s important to learn from the situations in which a “hero,” or someone you considered a true leader, turns out to not be at all what was perceived or expected. 

Recently, I was catching up with a friend I hadn’t spoken to in some time. What led them to reach out was an article they had found online and texted to me which covered a leadership issue we both felt very strongly about. 

In any case, we got to “talking” (aka – texting) about the issue, and once we were done venting about the topic of the article, we briefly talked about everything else going on in our lives. We caught each other up on our jobs, our families, and the future goals we have for ourselves in the new year.  

They then elaborated a bit further on their job — a position they had been in for a few years now and in which they neither felt happy nor fulfilled.

They had come into that job from a different industry, and from the outside they expected the new work to bring them a certain level of fulfillment through its mission of helping the client base make life-altering changes. That fulfillment with the clients was realized but was somewhat negated, coming at a cost: the toxicity of the workplace itself. 

As we brainstormed ways to get out of the rut they felt, trading leadership ideas and thoughts in hopes of clearing their head and focusing their path forward, they uttered something interesting with regard to the experience in that toxic workplace: “My working here is a classic example of why you don’t want to meet your heroes.” 

After that message, we traded a few more ideas and words of agreement and encouragement, wished each other the best, and said we’d talk soon, so there was no time in the initial conversation to get the background or details behind that peculiar comment. 

And their comment lingered in my head, becoming a lesson for both me and my friend as we subsequently discussed it and my covering the comment in this post.

I think most of us can relate when it comes to meeting someone who had garnered a high level of respect from us – maybe not to the level of a hero in one’s eyes – who then ended up being somewhat of a letdown.

In those situations, when it comes to meeting someone or working with them, you go in with a certain expectation of what they can be. But then you actually meet them, and it turns out they’re not that person you had held up in such high esteem.

Therein lies the letdown. 

Now, this isn’t to say I expected the person I saw behind the scenes to reconcile exactly to the reputation that preceded them, the public persona. No one can be on all the time, 100%, delivering their own form of professional or leadership miracles every minute of the day. That wasn’t necessarily my expectation.

It was more that they exhibited negative behaviors behind the scenes. The behaviors ranged from seeming as if they couldn’t be bothered by others’ needs, to being unresponsive to or seemingly dismissive of others in general. And those behaviors took place, whether it was with me, others, or everyone else in their circle. 

But the “outside world” wasn’t privvy to those behaviors.

And the leader in my situation wasn’t necessarily my “hero” before our encounter. They were someone respected in the community, so it’s a bit different from my friend’s experience and expectation. But the situations were similar, with someone of high respect being a disappointment.  

So my colleague has had their experience. I have had mine. Now what? 

So we start with the general questions to consider and answer when it comes to leadership development: What’s going on, what do we want to achieve, and how do we get there?

Specifically, for these “hero” scenarios: What do you do when the reality of the leaders – or, yes, maybe even heroes — around us doesn’t match their perceived facade? 

What do we take away from that situation? 

What do we do? 

To start, do we… 

Pick Up The Mantle? 

In light of what we’ve discovered, are we passionate enough about the cause to pick up the ball and take the mission where we feel it should truly be?  

After all, if someone’s genuine nature doesn’t match the work they do, there is something being foregone in the process. Someone else may be able to bring better, more genuine and authentic attributes to the table, which then bolster the chances for greater and reinforced success. A leader’s authenticity, whether positive or negative, creates a corresponding ripple effect throughout the organization and out to the stakeholders.

(Note: This doesn’t necessarily mean going after the leader’s job but, instead, making our impact in a different way — and possibly somewhere else.) 

Find A New Hero? 

As soon as we find out someone is less-than, should we seek to refine the search and refocus the target of our admiration?

If we’re not quite at the point where we feel we can lead a mission – picking up that mantle – do we seek to find someone else who can fill those hero/leader shoes?

Some of us may desire having a hero — the hope and possibility exhibited in someone we admire, to whom we can look to and from whom we can learn to move in an admirable leadership direction.

And there’s nothing wrong with having admiration for someone who is doing great things, so it’s not like looking for a hero is some kind of crutch, putting off our own development.

But keep in mind: Your development and greatness don’t — and shouldn’t — end if you can’t find one to admire.

(Again, none of this is to say leaders need to be perfect. It’s not that – nor should it be that – we consider someone less-than [anything] because they’re not perfect. Here, we’re referring to leaders who may tend to be insulting, off-putting, or toxic in nature, a far cry from who we once thought they were.)

Sharpen The Great Attributes? 

Do we learn from the strengths of that leader and continue to build ourselves off of what it is we did admire? 

We should always study the best attributes of those we admire, to see what we can glean for our own benefit and behavior.  

Related: Developing Your Leadership Is About Speculation, Not Emulation

On the flipside, in general, there are lessons to be gained from those we never respected, for whom we have lost some or all respect, or even those we stand firmly against. (Last consideration below.)

Learn From The Poor Ones?

Do we learn from the poor attributes we see in someone behind the scenes? 

In this conversation we need to also take into account the attributes we don’t respect, making a note of them for ourselves as behaviors to avoid.

Much like analyzing whoever has let us down, we need to consider how we conduct ourselves, both within and without a professional setting.  

It’s important to note if what we see as poor behaviors in someone else is something we might find in ourselves.

Do we make sure to cross that bridge of leadership, making sure our best attributes carry to wherever we may go? Or are we possibly guilty of what we’ve encountered – having a certain reputation and façade, which can’t be backed up by who we really are when we let our guard down?

(This is different from situational leadership, which considers the leadership aptitude of a leader in different situations in the work at hand. The bridge of leadership makes us question whether we bring our best qualities from our work environment to other environments or areas, and vice versa.)

For lack of a better phrase, it really sucks when someone you saw in a positive light reflects their true self, negating the once-respected persona with a stark contrast in behavior.

Again, it’s not merely that they’re not on their game but that they’re completely different than expected — for the worse. It can sometimes be disheartening, discouraging, and straight out disappointing. 

But it can be a wake-up call for us.

When we have those expectations and demonstrate that respect for someone, it means we understand the best qualities we aspire to. And, hopefully, it’s because we see the positive impact those qualities have on the environment. 

Admiration of someone else means we know what is valuable, what is respectable, what is possible, and what is needed.

Being let down by someone can help you raise the bar on your own performance, for yourself and for other people. Following some of those steps listed above allows you to keep seeking what’s better and, hopefully, what’s best.

Related Newsletter: Your Path In Lifelong Learning & Leadership

The disappointment at first and the steps taken afterward show you there’s no perfection anywhere. 

And we all know that. But rarely do we get such an eye-opening example as when we have this first-hand experience with a hero/leader in our own lives. 

What plays out in the limelight of attention might not be what exists behind the scenes and outside of the spotlight.

(Keep in mind: While these questions and considerations are applied to the individual level here, this type of reflection can be utilized for the organizational or group level as well. Meaning, what if an organization or a group has “let you down” in a similar way?)

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