The Parable of the Pedestal

As I sat listening to the group describe what they were looking for in their next leader, I said to myself, “It appears they believe that a mashup of a messiah and a superhero might actually exist!”  This was not the first time I had heard this nonexistent, aspirational desire. 

In my work with leadership transitions folks usually drive down one of two roads: find a clone of our last leader or find the exact opposite. There is, of course, an inherent challenge with both of these directions – neither person exists.

The setup with either the messiah-superhero or the clone / opposite is that folks will convince themselves that they have actually found said person. And then upon arrival they place this person on a pedestal believing not just their leader but “savior” has arrived! 

This predicament is only magnified when the person who they have called to lead perpetuates the narrative that they, in fact, will be their messiah-superhero who will personally make sure that their existence is paradise. 

Ah, but here’s the real kicker, messiah-superhero on the pedestal has a shelf life. Sooner rather than later the pedestal will begin to waiver. Unrealistic expectations are never a sure foundation for a healthy relationship. Either the leader is unable to do or be what folks hoped for or the leader themselves will lose their balance under the crushing weight of unachievable expectations. 

From my perspective, the healthiest experience of leadership is when there is clarity about everyone’s role, responsibility and relationship. The most poignant dynamic of the leadership of Jesus of Nazareth is his clarity. Overwhelming historic expectations were placed upon him from the beginning in the temptations in the wilderness all the way to the cross and yet he stayed laser focused on what he was called to do. 

Friend and colleague, LeaderWise Co-Director Mary Kay DuChene, writes some of the wisest words on leadership: 

“Leadership is a practice. There are no experts, there is no one way. Adaptive leadership is art, not science. 

Leaders mobilize others. The work is not the work of the leader in a vacuum. The work belongs to the people. Leaders give the work to those who stand to gain, and lose, in the process. Leaders don’t go it alone. 

We think in terms of making progress on the toughest challenges in front of us. Let’s be clear that with adaptive challenges, we don’t solve problems. We make progress on them. Adaptive challenges are big and long term – like systemic racism. They are evolutionary, not revolutionary. They require habits, lifestyles, values, and cultures to change. So change doesn’t happen overnight. 

The goal is to thrive. Again, if we think evolution, not revolution, the goal of any species is to thrive and improve. To be a bit better than before, and to adapt to what the environment is presenting us now.”

1 thought on “The Parable of the Pedestal”

  1. Betty Anne McCoy

    Thank you, Brian. I will share this with my grandchildren who are just beginning their careers, such a valuable reflection and excellent for those who expect too much of their leaders.

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