“Do I want to be a hero to my son? No, I would like to be a very real human being. That’s hard enough”
Robert Downey Jr. (AKA Iron Man)
From a pop cultural perspective there’s no doubt that we are living in the age of the superhero. Three of the six highest grossing movies of the 2010s were instalments from the ‘Avengers’ franchise; a fourth is another film from Marvel Studios, Black Panther.
Even though modern superhero movies often attempt to introduce a layer of complexity into the characters’ interior lives, the narratives are usually pretty straightforward. A heartless villain threatens all life on earth (or even the universe), and our super-powered protagonists swoop in to save the day.
And while we all know that the world isn’t really that simple, it’s hard to watch one of these movies and not wish yourself into the spandex leggings of the heroes. It’s an incredibly flattering, seductive role. But what happens when leaders aspire to be heroes – or when we equate leadership with heroism?
Caught up in the drama
40 years ago, the psychologist Stephen Karpman recognised the potential risk posed by those who adopt the superficially attractive role of the ‘hero’. He developed a model called the Drama Triangle which described how we frequently find ourselves ‘playing roles’ – usually unconsciously – in our relationships with other people, and how human interactions often devolve into unhealthy conflict.
One is that of the ‘victim’. The victim feels powerless, and that they are being unfairly treated by the person occupying the next role, the ‘persecutor’ or ‘villain’. While we can all fall into these roles it’s pretty clear to the naked eye how they are unhelpful – the victim is disempowered, perpetually being ‘done to’; the villain is harsh and punishing, struggling to engage with the victim’s needs.
It’s less clear what the problem might be in the third role – the ‘hero’. The hero notices the suffering of the victim and swoops in to rescue them from the villain. Which all seems very benevolent on the surface, but the thing about these roles is that they all depend on one another. Just as the victim cannot exist without a villain to persecute them, the hero cannot exist without a victim to rescue. So, heroes have a tendency to go looking for victims to rescue, for fights to engage with on others’ behalf. And while this might sometimes be welcomed by the person in the victim role, it stops them from growing, it keeps them powerless.
The driving energy of the person occupying the hero role isn’t really to help – it is to be needed, affirmed, and celebrated. And while there’s no doubt that we can all find ourselves falling into that hero role just as much as those of victim and villain, you can see how people who are overwhelmingly attracted to being seen as a hero might not be great leaders.
You’ve probably met leaders like this – leaders who seem to live for the spotlight, who love nothing more than to be seen riding into battle on behalf of their troops. Maybe you’ve even noticed a bit of this tendency – even just a little bit – in yourself at times?
From hero to zero
But here’s the other problem – it’s not just that some people are unhelpfully attracted to being seen as heroes; we also have a tendency to seek out impressive leaders and thrust the role of hero upon them.
When the world looks unpredictable and scary the victim in us can emerge, desperately hoping for a hero to save us. And then along comes someone who looks like they might fit the bill – a leader who talks our language, who seems just that bit better and brighter to our eyes. A hero…
But in the real world there are no Supermen, there are no Wonder Women. There are just vulnerable, fallible human beings. If we hold people up as heroes, they can only ever fall short. We see it all the time in business, in politics, in sport. The saviour comes, the one who will deliver us into a new era of fiscal / geopolitical / athletic dominance. There’s a honeymoon period where they seem to be everything we dreamed they would be.
But then they disappoint us – and often the fall from grace is as rapid as the ascent to hero status. It turns out that they were actually a charlatan! And the search begins again…
Heroes and Villains
And, of course, when we are in that victim space searching for a hero, what we also need is a villain. In the same way that we tend to project everything that is good and virtuous onto the hero, we identify in the villain everything that is wrong in the world. And not just in the villain, but everyone who likes or supports them!
We can see reflections of this in the unbelievably polarised world we seem to be living in today. World leaders who are unimpeachably (sometimes literally) heroic in the eyes of some, and irredeemably villainous in the eyes of others, with each set of supporters and detractors seeing the other as being a manifestation of everything that is wrong, immoral, and stupid. If only the other side could see the light!
This is an environment ripe for exploitation by those wannabe heroes, whose egos depend upon the adoration of their followers.
In 2020 we don’t need heroes. What we need are warriors.
A time for warriors
For some time – as you can probably tell by our name – we’ve been fascinated by the idea of the warrior as the next archetype for leadership. And we are very aware that the idea of the warrior leader is by no means new.
All of the great civilisations in history have had a strong warrior tradition, from the Samurai of the Japanese middle ages to the Native American Braves. In Japanese the word Samurai roughly translates as ‘those who serve’. In Native American culture the warrior’s role is broader than just combat – they are entrusted with protecting the language, guarding the culture, and being protector and provider to the community. Sitting Bull, chief of the Lakota Sioux tribe said “The warrior, for us, is one who sacrifices himself for the good of others. His task is to take care of the elderly, the defenceless, those who cannot provide for themselves, and above all, the children – the future of humanity”
This is what we mean by a warrior leader – someone who is willing to step forward and assume the mantle of leadership, but who does so not in service of their own ego, but in service of humanity; someone who doesn’t rely on the affirmation of a set of followers; indeed, someone who may be at the forefront of a movement, but who actively encourages their followers to locate their power and find their voice.
The warrior is also entirely human. They are vulnerable, they are fallible, they are necessarily imperfect. They may fail sometimes, but because their ego isn’t dependent on being seen as a ‘winner’ they aren’t crushed by it. They are willing to get up and fight again – or even let someone else lead the fight if they are better placed to do so.
In modern society the role of the warrior is frequently associated with violence and physical aggression for the sake of conquest. But when you look back through history it’s clear that there is a strong tradition of warriors driven not by the will to conquer, but by humanity, service and love.
This is the model of warriorship that we believe is needed in this moment.
Here’s our definition of a warrior leader – someone who leads with fierce heart and fierce love.
Who do you choose to be?
We bet that, just as you have probably found yourself playing victim, villain, and hero at moments in the past, you have been a warrior before too. That there have been times when you have courageously stepped into leadership when it was really challenging or even scary to do so, not because you wanted to look good but because you knew – you sensed – that it was the right thing to do.
Because here’s the thing – none of us are just a victim, just a hero, just a warrior. We have all of these within us.
The question is, which one do you choose to step into? Where in your life are you being a warrior? Where are you not? And what would it take for you to let go of that inner hero and truly step towards warriorship?