The Dangers of Romanticizing Leaders

Hero-leaders get too much credit for both failures and successes.

No More Heroes

“ROMANTICIZING” POLITICAL LEADERS can be harmful because it prevents people from examining the logic of the leaders’ policies. According to new research, romanticizing leadership—the tendency to overattribute both success and failure to leaders, crediting them with being the driving forces behind everything that happens during their tenures—has been seen in recent political contests in both Europe and the U.S. In these cases, frustration with ruling parties led voters to choose politicians who promise a return to mythical golden eras.

A romanticized leader tends to possess strong vision, dissatisfaction with the status quo, and out-of-the-ordinary behavior. This notion of a hero-leader is particularly strong in the U.S., which has a dominant culture of individualism. But when people place their trust in a heroic leader, they ignore the tensions and contradictions in the hero’s practices and theories. That’s the conclusion of David Collinson of Lancaster University, Owain Smolović Jones of Open University, and Keith Grint of the Warwick Business School, all in the U.K.

The authors also suggest that romanticized leadership can reinforce the gendered dynamics that tend to promote men to leadership positions and lead other men to want to enhance their masculine prestige by association. They note that this raises serious issues about gender and masculinity, as well as race and ethnicity.

“Romanticizing leadership is bewitching because it offers an account of leadership drenched with imprecise mystique. It asks that we view leaders as privileged, holding a transcendent position above the fray of political or historical critique,” says Grint. “However, this is just a romanticized mirror image of an ideology that promises salvation.”

“No More Heroes: Critical Perspectives on Leadership Romanticism” was first published October 23, 2017, in Organization Studies.