Have you ever been attributed hero status and felt an awkward sense of inappropriateness about it? It’s not that you feel unworthy of the accolades, as much as the sense that you have become more than a person to these people. You have become a symbol, something they want and need. Somehow your hero status feeds a need within them.
I used to feel like that when I was a missionary and would visit supporting churches back in the U.S. People treated me as though I were some kind of hero. I felt a huge responsibility to live up to the hero image they had created in their minds. To be a hero is a heavy burden to carry.
The problem with this is that the image was not accurate. I had flaws just like anyone else. I felt they didn’t want to know the real me; that the image they had created served a need in them and they wanted to keep that image. They weren’t interested in hearing about my frailty or about the days I wondered where God was in all this.
In 2007, we were all shocked to find out that Mother Teresa had for years been living in a deep state of loneliness and depression and nobody knew about it. While it shocked many, I understood where she was coming from. All those years, she had been trying to live up to the hero image that people had created of her, an image she did not invite but one that was imposed on her. She had become a symbol rather than a person to hundreds of thousands of people and the weight of that burden was too heavy to bear.
I don’t mean to compare myself to Mother Teresa by any means, but I feel that if she were alive today, she would say, “YES, compare yourself to me, because I was just a frail human being like yourself.” I think the reason she felt such despair was linked to the almost divine status the world had attributed to her.
What is the lesson for leadership we can learn from this?
I think as leaders we need to be more public with our struggles. I know this is risky in this age of slander and smear campaigns. But, regardless of the danger, it is necessary. We need to remind people that we are human and prone to human weakness.
The good news is that I see in the millennials a new openness to be transparent and vulnerable. Perhaps this new generation of leaders will avoid the hero status, bring us down to earth, and help us all to muddle forward. Perhaps we will stop looking for human saviors in our politicians and instead look to God alone as the only true hero.
Greg Waddell provides consulting services for churches and organizations. Contact Dr. Waddell today at gregwaddell[at]leadstrategic.com to discuss the needs of your organization.