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Superman or bust?

Crisis, competition, pressure, results…today’s leader seems to be in a never-ending race towards higher performance – to be stronger, to be faster.  At the same time, the demand to « be yourself », express emotion, reveal more of one’s personality at work is very present.  Is this the new trend, a sort of managerially correct approach that will continue to add to a leader’s obligations? Are performance and authenticity truly compatible?

The image of an ideal leader, that we seek to emulate, can drive us further away from our own personal ability to become a leader.  A certain way of acting, protective barriers, masks, and imitation can sometimes be useful in the short term, but in the end put the breaks on true self-development.  That which was a strength before, now risks becoming a weakness.  Leaders that we accept to follow and that help us grow are “strong,” but we can also identify with their humanity.  Their leadership speaks to us because they are very human and are not afraid to show their limits, their weaknesses, and their vulnerabilities.  But is this balance between strength and vulnerability simply wishful thinking and politically correct, or actually possible for a leader?

Recent films are good indicators.  Batman is hurt, the invincible James Bond fails the secret agent exam, Iron Man 3 destroys his armor and declares: “Now, I am truly Iron Man.” In “The King’s Speech,” the Prince of Wales becomes Georges VI because he accepts the help of others – thus despite his stutter he manages to give the speech that implicates Great Britain in the war against Nazi Germany. In “Intouchables” the hero of the film discovers a new will to live, deep and profoundly human.

If we do not have a clear understanding of what true strength is, or if we do not integrate it well into our lives, it can impact our view of our ecosystem. This then opens the door to all-powerfulness, rigidity, or carelessness.  In hindsight, we can see that this tension between the virtue of strength and the temptation of absolute power is present in Napoleon Bonaparte.  Initially an instrument of stability and peace for the Republic in post-revolution France, he was also responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths on European battlegrounds.  Napoleon remains the catalyst for the creation of the Civil Code, and at the same time he is remembered in European history as “the Ogre.”  The military genius, the hero of Austerlitz, persists with his plans in Russia despite the winter and ends up driving his army into chaos.

Strength is a virtue, without which a leader cannot carry out his mission.  A virtue is developed through a solid knowledge of oneself and the practice of humility, trust, and courage.  Our strength is to accept our weaknesses, which are part of our humanity.  This strength carries a powerful name: humility.  To persevere and withstand blows, to remain strong despite life’s uncertainties, trust in oneself and trust in others develops resiliency.  And, even if there are different areas in which each person is more or less vulnerable, it is courage that gives us endurance.

« Blessed are the cracked because they let the light shine through » writes Michel Audiard, French film director and screenwriter.  Strength and authenticity naturally coincide because true force is nourished by the strength that each leader finds within himself – even in the midst of his humanity.  The Gandhis, Mother Teresas, and Nelson Mandelas teach us that great leaders accept fully their personal reality and that of the world that surrounds them.

Michel Mornet

Michel Mornet