You have encountered and practiced, a range of leadership styles in your life and career. In our work transitioning founder-run businesses into professionally managed enterprises, we have found that most leaders can be grouped into two distinct categories that we call “heroic” and “post-heroic”.  Which are you?

We are all familiar with the concept of a superhero, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Many of the founders we have worked with have really been able to stop speeding bullets, overcoming unimaginable obstacles on their way to success. Self-reliance, stubbornness and determination are prerequisites to getting a new enterprise off the ground, so in the early stages, a “heroic” leader is just the thing; blazing a trail, leading the way and inspiring followers. The style is efficient, intuitive and highly effective.

It is a great irony then, that the leadership qualities that got a fledgling business launched are the very qualities that will limit its growth. “What got you here won’t get you there” in the words of Marshall Goldsmith.

The names “heroic” and “post-heroic” betray the notion that one style precedes the other in time and this is most often the case in the life-cycle of a business.

Clearly, there is a case to be made for each style but the most common problem we face is where an enterprise is stalled because it has not made the transition from one to the other.

“Heroic” management is described as being the work of a single actor, amplified by a staff of reactors; a dictatorship where the leader decides and dictates actions for others to carry out. This is our default notion of leadership and when we think of a strong leader, he or she is probably exercising this style.

In the “post-heroic” style, decisions and actions are made by a collective intelligence; a team of people properly motivated and coordinated to work effectively together. 

This is a much less intuitive style of leadership; more difficult to implement and maintain, but it is the only style able to handle growth beyond the point at which the heroic style can no longer be effective. It might be thought of as working on the business as opposed to working in the business.

Making this transition is difficult, but absolutely critical to get beyond the “Dunbar Number” or “Tribal Limit” of about 150 individuals. This is the largest number of people we can maintain in a cohesive “tribe”. The concept is well described by Dave Logan in the book “Tribal Leadership” and by Malcolm Gladwell in “The Tipping Point”.

Tower Stone Group develops the environment, structure and culture necessary to enable the transition to “post-heroic” management: www.towerstonegroup.com.

This article was originally posted on LinkedIn.

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