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The Difference Between Heroes and Leaders: A guide to collaborative leadership

What's the difference between heroes and leaders? In this TED talk, Lorna Davis explains how our idolization of heroes is holding us back from solving big problems -- and shows why we need "radical interdependence" to make real change happen.


It was a fantastic new pink suit with big buttons and shoulder pads. It was 1997, and I was the new boss of Griffin's Foods, an iconic cookie and snacks company in New Zealand. It was my first time as the leader of a company, and I was on the stage to give a big speech about our ambitious new goals.


I knew exactly what my call to action was, which was "One in every four times a Kiwi eats a snack, it will be one of ours." I emphasized that we knew how to measure our results and that our future was in our control. Embarrassingly enough, I finished up with "If not this, what? If not us, who? And if not now, when?"


I got this huge round of applause and I was really, really pleased with myself. I wanted so much to be a good leader. I wanted to be followed by a devoted team, I wanted to be right. In short, I wanted to be a hero. A hero selling chips and biscuits in a pink suit.


What happened after that speech? Nothing.


All of that applause did not lead to action. Nothing changed. Not because they didn't like me or the message. The problem was that no one knew what they were expected to do. And most importantly, they didn't know that I needed them.


Now, you may think that this is a classic hero speech, where I'm going to tell you that I overcame that obstacle and triumphed. Actually, I'm going to tell you that in a world as complex and interconnected as the one we live in, the idea that one person has the answer is ludicrous. It's not only ineffective, it's dangerous, because it leads us to believe that it's been solved by that hero, and we have no role.


We don't need heroes. We need radical interdependence, which is just another way of saying we need each other. Even though other people can be really difficult, sometimes.


I spent decades trying to work out how to be a good leader. I've lived in seven countries and five continents. And in recent years, I've spent a lot of time with the B Corp community, originally as a corporate participant and more recently as an ambassador.


Now, B Corps are a group of companies who believe in business as a force for good. There's a tough certification with about 250 questions about your social and environmental performance. You must legally declare your intention to serve the community as well as your shareholders and you must sign the declaration of interdependence.


Now one of the things that inspires me the most about the companies in this movement is that they see themselves as part of a whole system. It's sort of as if they imagine themselves on a big, flowing river of activity, where, if they are, for example, soft drinks manufacturers, they understand that upstream from them, there's water and sugar, and farmers that grow that sugar, and plastic and metal and glass, all of which flows into this thing that we call a company which has financial results. And the flowing continues with consequences. Some of them intended, like refreshment and hydration, and some unintended, like garbage and obesity.


Spending time with leaders in this space has led me to see that true collaboration is possible, but it's subtle and it's complex. And the leaders in this space are doing a few things very differently from traditional heroic leaders. They set goals differently, they announce those goals differently and they have a very different relationship with other people.


Let's begin with the first difference. A hero sets a goal that can be individually delivered and neatly measured. You can recognize a heroic goal -- they use terms like "revenue" and "market share" and are often competitive. I mean, remember pink-suit day? Interdependent leaders, on the other hand, start with a goal that's really important, but is actually impossible to achieve by one company or one person alone.


I want to give you an example from the clothing industry, which produces 92 million tons of waste a year. Patagonia and Eileen Fisher are clothing manufacturers, both of them B Corps, both of them deeply committed to reducing waste. They don't see that their responsibility ends when a customer buys their clothes. Patagonia encourages you not to buy new clothes from them, and will repair your old clothes for free. Eileen Fisher will pay you when you bring back your clothes, and either sell them on or turn them into other clothes. While these two companies are competitive in some ways, they work together and with others in the industry to solve shared problems. They take responsibility for things that happen upstream as well.


Around the world, there are around 300 million people who work from home in this industry, most of them women, many of them in very difficult circumstances with poor lighting, sewing on buttons and doing detailed stitching. Until 2014, there was no protection for these workers. A group of companies got together with a not-for-profit called Nest to create a set of standards that's now been adopted by the whole industry.


Once you've seen problems like this, you can't unsee them, so you have to ask others to help you to solve them. These folks take interdependence as a given, and said to me, "We don't compete on human rights."


The second big difference for collaborators is their willingness to declare their goals before they have a plan. Now the hero only reveals their carefully crafted goal when the path to achieve it is clear. In fact, the role of the hero announcement is to set the stage for the big win. Hero announcements are full of triumph. Interdependent leaders, on the other hand, want other people to help them, so their announcements are often an invitation for co-creation, and sometimes, they're a call for help.


At the North American division of the French food company Danone, I announced that we wanted to become a B Corp. And unlike pink-suit day, I had no plan to get there. I remember the day really clearly. Everybody in the room gasped, because they knew we didn't have a plan. But they also knew that we had seen our role in the river that is the food system, and we wanted to make a change.


Making that declaration without a plan meant that so many young people in our company stepped up to help us, and B Corps around us all rallied around. And the day we became a B Corp wasn't just a self-congratulatory moment of a hero company -- it was more like a community celebration.


Now when you gave goals that you can't achieve alone, and you've told everyone about them, inevitably, you'll end up at the third big difference, which is how you see other people, inside your company and outside.


Heroes see everyone as a competitor or a follower. Heroes don't want input, because they want to control everything because they want the credit. And you can see this in a typical hero meeting. Heroes like making speeches. People lean back in their chairs, maybe impressed but not engaged. Interdependent leaders, on the other hand, understand that they need other people. They know that meetings are not just mindless calendar fillers. These are the most precious things you have. It's where people collaborate and communicate and share ideas. People lean forward in meetings like this, wondering where they might fit in.


When I was in Shanghai in China, where I lived for six years, running the Kraft Foods business, selling, amongst other things, Oreo cookies, we had a problem with hero culture. We kept on launching new products that failed. And we would find out afterwards that everyone in the company knew they were going to fail, they just didn't feel free to tell us. So we changed the way we ran our innovation and planning meetings in two important ways. First of all, language went back to Chinese. Because even though everyone spoke great English, when I was in the room and the meeting was in English, they focused on me. And I was the foreigner, and I was the boss and I apparently had that intimidating hero look. The second thing is we asked every single person in the meeting their opinion. And our understanding of the subtleties of the differences between American taste and Chinese taste, in this case, really improved, and our new product success rate radically turned around and we launched a lot of winners, including the now famous green-tea-flavored Oreos.

Hero culture sneaks in everywhere. At Danone, we had a lot of great stuff happening in one part of the world, and we wanted it to spread to another part of the world. But when you put a person in business gear up in front of a group of people with PowerPoint, they have the urge to become sort of heroic. And they make everything look super shiny and they don't tell the truth. And it's not compelling and it's not even interesting.


So, we changed it and we created these full-day marketplaces, kind of like a big bazaar. And everybody was dressed up in costume, some people a little, some people a lot. And sellers had to man their stalls and sell their ideas as persuasively as possible, and people who were convinced bought them with fake check books. Creating just a bit of silliness with the environment and a hat or a scarf drops people's guard and causes ideas to spread like wildfire.


There's no recipe here, but time together has to be carefully curated and created so that people know that their time is valuable and important, and they can bring their best selves to the table.


Hero culture is present right here in TED. This whole process makes it look like I think I'm a hero. So just in case there's any doubt about the point that I'm trying to make, I want to apply these ideas in an area in which I have zero credibility and zero experience.


I'm originally South African, and I'm deeply passionate about wildlife conservation, most particularly rhinos. Those majestic creatures with big horns. Every day, three rhinos are killed, because there are people who think that those horns are valuable, even though they're just made of the same stuff as hair and fingernails. It breaks my heart. Like all good recovering heroes, I did everything I could to reduce this goal to something that I could do by myself. But clearly, stopping rhino poaching is a goal way too big for me. So I'm immediately in interdependence land. I'm declaring my goal on this stage. I found other people as passionate as I am and I've asked if I could join them. And after today, there may be more. And we're now in the complex but inspiring process of learning how to work together. My dream is that one day, someone will stand on this stage and tell you how radical interdependence saved my beloved rhinos.


Why does hero culture persist, and why don't we work together more? Well, I don't know why everyone else does it, but I can tell you why I did it. Interdependence is a lot harder than being a hero. It requires us to be open and transparent and vulnerable, and that's not what traditional leaders have been trained to do. I thought being a hero would keep me safe. I thought that in the elevation and separation that comes from heroic leadership, that I would be untouchable. This is an illusion.


The joy and success that comes from interdependence and vulnerability is worth the effort and the risk. And if we're going to solve the challenges that the world is facing today, we have no alternative, so we had better start getting good at it.


Thank you.

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