Thought Leadership

Breaking Free from the Binary Trap of Leadership

The theme of this GLT issue is technology. It’s the perfect bridge for calling attention to a dangerous trap, one too many leaders fall prey to, especially in uncertain times. Call it the ‘binary trap’ of leading.


In technology, binary refers to a coding system consisting of only two possible states: off or on, typically symbolized by 1s and 0s. A senior leader’s job is immeasurably more complex than just two states. Yet, many default to their own binary system: believing they must know everything or when they don’t, that they must appear as if they do.


Falling into this trap is rarely a conscious choice. It occurs gradually. And disproportionately, it results from outdated beliefs about what it means to be a leader, none more untrue than the ‘leader = hero’ myth.


How the Trap Is Set and Sprung: The Leader = Hero Problem

Most leaders want what’s best for their organization and team. They begin the leadership journey believing that their primary job is to be a catalyst – for good, for value creation, for progress towards a mission, all of it. Good leaders are enablers of the many. The trouble comes when the catalyst role morphs into the hero myth.


Leader lore tells us that the best leaders know everything – how to solve every problem, generate every innovative idea, and singlehandedly deliver an organization’s success. It may not be stated so directly, but it’s absolutely implied.


Societally and across the globe, we constantly reinforce the leader = hero myth. From our best practices to the stories we celebrate, we reinforce this untenable image as the model. How we structure our organizations by rank and title certainly contributes, but so to do informal and formal hierarchies of communication, innovation, and simple day-to-day decision-making. Other ways of doing, such as how we hire and what behaviors we reward, further reinforce the belief that those at the top are to be followed, not questioned.


Falling into the ‘binary trap’ is the result of multiple factors each contributing to those at the helm seeing themselves as the person who ‘must know.’ As a leader locks into the default mode of instructing and directing, decisions and ideas move in one direction: down. Though rarely intentional, in the eyes of the leader and those they lead, the individual leader comes to equal the sum total of leadership. That’s when the binary trap is fully sprung, and sprung so powerfully that many leaders come to believe that if they don’t know, they should at least appear as if they do.


Bigger Than a Hero: The Pivotal Role of Culture

In the end, falling into this trap comes down to culture. In all its parts and practices, culture guides how organizations define and execute leadership. No doubt, leaders play a key role in setting the cultural tone, but they are equally propelled by it and subject to its greater forces.

Rather than a mission statement or well-intended words, culture is every action and every decision by every person in every single moment. Culture is an ongoing chance to change things for the better and a perpetual truth teller for how things really are. If a team’s culture points to leadership as a collective responsibility, that’s what it will be. If instead all roads and arrows lead to one person, the odds of the binary trap taking hold rise exponentially.


The question is how to change the dynamic. Surprising to many, the key is to start with something close and small.

A Simple Step Towards Breaking Free of the Trap

Small is not how leaders tend to think, especially those caught up in the hero myth. When trapped or facing something daunting like cultural change, most think too big. They conclude change must be dramatic and immediate. Lasting change never works that way. Instead, it’s an accumulation of many smaller steps. If leaders want to break the binary trap, small step number one is to change the choices defining it.


Instead of ‘I know’ or ‘I must appear to know,’ consider this alternate combination: ‘I know’ and ‘I don’t know.’ Not knowing doesn’t fit the hero image. What it does instead is make the would-be hero the powerful catalyst they should be. Saying ‘I don’t know’ opens things up – for others to lead, and for leaders to learn. It enables the diversity of thought that exists across any group to come to the forefront. It invites everyone into the task of leading, and imbues ownership. These things allow it to become a multiplier and clarifier for shared purpose.

In the simplest terms, ‘I don’t know’ affirms that all of us, leaders included, are imperfect. We are yes and no, good and bad, successful and less so. It reminds us that we are at our best when we share the lead. Knowing it all isn’t possible. It’s a false expectation that leaders should drop. What they should focus on instead is the true job of a leader: creating an environment in which everyone can lead and is expected and enabled to do just that.


About The Author

As an innovation advisor and the Founder of Lighthouse Consulting, Larry Robertson has advised leaders in growth, strategy, adaptability, and innovation for more than three decades. He’s been described as ‘a big firm consulting brain, without all the worthless baggage.’ His knowledge is deep, and his style is direct, passionate, and creative. The results, and nearly 30 years in business, speak for themselves.


Robertson is the award-winning author of three books: A Deliberate Pause, The Language of Man, and his newly released Rebel Leadership: How to Thrive in Uncertain Times. He’s a popular columnist for Inc. Magazine, The Creativity Post, SmartBrief on Leadership, and CEOWorld Magazine, as well as a regular contributor to Fast Company, Thrive Global, Productive Flourishing, and other respected publications.


In 2021 Robertson was named a Fulbright Scholar, a rarity for non-academic professionals. He’s a sought-after keynote speaker—as engaging, impactful, and memorable in a one-on-one podcast as he is in front of a 3,000+ audience. He’s a proud graduate of Stanford University and Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, and a former Adjunct Professor of Entrepreneurship at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business.