No theory forbids me to say "Ah!" or "Ugh!", but it forbids me the bogus theorization of my "Ah!" and "Ugh!" - the value judgments. - Theodor Julius Geiger (1960)

Postheroic leadership

No More Heroes in Safety Management?

To me, the concepts of "new view" and "safety-II" (versus their sometimes deemed "lesser" counterparts) evoke a distinction proposed by the philosopher Charles Handy – the difference between heroic and postheroic leadership.

Heroic leadership, characterized by centralized control and a singular normative goal, seeks dominance but can also experience dramatic failures. Leaders in this approach are driven to either triumph or face spectacular setbacks. The allure of heroic leadership lies not only in avoiding the complexities of dealing with challenges but also in the ability to claim righteousness. Successes are apparent, while failures are often attributed to external factors or the perceived incompetence of team members. Heroic leadership relies on the distinction between "us" (the organization) and "them" - the rest of the world, but the successful version aims to bridge this gap, while unsuccessful attempts lead the organization to fade away in the larger context. It thrives on clear-cut wins and losses, and it lauds its heroes for providing unwavering direction and setting an example of determination and sacrifice, making their stories worth recounting.

On the other hand, post-heroic leadership operates in a complex world, in which there are not only victories and defeats but also blurred lines between the two and rapid transitions between them. For this, decentralization, embracing complexity and effectively addressing issues are needed. Postheroic leadership recognizes the interconnectedness of organizational processes and fosters decentralized decision-making and adaptability. It thrives in situations where traditional solutions may not apply. Leaders in this domain are aware of the complexities of our society and unintended consequences, building decentralized decision-making processes to reduce uncertainty. Instead of seeking fixed answers, postheroic leadership sees problems as opportunities for innovative solutions. It appreciates the multifaceted nature of safety issues, adapting creative problem-solving approaches.

In reality, the distinction between heroic and postheroic leadership is not always black and white. Sociologist Dirk Baecker acknowledges this in his book about Postheroic leadership. Heroic leaders might evolve into post-heroic intelligence, embracing new approaches as situations demand. Similarly, postheroic leadership may draw upon heroic characteristics when confronted with seemingly impossible choices. In our dynamic world, both styles of leadership are necessary to effectively manage safety, appreciating the strengths each approach brings to the table.

As Erik Hollnagel has written, we need a combination of both kinds of thinking, instead of one or the other.


Baecker, D. (1994), Postheroisches Management: Ein Vademecum, Berlin: Merve.

Hollnagel, E. (2014), Safety-I and Safety-II - The Past and Future of Safety Management, CRC.