Be A Hero By Not Being A Hero

i'm just a normal person

I’ve witnessed a lot of heroics over my professional career. I’ve been a part of some of those situations requiring heroics (mostly MUCH earlier in my career when I could actually “do” things). If I’m honest with myself, I liked the recognition and the sense of accomplishment. They were also memorable and dramatic and made for great stories. Later stepping into various leadership roles, I’ve also praised the heroes in other situations, believing I’m doing good by expressing gratitude and providing valued recognition for a job well done. It’s only been relatively recently that I’ve realized the harmful effects of heroics that often go unacknowledged in light of the back-slapping, award-giving, and praise-heaping “you’re awesome” celebrations. And once the celebration has died down, we move on… in a worse position than we were before the situation that required the heroics.

If you’re prone to heroics or celebrating heroics, you’re hurting yourself and your organization. Here’s how.

1. You’re stealing opportunities from others to learn and grow.
Failure creates valuable opportunities to learn and improve. When you’re the one always jumping into the middle of an issue to fix it, you’re the one getting the lion’s share of the learning. Give others some of those opportunities. Spread the wealth.

2. You’re hurting the resiliency of the socio-technical system.
When you repeatedly come to the rescue, you’re conditioning people to expect you to always come to the rescue. They start to expect that you’re just going to handle things when they go awry and will stop trying to handle things themselves. You become a constraint and a single point of failure. You’re making the people in the system less resilient and thereby making the overall system less resilient.

3. You’re putting yourself at risk for burnout.
Fighting fires is stressful, intense work. When you’re fighting fires frequently, you run the risk of experiencing physical and emotional exhaustion and succumbing to cynicism that things will ever get better — some of the contributors to burnout in the Maslach Burnout Inventory. Burnout is real. And it takes a heavy toll. Please don’t let it take a toll on you. Please.

4. You’re creating a feedback and improvement vacuum.
When you’re the hero, you’re often praised for battling the symptoms and responding to the crisis — rather than learning and improving and addressing the contributing factors. The praise of the heroics can shut down the feedback loops, because you just got the feedback indicating heroics are good and praiseworthy. Message received. No further discussion needed — including discussion about the factors that contributed to the need for heroics so we can learn and improve.

5. You’re not getting the best answers.
People tend to defer to the hero both in the heroic moment and after the fact. After all, they’re the hero for a reason, right? This dynamic shuts down discussion and creativity for two reasons. First, there often isn’t the luxury of time to engage in discussion and creativity in the moment. Second,  A lack of discussion and diversity of opinion doesn’t yield the best answers because, as Ken Blanchard puts it, “None of us is as smart as all of us.”

6. You’re setting a dangerous example.
When leaders praise heroics, they’re sending the signal that the way to get positive recognition and advance is by being a hero. You’re setting the example and communicating what you value. Others in the organization will pick up those signals, too, and will start behaving accordingly. Heroics will spread and lead to even more of these harmful effects.

Ironically, the cumulative effect of all this is a downward spiral: heroics create the conditions that produce more heroics.

If something happens requiring out-of-the-ordinary (i.e., heroic) measures, I’ll still express appreciation to those involved. After all, they’re a big reason things go right most of the time and they’re probably a big reason things weren’t worse, as Dr. Richard Cook explains in his brilliant paper “How Complex Systems Fail”. I’ll also be quick to call for discussion to learn from what happened so we can improve. We want to learn from the situations that require heroics so heroics aren’t needed (as much) in the future.

If you’re still not convinced of the downside of heroics or having a culture that celebrates heroics, read The Phoenix Project and pay particular attention to Brent. Then let’s talk.

Praise the uneventful and the mundane. Work to make things steady and boring. Let’s be heroes to our colleagues, our organizations, and ourselves — by not being heroes.

Thanks to everyone on this Twitter thread who contributed their thoughts.

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