A Time for Average Heroes

Written by Val Liberman, UL LLC
Published September 9, 2015

A client from a large manufacturing organization once told me of their internal marketing campaign titled “Our Heroes.” It depicted, via giant posters hung throughout their facilities, a small number of employees who went above and beyond the “call of duty,” and highlighted their specific “heroic” achievements.

This story prompted me to think about the definition of the term hero, which I learned, with the help of The Oxford English Dictionary, is defined as “a person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.” As I continued my research, I learned that the term hero first appeared in mythology and folklore where it was aimed at entertaining the reader/listener in order to help them sympathize with the protagonist of the story. With the advances in the reach of mass media, heroes and their stories began to be used in propaganda materials, especially during times of war.

So, what about “heroes” in the modern workplace? And let us be clear, I am not talking about the actual heroes that sacrifice their lives to save those of others firemen, police officers, rescue workers. I am talking about those who “save the day” (or the month, the quarter, the fiscal year), work extra hard, stay extra late and otherwise demonstrate the ability to deliver results at any cost. What is their role and what impact do they have on shaping the organizational culture in the quest for better business results? I started pondering about statistics like “hero” to “non-hero” employee ratios and “heroic” act frequency, as a way to understand the feasibility of running the organization solely on “hero fuel.” Think about your company. Are there enough of those “superhuman” acts? Perhaps enough to save the occasional day… and at what cost? Sub-optimization, short-term focus, resentment from peers, the list of side effects goes on. How many times do we reward acts of “heroism” only to realize that they did more damage than good? You might as well forget about sustainable culture change. “Heroism” has a very short half-life.

There is a reason why the Shingo Prize is awarded to entire organizations, based on daily behaviors of a wide cross-section of leaders, managers and associates. No wonder, as it takes everyone, throughout the entire enterprise, to reach levels of performance worthy of this premier enterprise excellence award. When organizations focus on process, instead of individual excellence, everyone starts to act with purpose and effectiveness consistent with the definition of a superhero. In the words of Syndrome, the supervillain from Disney Pixar’s The Incredibles: “When everyone’s super – no one will be.” Amen to that!