To the Heroes that Never Were

22 Nov

For all of our intelligence we human beings are hugely unfair. Worse still, we actually think that we are fair. Which means that we are also hugely ignorant. When combined these two facts set us up for some horrible injustices. One of our most obvious acts of  injustices is how we glorify the firefighters who rush into an apartment building to put out a fire, but we don’t even mention the landlord who replaced the batteries in the smoke detector – a device that prevented a manageable fire from growing so large that it needed the fire department. In short, we glorify the person who intervenes , but not the person who prevents and the obvious reason we do this is because we are never aware of the things that never happen. Our cultural myths around leaders and heroes are oriented around the person who dramatically saves the day, not the person who simply and cleverly manages the antecedents to the problem.

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This has two effects. First, we are encouraged to create problems to solve so that we can be the hero. After all, if there is no way for me to get credit for preventing something that never happened, then the social incentives are for me to let things go. Let things get bad so that I can put on my cape and mask and come to the rescue. It is a tragic self-fulfilling prophecy that the more we see the world according to the drama triangle (i.e. the hero, the villain, and the victim) the more evidence we find to support it. The impact of this simple and fundamental error in judgement on the overall effectiveness of an organization is profound. If your performance management system and your culture is geared only toward problem-solving and not problem-prevention (or polarity management), then you better believe that your people are unconsciously creating a lot of their own problems. After all, every hero needs a villain. This is a problem for all individual people, but when it comes to thinking about people working together in organizations, it suddenly becomes a much more pernicious and profound issue.

The second issue is that we completely miss the qualities in leaders that are ACTUALLY important. We are so distracted by the dramatic story-telling of the latest and greatest feat of Inc. Magazine’s CEO of the Year that we completely ignore the subtlety of true leadership. Given our fundamental human ignorance that orients us to reward intervention more than prevention, true leadership requires a strong internal compass that is not dependent upon the recognition of others. That is the only way to offset this blatantly unjust system. And this is more than just simply calling something “servant leadership” or “humility;” it gets down to how individuals experience the world. I’d like to suggest that, by definition, if you are striving to be recognized for your accomplishments then you are not just “a realist” or “a good salesperson;” you are also likely to be a bad leader. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t consider others or manage your brand or anything like that. What I am saying is that it is a matter of priority. Those things are important, but the MOST important factor is that a leader is driven clearly and consistently by his or her own values.

In the end, everyone knows that “…a pinch of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” so why do we rarely reward acts of prevention? We don’t reward them because our minds are not set up to understand them. We simply cannot see something that did not happen and therefore, all of the subtle acts of preventative heroism go unnoticed. The philosopher+businessman Nassim Taleb describes the problem in his book The Black Swan

Who gets rewarded , the central banker who avoids a recession or the one who comes to “correct” his predecessors’ faults and happens to be there during some economic recovery? Who is more valuable, the politician who avoids a war or the one who starts a new one (and is lucky enough to win)? (Prologue xxviii).

So today I’d like to publicly recognize (in my own small way) all of the heroes that never were. I can’t give you a medal or a bonus. I can’t put your name in the paper or on the cover of Inc. Magazine, but I can acknowledge that the world has been unfair to you. We have been ignorant and unjust. I can’t know exactly what the world would be like without your small acts of everyday leadership, but I can assume that I’d be worse off without them.

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