The Myth of the Hero

Characters in early western drama tended to be gods, aristocrats, and heroes: Bacchus, Oedipus, Achilles, Electra, etc. Heroes were often taken from mythology or mythologized history. Only heroes were allowed to have destinies and empowered to make choices; much like senior management.

Over the centuries, it has become more acceptable to draw dramatic heroes from the ranks of ordinary people. Good roles in drama have become less “heroic.” More taxi drivers and hookers have appeared on the scene and screen; fewer kings and queens.

Today we talk about empowering lower level corporate managers to make decisions and be held accountable. But we still love heroes. So we offer employees the opportunity to be heroes. But in business we suffer from what I like to call the “Myth of the Hero.” The myth of the hero is that any business problem can be solved by a hero and that a hero can solve them singlehandedly.

How often do managers offer a faithful and diligent employee the additional resources they request to solve a problem? The most likely response is, “If you can solve this problem -- without any additional resources -- you will be a hero.” The employee may be empowered, but is not likely to be properly resourced. After failed attempts to solve the problem without the necessary resources, the myth is invoked: “We don’t have the right people. We need to hire a hero who can solve this problem.” The hero is assumed to have access to superhuman strength or magical powers which are not available to mere employees. The hero is assumed to be able to tackle the problem singlehandedly, without additional resources. The hero is also inevitably a hire (heroes ride into town, they don’t live in town.)

Of course, should the hero also fail to solve the problem quickly because they were not provided the necessary resources either, they are fired: “We were tricked. The hero is not really a hero!” Or, they are quickly given any resource they request: “We do not want anyone to think we made a mistake in hiring the hero, so give the hero whatever her or she requests to insure success.”

If the hero succeeds, the hero is celebrated and the myth is perpetuated. Even though the same result may have been achieved, and achieved more quickly, by simply giving the necessary resources to the diligent and experienced employees already on hand. It is hard to let go of a myth.

So too, it is not always enough to hire just any old hero. Businesses want stars (even super stars!) And where there are stars you can often find what I like to call the “Star Syndrome.” The Star Syndrome can be as dangerous as the Myth of the Hero. Companies like to hire stars because then they feel like they have done everything they can possibly do to solve a problem. And executives, like actors, long to achieve star status because with that status comes special privilege. Everyone knows that stars require retinues: so it is much easier for a star to get resources than your journeyman executive. Things can in fact get done by the retinue as a result. However, stars are highly susceptible to the Star Syndrome.

A star’s first priority is to be a star. It does not really matter whether a star is talented, hardworking, or deserving (or even how stardom was achieved in the first place,) as long as they are generally acknowledged to be a star. And the easiest way to tell if someone is an acknowledged star is to see whether or not they are treated like a star by those around them.

A film star does not really need to act. They only need to be themselves because everything they do is by definition wonderful: they are a star. They do not even have to do that well at the box office. They can still be a star. It is however, imperative for a film star to be treated like a star. Because the moment they stop being treated like a star, they cease to be one.

That is how the Star Syndrome arises. A great deal of time, energy, and resource is wasted by the star on insuring that they continue to be treated like a star. Resources which could be devoted to furthering the progress of the enterprise are instead spent on acquiring and maintaining the trappings of stardom.

The cost of true stars quickly rises as their power increases. Keeping a star is a luxury few businesses can afford for very long and even though lesser stars can be useful -- making initial sales contacts or raising capital -- as they perceive their star power to be waning internally they start putting a good deal of time and energy into attracting the attention of other companies where they are more likely to be welcomed into greater luminosity.

So every time I hear that a company wants to hire “a real star who can come in and be a hero”, I wince a little. It is possible that the right person needs to be and can be found, and that they are a true star performer, but the Myth of the Hero and the Star Syndrome are never far removed.

There are heroes and starring roles in life. Sometimes the role can be filled by a star. But many ordinary people are capable of true heroics when they are given the opportunity and a fighting chance.

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