Why being a hero isn’t great – Don't stagger from crisis to crisis, be a leader!
Swooping in and saving the day is great in the moment. But long term, it hurts your career. There's a better path to being invaluable.
Going the extra mile, being dedicated, intelligent, knowledgeable and hard-working. These are great attributes for any employee — and your classic hero generally ticks all the boxes. They’re ambitious and at the top of their game and of course, they have a reputation for saving the day, pulling the team out of the fire again and again.
Take Jimmy, a senior developer at an interactive design agency. A customer called with an emergency after hours. Their servers were down. Apparently, part of the system that handled video intake, transcoding, and streaming to who knows how many other platforms stopped processing video. Jimmy was there, jumping on the problem and diving right in. He pulled a late night, found the problem, and everything was back online before business kicked off in the morning. The client was happy again.
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This wasn’t a one-off either, Jimmy is always saving the company’s bacon. There was a time when a looming deadline threatened as delivery fell behind schedule. A late delivery would mean stiff penalties for the agency. The team was doing everything they could to finish on time, but it was Jimmy who pulled it over the finish line. He knew the code better than anyone else, and was able to crank out feature after feature just 48 hours before launch. Once again, Jimmy saved the day.
Jimmy is a hero, and heroes are common in small teams that face lots of challenges. Heroes often are the team. Brilliant engineers, founders, creators, they have the whole product in their head, they know the solution, and they’re the best one to get the job done.
On the surface, being a hero sounds like a great career move and an excellent way to make yourself invaluable. It’s not. Being a hero is a huge liability.
Before we talk about more effective ways to make yourself invaluable, let’s explore what being a hero really means.
What happens after the party?
After Jimmy saved the day and delivered that project, the team got together to celebrate. Somewhere amidst the revelry, the CEO asked, “Why can’t we perform like this all the time?”
The attention was on how the team, but especially Jimmy, came together to overcome yet another crisis. The assumption was that the team had rallied around that crisis, and triumphed — perpetuating a misconception: That heroes arise because they are responding to crises beyond the team’s control. In fact, perpetual crises are generated by a culture that prizes heroism and enables the hero. There was talk about “learning how to improve” but in the end, the team failed to acknowledge what was really wrong.
Which brings me back to the CEO’s question, and the root of the problem. Heroism is a sign that you have a very immature organization, and we’ll expose exactly what this means. Sooner or later, leadership is going to clue in.
We’ll talk about what happens after leadership has clued in a bit later. First, we need to understand why heroism is bad.
Why heroes aren’t good for the team
First, we have to recognize that heroes can only exist when there are crises. Those crises are what position a hero to save the day. But, in a healthy organization, a truly mature team will be adept at foreseeing the signs of a crisis well in advance — and will defuse the situation before it actually becomes a crisis.
And that comes to the heart of the matter: If a mature team will defuse a situation before it turns into a crisis, then heroes need immature teams that they can save. In other words, they need to keep the team down, limit growth, and foster attributes that perpetuate immature team dynamics. Ultimately, this is going to be frustrating for the team because it limits their growth. Most of the time, it’s not going to be through overt or aggressively negative behaviors from the hero. It’s going to come from a vacuum of leadership. Heroes tend to be “too busy” to mentor their teammates, or perhaps they can’t be bothered with “management duties” when there’s important work to do. The outcome is a team left to their own devices, while the person most qualified to uplift the team is busy elsewhere. With a bit of introspection we’ll see other signs of an unhealthy relationship. Information hoarding, poor communication, and perhaps subtly pointing the team off track (which might be as simple as not pointing them in the right direction — while the hero goes there alone).
It’s destructive, self-serving behavior, leading to more crises and a false sense of being indispensable. But it also prevents the company from growing and scaling. Eventually, it’s a house of cards. The overall lack of efficiency leads to collapse at scale because the hero is a single point of failure.
There’s an ever-increasing likelihood that luck will run out, and the hero will fail as other countermeasures against risk are not instituted. Eventually leadership will clue in. By then it’s too late — now the hero has been identified as the source of the problem. It can be a career-ending move, and it’s inevitable.
Understanding hero culture
Chances are it’s not just one person enabling a hero culture. It takes a whole work culture to do it. That culture in and of itself can be pretty destructive. But there’s good news — hero cultures can’t survive without that team effort. It’s pretty easy to break out of the dysfunctional mold and start building maturity in the organization.
One of the common organizational dysfunctions is failing to recognize work that delivers results where heroics aren’t involved. The very definition of “hero culture” means the lion’s share of attention goes to the hero, ignoring the majority of the work being done by the wider team. In other words, the day-to-day hard work of the team and individuals needs to be recognized, not the heroics. By aggrandizing the hero role, it demoralizes everyone else while stoking hero egos.
Instead, focus on rewarding everyone for work well done. Recognize that effort, call out team accomplishments and those regular deliverables, let individuals know their work is valuable. It also helps to shift away from calling out one person’s effort, and instead recognize how the team played a role.
Don’t create a culture that supports a hero mentality. A hero personality, when catered to, can destroy a team — the behavior is destructive, and an addiction.
That’s why being a hero is actually a career killer. Once the problems are exposed, the heroes are the first ones to go. Once identified as the source of the problem, the hero becomes a liability that needs to be managed — and often, that means eliminating a role that’s deemed toxic.
The good news is, heroes are ideally positioned to turn things around. There are far better ways to become invaluable and indispensable.
Better ways to be invaluable
The reformed hero is in a perfect position to turn things around, creating a well organized and mature team. That means eschewing those dysfunctional behaviors in favor of new strategies that benefit the team, not a hero’s ego. The first step is recognizing the value of this transition: Transforming a dysfunctional organization into a streamlined, mature one that scales along with the business.
The key is transitioning into a leadership role that creates and multiplies value, builds the team’s capabilities, and creates benefit across the organization.
In the rest of this article we’ll explore strategies for making that transition, and the tactical, day-to-day actions that lead to success.