Workplace Wisdom

How Managers Give Heroics a Bad Name

From time to time, every organization has to face tough, emerging challenges. They can be market-imposed, like a new regulation that changes the way you need to operate; self-imposed, like a fixed ship date for a product you’ve never made before; or required by circumstance, like a new enterprise system installation that goes awry.

The Hero Saves the Day

Any of these situations seems to call for management heroics — working round the clock, holding countless meetings (often accompanied by pizza), scribbling tremendous numbers of Post-Its, whiteboarding frantically, and texting-texting-texting on both small details and large panic points.

Some managers are quite proud of their ability to do “heroics” when necessary. But if you pay close attention, you’ll find that some of those managers are more inclined to heroics than others, and they’re apt to give very different reasons for engaging in it:

  • “We’re facing a serious situation, and I’m afraid the business will be damaged. I choose to step up even though it may cost me dearly. Someone has to save the day!
  • “When I do heroics, it’s for my boss, to show how much I care about him. He’s been complaining about what needs to be done, and nobody seems to be doing anything about it. I want him to know I was the one who saved the day.”
  • “I’m actually the only one who can fix this problem because of my particular skills, position, or fill-in- the-blank, so I must step up. It would be a moral failure not to. And it’s a thrill to be the one to save the day.”
  • “I can do this better — more skillfully and with more flair — than the people who are supposed to do it. I don’t like having to be part of a whole task force that works this stuff out. I’m saving my own day.”
  • “I just like being the go-to. It’s fun to be a hero.”

The Perils of the Hero Complex

The interesting thing about heroics, though is that, reframed, it could be a version of martyrdom or doormat syndrome. The martyr manager thinks: “I’m the only one who can get this done, take on that difficult person, etc., and absorb the most stress and pain for the sake of my organization or leader.” But rather than asking, “Do you see what I’ve done for you?” this manager asks, “Do you see how much I’m willing to suffer for you?” Unfortunately, neither approach is productive in the long term.

Sometimes projects don’t come together as expected, and people really do need to go above and beyond to close the gap. But are heroics ever really necessary? On an individual basis, heroics can be a way to break through procrastination, albeit, sometimes in an unhealthy way. (See The Grappling Hook Method of Project Management.) But extreme measures have a cost, even if they do successfully bridge the gap, resolve the problem, or cover the loss.

Some organizations rely too heavily on heroics because it’s not acceptable to talk about the true terrain, the real circumstances, or the stumbling blocks that keep people from working in more mundane, but also more reasonable or more structured ways. Sometimes an organization’s environment breeds excitement junkies.

Heroes in the Making

If your organization depends on tremendous intensity or derring-do to get the work done, or if your people are complaining of exhaustion because of their heroics, it’s time to find a different approach to the work. And to the people.

Even in the face of overly aggressive project deadlines, collective efforts can be structured to bring the initiative to its best conclusion, and then applied to adjust the conditions so the team doesn’t have to live through the same struggle again. It’s a leadership responsibility to explain why it’s not productive when employees burn themselves out by throwing themselves against a problem — and then to ensure that heroics aren’t necessary in the future.

Expanding the skills and capacities of others, bringing everyone along, confronting organizational roadblocks, and recognizing all efforts will be more successful — and much more heroic — than just leading a particular charge up a particular hill.

Onward and upward,


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