Monday, April 03, 2020

Heroic Management

"Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes." ~ Bertolt Brecht

"I don't believe in that phony hero stuff." ~ Steve McQueen
We live in an age that worships heroes. Perhaps that's the fault of television and films. Heroes make for great stories. But the hero tale has been around since The Epic of Gilgamesh, three thousand years or so ago, so maybe modern media aren't to blame this time.

What is different is the tendency of everyone to want to be a hero, in one way or another. Whether it's the proverbial fifteen minutes of fame, or the mock heroics of contestants on reality shows, it seems being a hero—and especially having the praise that goes with it—is irresistible to many of us.

It's true in the workplace too. There's the heroic CEO, who retires, publishes his or her memoirs (thanks to a diligent ghost-writer), and becomes an idol in her own lifetime—maybe with a TV chat-show as well. The heroic whistle-blower, who calls unethical management to account and suffers accordingly—until she talks to the media and gets her face on the nightly news. Even the heroic middle manager, making the numbers despite every adversity and saving the CEO's bacon (though whether the CEO ever admits it—still less rewards the lowly manager appropriately—is open to doubt.)

I am not making fun of genuine heroes. We need those. As Victor Hugo wrote:
Man’s greatest actions are performed in minor struggles. Life, misfortune, isolation, abandonment and poverty are battlefields which have their heroes—obscure heroes who are at times greater than illustrious heroes.
I'm just suspicious of the supposed benefits of the unthinking, heroic style of management that pervades many organizations.

Heroes demand constant praise and recognition. From the time Achilles decided to sulk in his tent rather than fight in the Trojan War, all because the king didn't give him what he thought was his due, this has been a primary characteristic of the conventional hero. Of course, heroes also need competition (How else can they show their heroism?) and, preferably, a series of major crises they can solve single-handed; for the hero is, above all, an individualist. No nonsense about being a team player. I can't think of a single hero, from myth to real-life, who was content to triumph as part of a team. Being a hero is being the only figure in the limelight.

Genuine crises aren't as common in business as people like to believe. Nor are genuine heroes. But there are plenty of managers who act as if they're made in the heroic mold; and plenty of situations that can be represented as critical, even if the reality is less dramatic. After all, isn't it the stock-in-trade of every consultant to tell their client that things are far worse than they appear? Only the heroic intervention of the consultant will be able to save the day. This is simply salesmanship, of course. Who would make a presentation to a group of top executives that began with a review of their situation proving things were really going rather well?

"We're doing well? No crises? Great, we don't need you then."

There's the crux. When job tenure is shaky, and people fear they'll be replaced by someone in India or China earning a quarter of their salary, it's important to be needed. And what better way to prove this than to solve some crisis in a heroic manner?

A cynic would say many organizational crises are manufactured. That's probably too harsh. There are enough problems without inventing new ones. They're just not critical enough to show a heroic manager at his or her best. So what's the easiest way to increase the drama? Add a dose of time pressure.

The life of a heroic manager is composed of equal parts excessive hours and unreasonable demands. Crank up the time constraints a little; convince everyone you, and you alone, can handle the problem; add some drama by taking on more than you can reasonably handle. There you have the perfect display ground for management heroism.

Are there real time constraints? Of course. Do organizations truly overload key players? Yes, indeed they do. But what if some, at least, of those overworked, harassed managers were colluding with the process? Avoiding seeking help or involving others so as not to share the glory? Volunteering for tough assignments the way King Arthur's knights kept looking for dragons to kill, maidens to rescue and quests to undertake. After all, it's no use being a hero if you can't show it.

I think most organizations could do with rather more quietly good managers who don't seek the adulation of their peers and a lot fewer heroic ones who do.
Courage is more exhilarating than fear and in the long run it is easier. We do not have to become heroes overnight. Just a step at a time, meeting each thing that comes up, seeing it is not as dreadful as it appeared, discovering we have the strength to stare it down. ~ Eleanor Roosevelt

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