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The dangers of hero culture

“You may not like him, but without Bob wouldn’t be able to get anything done around here. He knows all the people, all the systems and where to apply pressure to get things moving.” Plenty of organisations have heroes: indispensable employees who “keep the place running”, but also form a great risk.

The governance mismatch

Over time, organisations’ governance models get out of sync with actual practice. Rules, policies, job titles, procedures and department boundaries all get in the way of getting actual work done. Every now and then, a re-organisation is imposed by upper management in order to address this mismatch. But these are usually painful affairs and therefore not very frequent; consequently, organisations spend a lot of time in the mismatch state.

How to get things done

When a company gets in that inevitable state, it’s tempted to start looking for and rewarding heroes. A hero is the positive description of a rebel, someone who will colour outside the lines, think out of the box and go the extra mile. A hero uses a machete to cut through red tape. Heroes can get things done, save the day and are often regarded to be indispensable.

In the short term, we need heroes to save the day. But the danger lies in how their heroism hides the governance mismatch. It might lead to the wrong conclusion that the organisation’s problems are due to a lack of initiative or skill in the employees, rather than due to structural difficulties the organisation has created for itself with its governance mismatch. Heroes can make it seem like the system is generally fine, if only it had the right people in the right place – rather than the more plausible but highly unpopular conception that actually all the right people are in the right place, but the system is just fundamentally flawed. What’s more, the hero behaviour only works until the hero him/herself ultimately crashes and burns out.

Turn heroes into leaders

No matter how indispensable a hero seems, getting rid of heroism (perhaps by actually getting rid of the people in question, but hopefully by merely getting rid of their behaviour) is probably the better course for the organisation, as heroes are often an impediment to others in the organisation to learn and grow. If a hero always knows the right answer, others never get a chance to learn for him/herself. If a hero always is the one to make that late-night fix, others never get a chance to take responsibility. If a hero always solves the truly hard problems, others never get a chance to develop themselves. People need opportunities to learn, to make mistakes and to grow.

With proper coaching and support, heroes can become mentors and leaders and become part of the solution. Without it, they most likely become part of the problem until they crash. A bad system will always beat a good person. Take it slow, create conditions to learn and grow, embrace continuous re-organisation and regard heroism in your teams as a red flag.

  • agile
  • governance
Arjan van der Gaag

Arjan van der Gaag

A thirtysomething software developer, historian and all-round geek. This is his blog about Ruby, Rails, Javascript, Git, CSS, software and the web. Back to all talks and articles?


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