Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

Heroic Organizations are People Too

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Fictionalized heroes cut across virtually all cultures and abound in movies and books, for the display of heroism is a tried and true mechanism for financial if not critical success and has the makings of a good story. The scene usually revolves around people in peril, with nowhere to turn, and then unexpectedly when all seems lost, a hero appears to save the day.  While there can be variation on some of the superficial characteristics of a hero, the mythology of the underlying traits are very much held constant with fearlessness, risk taking, bravery, compassion, personal strength and perseverance, fairness, being a good listener and  the willingness to sacrifice one’s own gain for others commonly seen. Not all of the characteristics have to be on display for a person to be classified as heroic.

In the real world we look for heroes as well. Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Dali Lama, Mao Zedong, Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, Yitzhak Rabin, Che Guevara, and Franklin Roosevelt are examples of what some consider heroes. Of course the list I chose as examples includes some that are heroes to one group and villains to another. In some respects heroism vs. villainy is in the eye of the beholder.

Children dream about heroes, wanting to become one, and perhaps swooping down from on high to save the populace from a menacing figure. That swooping down from on high has obvious connotations and you rarely see a hero coming up from the underworld to save the day, unless as they do they cast off the archetypical characteristics of the underworld as they emerge into herodom.

Sometimes inanimate objects take on hero status as perhaps a representation of greater ideals.

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Emma Lazarus’s words on the Statue of Liberty have become almost as famous as the statue itself, propelling the idea of what America was about, what we stood for into the status of heroic, and one representation of America as hero became the statue itself. I don’t know of a single American who is not emotionally moved, some to tears, upon seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time. For me personally it is a thrill each and every time I catch sight of the lovely lady in the harbor. Foreign visitors often react similarly, for America as heroic is something that resonates far beyond our shores with many people yearning for that person, object or organization that can take care of our seemingly overwhelming problems and save the day. For many, America is the hero they are waiting for to swoop in. Humans characterized as heroic, or human inhabited organizations of course are not perfect, as they contain the same imperfections seen in all of us.

If we use the analogy that America is simply a large organization, we can see that at its best America indeed does fulfill the definition of heroic behavior. Not because America itself is heroic, but because the people that make up America choose to behave in a heroic fashion. Think of our roles in World Wars I and II, our reactions after natural disasters around the world, our willingness to serve as a safe haven for those who are persecuted, our science that has enabled the combating of diseases and starvation, greatly improving the lives of billions. And while America certainly has a history that contains elements of non-heroic behavior, think of slavery, the American Indians, Jim Crowe laws, the treatment of some immigrants, toleration of homelessness, unemployment and inaccessible medical care that allows people to die in anguish, our trend-line, if one can characterize it that way, has been moving overall in a positive direction.

If we examine corporations and CEOs against the standard of hero, it becomes easier to see why at this moment some individual ones, both CEOs and corporations, as well as whole industries are easily vilified. Remember the characteristics of a hero: fearlessness, risk taking, bravery, compassion, personal strength and perseverance, fairness, being a good listener and the willingness to sacrifice one’s own gain for others. The risk taking aspects of some organizations has certainly been discussed through this recession, but the other characteristics according to public perception would certainly be lacking in many of today’s public companies and CEOs. The notion in today’s corporations as typified by George Merck’s original vision for the company that bears his name is rarely seen.

“We try never to forget that medicine is for the people. It is not for the profits. The profits follow, and if we have remembered that, they have never failed to appear. The better we have remembered that, the larger they have been.”

George Merck  – 1950

Within some corporations you have a situation today where employees are being asked to sacrifice themselves for the greater good and at the same time you have CEO’s and others in senior management granting themselves large share options at historically low share prices and giving themselves large performance or retention raises and bonuses. Raises or bonuses that are often tied to achieving profitability, which at the moment is often achieved not by growth and expansion but by laying off employees. “Tough day at the office hon?” “Yeah, I laid off 25% of the workforce, I feel just terrible about it, but then I met my performance target so I got a $450,000 raise.” “Shall we go out to dinner?” Doesn’t exactly fit the definition of heroic, does it, and it is certainly a trust buster for the remaining employees.

While heroes are often looked up to and viewed as worthy of emulation, I would argue that an organization that promotes heroic behavior on the part of the employee as a mechanism for driving performance and/or customer satisfaction is doing itself great harm. Achieving organizational goals or performance for the customer based on heroism is not sustainable and causes the organization to rely on the exception, the “out of the norm” behavior in order to meet goals and achieve performance. True heroism is a rare commodity, it is the exception not the rule, and an organization that makes use of it in the ordinary course is building a house of cards with respect to its performance and ability to deliver. Organizations need to build robust performance and delivery mechanisms and systems that don’t rely on heroic behavior. Organizations themselves are an abstraction, and exist simply because a group of individuals with a shared vision and goals come together to accomplish what they alone singularly cannot. There is no such thing as a heroic organization, only individuals who choose to behave as such and in aggregate create heroism at scale.

Everyday real life heroes do exist around us and sometimes in the most unlikely of places. In Sakai, Japan there is a retired policeman, Yukio Shinge who spends his time at Tojimbo, where he and 77 volunteers have saved 222 people who in their desperation were going to throw themselves off the cliffs to their deaths (NY Times, December 18, 2009). A real life hero is a mother who works two or three jobs in order to make ends meet so that her children can have a place to live, or a father who works at whatever work he can find in order to put food on the table. A hero is a pilot who lands his crippled aircraft on the Hudson River saving hundreds, but then doesn’t revel in his heroism, choosing instead to speak out against what he sees as a flawed system. A hero is a CEO who reduces his/her own salary so that fewer people in their organization need to be laid off. A hero is someone who jumps down on the subway tracks and lies down on top of a stranger, protecting them from the passing subway car. A hero is someone who, even though they can’t afford it, is willing to give to those who have less, or those who are suffering from a disaster, natural or otherwise. A hero is someone who when they see a wrong or a person in need does something about it.

Virtually all of us at some point in our lives will have at least one opportunity to act in a heroic fashion, our 15 minutes of heroism, if you will. Whether you choose to grab those 15 minutes is up to you. You too can be a hero, if you so choose.

© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved. Visit OV:

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