Harvard Business Review

Be Your Own Hero


Posted on Harvard Business Review: November 4, 2011 7: 18 AM

by Nilofer Merchant

When I was growing up, I looked for a savior in just about everyone.

There were too many fruitless visits from child protective services. There were too many police cars that arrived to “quiet things down” only to let them flare up again the next day. There were too many visits to the hospital.The police men, the agency representatives, and even the hospital workers seemed unable to do anything about what they clearly knew was a problem. There were still too many holes in the wall from when the rolling pin aimed at me, missed.

Since those adults were unable to help me, it’s no wonder that I started to imagine a hero in my father, whom I did not remember and hadn’t seen since I was a toddler. I created a fantasy life where he rode to my rescue. Finally, when I was 12 years old, I met him again. And, of course, while the specific story is complicated, you won’t be surprised to find out that the person who had abandoned me when I was a baby wasn’t the person who was going to save me years later.

The day I met him, I realized something that would shape the rest of my life: there was no Hero (or Heroine) who was going to save me. I needed to save myself.

So, it’s with that life context that I am watching the beatification of Steve Jobs. Google the term, “Steve Jobs tribute” and you get back 5 million plus results. And I’m fairly sure that’s an undercount. There’s a good reason for this; the Hero Narrative has deep roots in our culture. We find it in history books and religions, in our sports teams and, yes, even in our corporate cultures. We obsess. We deify, as if there is a single defining idea of how innovation works, what makes a leader great, or how success happens.

This is not new. It is the idea of The One and it shows up in many ways: Who will be the next leader of the free world? What nation will be the next superpower? Which visionary company is the single conqueror of industry? (It’s Amazon, it’s Google, it’s Facebook, it’s Apple!). And we have it in management disciplines with debates like: isn’t it better to have one smart person than lots of ordinary people working for our organizations?

But I wonder if this framework is wrong.

Let’s take another look at Steve Jobs’s own example. He didn’t study other people; he followed his own passions. He didn’t seek meaning by trying to emulate someone else’s life, or even emulating the winning business practices of his day — as I’ve written before, he created a clarity of purpose for himself. The same principle can apply to all of us.

Certainly, we need inspiration to show us examples of clear purpose. But I wonder what happens in a world where we each figure out why we do what we do and we can live and work from that place. We might refocus on our own work and the community with which we get that work done. We might learn to define success in our own terms. We might even come up with our own mantra around this:

1. I shall not obsess over others’ success: not copying, idolizing, or mindlessly emulating.
2. I shall know my purpose and know why I’m doing something.
3. I shall ally myself to a tribe with a common purpose, though the tribe’s members may work in vastly different fields and forms.
4. I will make ideas stronger by uniting with others to do great work, not by holding my ideas all to myself but releasing them into the wild.
5. I recognize the truth in the credo that the future is not created, the future is co-created and will do my part as a part of the whole.

In doing so, we might go from a culture of find-a-fits-the-mold superhero to a system of heroes- and heroines-next-door. We might create, rather than copy. We might initiate, rather than wait for permission. We might see ourselves as powerful enough. We might not believe that solving the many problems around us is someone else’s responsibility. We might each be willing to disrupt ourselves, as Whitney Johnson suggests we do. We might reimagine our careers, with clarity of purpose, and this might show up in our work with others. We might just transform the organizing principles of the places we work. We might even end up reinventing our economy. We might recognize just how connected we are.

For my own situation when I was a kid, once I realized there was no hero coming to save me, I found ways to manage the situation. I said “enough” to what was going on. I also started to claim the things that mattered, like an education. As a result, I was ousted from my family — but I also started developing the sense of purpose that has led me to the work I do today and the people I do it with.

The cultural change when people know their own purpose and their own power in creating change is what could change everything: for ourselves, for our organizations, and our economy. So, go ahead and buy that Walter Isaacson book. But, let’s not obsess over being the next Steve Jobs or starting the next Facebook or [whatever]. Let us, instead, be inspired to find our own purpose in the world, and a tribe of people to do it with.

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