One thing that happens when you work to develop change across an organization: you detect the “cultural” elements of an organization that often go unnoticed by the people involved.  Just as a “Fish discovers water last,” people working in a cultural context can be fairly unaware of the implications of their culturally influenced decisions.  “It’s the way we’ve always done it, here.”

One cultural influence that I’ve seen, quite often, in organizations that are struggling to grow past a particular size, is the “culture of heroes.”  This pattern of behavior has the following smells:

  • Whenever there is a problem with the servers, call Jack.  While it isn’t his current job, he’s the one who installed and designed the server environment, so he’s the logical one to fix it.  (Extend this beyond “the servers.  For every “area” of the system or the business process, there is a “person” who is the “hero” who can solve problems with that area.  There’s often an “uber-hero” above them all, who has to be called in for every emergency no matter what).
  • If someone asks me to do my job differently, I refuse until my manager specifically approves the individual change.  After all, my manager has done this job for years and years, and he or she knows best how to do it.
  • If I’m a hero or a manager, and I make a casual remark in a meeting that I want to have control over some minor aspect of a process, a subtle but IMMEDIATE shift occurs so that the process now has an extra step: to ask me for my approval of that minor aspect (even if it is something that has little or nothing to do with my actual accountabilities).
  • If an important new project is starting, the kickoff meeting cannot proceed unless a couple of heroes are in the room.  Absolutely no way.

These are signs of a culture of heroes.

And they are a big problem. 

Let’s first recognize that, for any snapshot of 100 people in the same role, there are two or three that have risen up to become well respected experts.  There are 20 or so that can lead a group, and the rest are following.  One of those “folks in the rest” may mature, of course, and may be ready in the future to lead or become one of those well respected experts.  These are not labels.  But, at any one point in time, the ratios often work out this way.

This is human nature.  Nothing wrong with that.  The problem comes when you feed it.

As a leader, you cannot avoid a variation in skills and experience.  However, the true leader recognizes that there are people who want to grow.  He or she will want to create an intentional culture that not only fosters that growth, but encourages individuals who are the experts to “step aside” a little, and allow the non-experts to have a chance at solving tough problems. 

If your culture keeps coming back to a handful of heroes, no one else in the team can grow.  The people who naturally WANT to grow will leave.  And you are left with an organization of people who don’t want to grow.

If no one in your organization wants to grow, the organization won’t grow.  Plain and simple.

Not only that, your organization won’t evolve.  It won’t improve.  It won’t optimize.  It won’t do ANYTHING interesting or new.  That’s because all the people who could benefit by change, all the people who have fresh ideas and novel approaches and interesting influences, have run away to other organizations where they can try those ideas out. 

And that is what the culture of heroes does… it kills the spark of change in a group of people.

So don’t let the heroes stunt the growth of your organization.  Look around.  If you have heroes who usually get called, ask THEM to be heroes in a different way… heroes for growth.

A hero for growth makes this decision:

  1. I listen when someone brings me a problem.
  2. I consider whether the person who has the problem should be empowered to solve it.
  3. I consider whether the possibility of them “doing it wrong” means that they will cost a great deal of money or some other business loss. 
  4. Then, I take the DEFAULT position of “let the person closest to the decision make it.” 
  5. I only take on a challenge if the people who should be doing it are asking for my help.  (Not their managers, or their peers, or their staff.)  And when I do, I take the attitude that I want to help that person grow… so I challenge them, include them, and inspire them.  When things work, they get credit.  When things fail, I take part of the blame (giving them a safe space to grow).  I don’t override them, belittle them, or ignore them.  I never ever point fingers.


If you are a hero in your organization, I challenge you right here to become a hero for growth.  Who knows… you may change your culture just by your leadership, and your example.

By Nick Malik

Former CIO and present Strategic Architect, Nick Malik is a Seattle based business and technology advisor with over 30 years of professional experience in management, systems, and technology. He is the co-author of the influential paper "Perspectives on Enterprise Architecture" with Dr. Brian Cameron that effectively defined modern Enterprise Architecture practices, and he is frequent speaker at public gatherings on Enterprise Architecture and related topics. He coauthored a book on Visual Storytelling with Martin Sykes and Mark West titled "Stories That Move Mountains".

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