An absence of heroes - corporate Alzheimer's


An absence of heroes: - corporate Alzheimer’s

Where the hell are they? How many heroes are there in the history of your organization? Can you name them?  If you can’t it’s because there is no reward and recognition scheme in your workplace or it is not the real deal.


Heroes (inclusive of heroines) are everywhere except, perhaps, in your workplace. They are found in the arts, sciences, law, charities, political parties, media, armed forces, team and individual sports, families, dynasties, the church and academia.

Heroes are those who have left an indelible impression. They are admired and often held in reverence; their contribution spectacular and their skills, abilities and qualities exceptional.  Heroes stand above the rest and they are well remembered even when they pass. Heroes help raise the bar. They set standards to which others might aspire.

In business and commerce, egalitarianism and an aversion to tall poppies creates, in our organizations, a climate that has trouble sustaining the notion of hero. Further, the pace of change, corporate restructuring, mergers, takeovers, corporate collapses and insolvencies, the emergence of a cadre of managerialists with their attendant attacks on human capital, all work to obviate the cult of the hero. Where bullying and intimidating behavior is manifest you can bet also on an absence of heroes. People averse behavior, exploitative work practices and rule via fear, edict and command are also anathema to the spawning and sustaining of corporate heroes.

Sadly, in much of the corporate world, the organizational language eschews the concept and substitutes a culture that is disparaging of heroes. Those who in fact aspire to greatness are variously put down, ridiculed  and pressured to rise nowhere other than to that of mediocrity. Cynicism prevails, self consciousness emerges and the person who otherwise might be a hero is crushed by conformity and the need to fit. Ordinariness and group think consumes all. Work becomes a refuge for those with nothing better to do. Attitudes that hold to ‘show-up and you’ll be okay’ prevail. The organizational lexicon might include references such as – ‘clown prince’, ‘rooster one day, feather duster the next’, ‘hero to zero’, ‘brown-noser’, ‘in bed with the boss’. These attitudes are often curiously sustained by managers who seek to ascribe to themselves, rather than their workers, the trappings of success and greatness. The grand office, the expense account, the company car, the private car parking spot, the annual bonus, the view from the window, the bar fridge and the like are then the demonstrable displays of success. This largess sends the message to those in servitude that only the few can attain omnipotence, wealth and status. Why have it any other way for surely the very best reside atop the corporate pyramid?

Some, a little self conscious perhaps about their apparent status, seek to engage in processes that afford the underlings some opportunity to compete for the scraps from the table of reward for performance. ‘Feel good’ schemes are then established to bestow upon the troops reward and recognition (RnR) for the job well done. These schemes are variously badged as – Employee of the Month, Achievement Award, Team of the Month, the Award for Excellence, Corporate Recognition Award, Above and Beyond, Customer Service Award, Rising Star, Beyond the Call, Salesperson of the Month et al. Many are lame attempts to recognize talent. Often everyone except the worst of performers gets a trophy and is cycled through the process. Each is to get their gong and a moment in the sunshine.

Some schemes are so insincere that they cause the generality of employees to cringe. Recipients are often soon forgotten just months or even weeks later. Few can remember the recipient or the basis of the award. Such schemes are just gimmicks and all should be saved the embarrassment. It is a mystery to me why so many organizations have dropped the words ‘thank-you’ from the language. A genuine ‘thank-you’ from the boss goes a long way and even further if it comes from the CEO. A ‘thank-you’ is far better than a scheme engineered in haste, built on bull-shit and delivered by a shyster. Did you know that around 75 per cent of employees report that they are starved of praise?

Real heroes and legends don’t just pop up to coincide with the weekly or monthly award. Sometimes months or even years might pass before one is found to be deserving of the most special, genuine and enduring form of corporate recognition. If awards are to be special and to have real meaning only the few will qualify. The real hero is rare but universally recognized as making contributions of exceptional value. There is an absence of controversy in their elevation. Sometimes heroes emerge with the passing of time, their contribution not having been seen for what it was in the time of their incumbency. This then makes for post incumbency and even posthumous awards.

It bodes us well to think about our own organization. How many can you name who are or were deserving of hero or legend status in the history of your workplace?

In the fields of industry, commerce and public administration you are very likely to struggle to name but a few, if anyone at all. Mostly this is for reason that such organizations are uncomfortable with the concept or that they have simply not turned their minds to it. Yet, if you work in an organization of say one or more thousand employees there are tens of thousands who have gone before you in its earlier corporate form or iteration. That you should struggle then is as indeed curious as it is worrying. With so many having given decades of their life to your employer it seems that their lot in history is to be consigned to anonymity and ordinariness with their contributions having gone unheralded and unnoticed. History repeats itself for you too are very likely to suffer the same fate, inglorious, profitless and lamentable as it might be. You stand a very good chance of being seen as having achieved little and yet doing it very well. Such is life in the corporate world. Even if you are spectacularly successful and exceptional the corporate annals of time will forget you. Corporate Alzheimer’s is alive and well!


Resurrect the Cult of the Corporate Hero:

Things need to change. Too many organizations live the moment. Without a sense of history and with an absence of heroes from the past they struggle with concepts of greatness. Those that otherwise might be elevated to legend status simply move on, pass away or retire to obscurity. Much is the pity for organizational icons and halls of fame promise the following:


i)    the organization is recognized as embracing and rewarding exceptional achievements and contributions in a special way

ii)    heroes set the agenda for others to aspire to

iii)   heroes help build and sustain the history, ethos and culture of the organization

iv)    heroes become and remain role models

v)     heroes help articulate the raison d’être of the organization itself

vi)     heroes, by their deeds, explain to the workplace generally that which is important in performance terms

vii)    the stories of the heroes help induct others into the workplace

viii)    hero recognition creates a workplace of choice in the competitive recruitment and employment marketplace

ix)     heroes project a message in a way that CEOs cannot, and

x)      heroes inspire


Organizations must revisit the cult of the hero and the legend and seek to find them in their midst. Recognition needs to be special, not necessarily expensive and never ostentatious. It ought never be gimmicky or contrived; just genuine and enduring. Imagination is needed in the resurrection of heroes. Heroes ought not be forgotten even after they have moved on, retired or died. Heroes enjoy their status beyond incumbency. Even those who, in furthering their careers, have resigned ought still enjoy their status. It should not matter at all if a hero moved on to work with a competitor for their contribution should be beyond forgetting. Yesterday’s heroes need to celebrate with the heroes of the present for these celebrations create and sustain a culture of success, achievement, reward and recognition yet more importantly, aspiration.


                                                Nurture your mind with great

                                                thoughts;  to believe in the heroic

                                                makes heroes.

                                                                        BENJAMIN DISRAELI


© From: Leadership with a ‘T’  a forthcoming eBook


It would be great to get some discussion going on reward and recognition and the thoughts and experiences of HR practitioners.


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