The culture of heroes is killing our business

We used to have a process.

Another company, another similar statement. When employee X was still there, we had a strong process. As soon as he left, the knowledge went with him. Of course, that person has left files on the server, might have handed over some pieces of their work to a willing colleague and might even have designed a fancy task list they uploaded somewhere safe. All is good in backup land.

But as soon as they got through the door, their legacy disappeared with them.

They are amazing when they are here, simply because they fix things in real time.

You always have one, that one individual who solves every problem for others. It might actually be you. You might be the problem.

Heroes in shining armours are why businesses fail. People rely on them. Companies get built around them. They are the death of a sustainable company culture.

I want to be dispensable, even before I quit (or get fired).

It took me a long time to figure this one out. It has such a nice ring to it, to be the one in charge, doesn’t it? The one people call when they need help. Being the one who saves the day, just because you can.

But the reality is that you’re just a parasite to your business. By preventing others to take charge and ownership, you’re preventing your company from achieving its best. If you were to be ran over by a bus tomorrow, nothing would be left of your legacy.

In the past couple of years, I developed this really bad habit of trying to save the day.

As a creative lead, it’s easy to be mislead in thinking that being a lone wolf (half-dictatorial, half-mad genius) is a valid selling proposition. Role models and historical creative figures always highlight a single individual, never a team. Think Steve Jobs or Don Draper maybe.

Here’s the scoop: it doesn’t work this way.

It sure does for a while. But as much as Apple thrived as a design driven company while Jobs was alive, the legacy will only remain for as long as the organisation itself has been allowed to absorb and internalize those principles.

As much as I wanted to be everywhere, because you know, I thought I was so much better than my peers, this didn’t cut it to make my organisation the best in class creative environment I was hoping for. As a matter of fact, this could only happen if everyone else was achieving the standards that I had set for myself. But I was getting in the way for them to get there, and I might still be.

The role of a creative leader is top become, undeniably, replaceable.

Fortunately, I played Theme Hospital.

If you’ve never had a chance to play this game, it is exactly as the name suggests. A hospital simulator, where you, as a player, are in charge of building and maintaining a care facility. As the game progresses you have to hire, train and retain doctors, build new annexes, and research new equipments while battling spurts of random diseases and alien attacks.

As in every simulation game, the complexity lies in creating a sustainable base to ensure growth and resilience. If done wrong, you end up putting out fires every minute you play.

As in every simulation game, and as in business, the goal is not to play the game, but let the game play itself.

In this particular set-up, the only way to beat the game is to have your “doctors” become “surgeons”. When they reach that level, not only are they specialists in their core discipline, but they can also teach and train new hires. Your set-up becomes self-sustained and all you have to worry about is giving them enough space to work.

At this point, I’m trying to get my whole team to a surgeon level. I hope to give them all enough tools so that they can teach and grow others in the same direction. Every customer, hire or colleague they work with will hopefully get trained as well, inexorably pushing the whole of our group forward to become the best in class creative environment we’re wishing for.

Getting out of the way.

It’s the hardest part of this game.

We all want to believe we’re better than others at some things. Truth is, we might even be. But facilitating and creating a growth space for others is much harder than “just doing it yourself”.

Every single time you do someone else’s job (being pushing something a couple of pixels to the left, or making their presentation, or taking that one difficult talk with a colleague), you’re stealing away their opportunity to learn something new, or to do something better.

Leading by teaching is hard. It’s humbling. It’s sometimes infuriating.

It’s not as time efficient as a good old leading by doing management.

But if you have to leave a legacy behind, wouldn’t it be nice if it was “she left us a pile of gold” rather than “she left us with a big hole”?

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