The Urgency of Post-Heroism

You care about doing the right thing, and yet, are you being deeply helpful?

You want this new project done right, but you find that your colleague is doing it all wrong. What you’re thinking: “I’m better off doing it all myself.”

There’s this guy that’s coming up with these new crazy ideas. You’re telling yourself: “I see where he’s going with this. He wants to change everything. Unless I resist, everything will be up in the air. I have to put my foot down.”

Changes are coming in the job market, and you feel anxiety because there’s no place for a guy like you.

You and your boss are having a disagreement. You see it one way, and she sees it the other. There’s an impasse, and there’s no way you can go any further.

All of a sudden, you missed a big opportunity that you didn’t see coming. You’re thinking: “How can I have missed this?”

If one of these stories rings true, it’s a good sign! It means that you care, that you want to do the right thing. What isn’t great is the part where you feel defensive, conflicted, protective or ashamed. Maybe you can’t help it. That said, the problem is that you’re falling in a common decision-making trap, the trap of heroism.

Heroism, and what comes after

There are those who just seem to get a lot of stuff done. They show humility, they care for others, they’re deeply knowledgable, and yet they trust others. They’re surrounded by the top performers. There’s something admirable about these people. Maybe you aspire to be at their level. But what’s their trick?

Diagram of the levels at which leaders operate, the heroic levels and the post-heroic levels

Bill Joiner and Stephen A. Josephs, in their book titled Leadership Agility, describe five main levels at which leaders can operate. There are the heroic levels (the Expert, the Achiever), and above the line, the post-heroic levels (the Catalyst, the Cocreator, and the Synergist). Most people operate at heroic levels, and a minority have learned how to reach the post-heroic levels: levels allowing new things to happen, where more lasting innovations occur, where groups operate at high efficiency and at high effectiveness.

People who reach post-heroic levels don’t seem to fall in common traps. For them, it seems easy to solve big and important problems. How do they do it? How can you reach post-heroic levels too? Surely, these people care, they want to do the right thing just like you. It’s just that they developed a subtle ability: to take the lead over their ego.

The best you

Wanting to save a situation, putting your foot down, acting like a hero, that’s all normal. And yet, as you’re about to take that action, you know that something is missing. You know you’re not being as effective as you could, and you can tell because you’re reacting, you’re conflicted, you’re falling short of your own ideals. Somehow, you fell in a trap of your own making. Falling into these decision-making traps is the act of the ego. It’s not all your fault: you’re wired to protect your ego, or rather, your ego has evolved to protect itself.

If acting heroically is the act of the ego, acting post-heroically is the act of the best you. That best you exists, but it’s not the one in charge most of the time. The best you is like a second version of you that’s looking over what your ego is doing. When the best you is at work, it sees your ego doing odd things and it takes action.

To train your best you at spotting when you’re ego is at work, it helps to know that your mind skews and distorts information coming in through the senses. Your mind has lenses that colour what you see before the image gets in. Your interpretations get confused with what you see. Your conclusions are drawn even before all the information comes in. Your prejudices speak louder than the truth. Interpretations, prejudices, conclusions, biases, labels, convictions, and the oppositions we perceive: those are the things the ego protects. And spotting these things is the trick of those who achieve post-heroic actions. These things are described by some as mental models. They’re also called paradigms, narratives, and world views.

To learn more, I wrote about mental models in more detail in another article. Learning about mental models and how to spot them has been a huge help for me. I still end up falling in some heroic patterns all the time, it’s just that I catch myself doing so. I spot my mental models, and I choose a different option. I get to continue to care and to do the right thing more often.

With the fast-changing world we have, with big and important problems to solve, I find there’s no more urgent need for those who care to learn to act post-heroically. I hope you take up the challenge.

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