“selective focus photography of boy wearing black Batman cape” by TK Hammonds on Unsplash

The Superhero Syndrome of L&D

So, yeah, I’m the guy that shakes his head when someone thinks Batman is a member of the MCU, can’t tell the difference between the various Captain Marvels, they mix up Justice League and Avengers, and when someone tells me that there are too many superhero movies (not a thing, it’s the quality, not the quantity).

Everybody likes a good hero journey, and these movies exploit that very explicitly, because… well, they’re all about heroes, and, um… their journeys.

It’s Human Nature

We all like a good hero story because it does two things very well: it mirrors a glorified approach to our life allowing us to feel that we can “come out on top”, and it presents an escapist opportunity to draw ourselves away from reality. Good stories, done well, put the audience in the hero-seat as it’s being told. We all like to be heroes, in some shape or form. It’s just human nature. We like to feel valued in a way that is publicly or privately acknowledged, or, help us feel self-worth.

The challenge is to find a balance between the assumption of inherent value (I’m a super-hero just because I can do something), and the value that we bring to the outside world (others believe we are a super-hero because we helped them).

In business and academia, we project this heroism into the value we bring through our profession. After all, if we weren’t providing value to someone, somewhere, we wouldn’t have a job. Right? This is best represented through client, customer, or external user-based value. In other words, these audiences show the value through the amount of personal resources they give (money, time, devotion, etc…) to your product, service, or experience. In the customer-centric world we live in, it’s imperative.

Are we worthy?

Which brings me to a very comfortable exception: internal business functions, sometimes known as “cost-centers” because they “cost” the business something, instead of being revenue-generating. In the case of this article, I’m focusing on Learning and Development. Yeah, that’s right, you know who you are.

Within Learning and Development (lots of different names for these internal organizations, but let’s keep it at L&D for now), we are in a never-ending mission to prove ourselves worthy in the eyes of the business. If you think about it, this makes sense, because, again, we’re usually a cost-center for the business (i.e. we need to justify the cost to keep the L&D lights on).

We’re just not worthy…

However, what some businesses get, and we (L&D) often forget, is that we are NOT the hero. In our rush to prove our worthiness, sometimes we claim that we’re going to come in and change business results simply by the push of a button, the release of an eLearning course, the delivery of an instructor-led event, the facilitation of a webinar, the redesign of compliance content, a new curriculum, etc... etc… We believe that WE are the hero, the super-hero, that possesses a special ability to drive business results, transform culture, manage change, and quite literally, save the day. We can’t.

It’s not me, it’s you

Our role isn’t to BE the super-hero, rather, empower, enable, and encourage those who ARE super-heroes… the employees. They have the power to change culture, drive business results, and surf the technological disruption affecting both. We need to take a step back and say “Wait a second, what can I do to help them do their jobs better? What can I do to make the employee a super-employee?”

In a human-centered approach, we should not be saying “look at what I did!”, “look at what I built!”, thinking that we have done something miraculous that changed the face of corporate learning. Rather, we need to put this notion aside and take a very simplistic approach… we are not the hero. But, we can make heroes out of others. If there is ANY super-power we possess, it is that. We can help create super-heroes out of others. If you make that mental shift in the way you think about L&D, you’ll begin to realize the potential and nature of your impact.

In a digital transformative world, it’s challenging sometimes to think this way. We are pressured to deliver human experiences through digital means. We can fall into the trap of building or reimagining a learning experience using digital technology and then thinking we’ve created something wonderful and valuable simply because we’ve used new or emerging tech. We sometimes don’t ask “Can the employees do their job better?” after that experience.

We should challenge ourselves to not only make employees better versions of themselves, but, the very best versions of themselves.

We’re the guy in the chair

I get it, everyone wants to be the hero. The definition and state of heroism varies from person to person, and much has been written about “We’re all heroes!” and “You’re not a hero”. And, to be honest, there should be someone supporting us in our hero-journey as professionals.

Design thinking professionals get this. Human performance design professionals get this. User Experience design professionals get this. Community managers get this. Let’s move in that direction.

Come to the realization that we can’t control every aspect of the learning environment or process, but we can optimize and influence it. We can’t create a corporate learning culture, but we can encourage and model it. We can’t guarantee behaviour or attitude change, but we can design a unique and safe environment that will enable and empower it.

Why and how? Because, we ARE learning professionals. That’s our super-power.

We are not Super Mario. But, we can cultivate the fire flower.

We are not Batman. But, we can add to the utility belt.

We are not Daredevil. But, we can nudge him in the direction of a chemical spill (learning can be painful, but hey, it can provide awareness).

We are not Captain Marvel. But, we can connect her to an expert that can accelerate change.

We are not Spider-Man. But, we can be the guy in the chair.

We are not the knight riding in on a white horse. We’re the squire. We’re the stable-boy. We’re the blacksmith. The challenge is to embrace those roles, become the best we can be, and smile when the knight saves the day.

Philomath. Storyteller. Tech Guy. Movie Nerd. Soccer Player. Not a rock star. Not a ninja. Not a guru. I’m only as smart as the people around me think I am.