The shadows of a startup hero

Who doesn’t want to be a hero? Heroes come in at the height of the crisis, perform some superhuman feat and save the day, leaving into the sunset, their cape trailing behind. Let’s talk about the shadows of a hero.

A shadow is an unconscious aspect of the personality that the conscious ego doesn’t identify in itself. All startups have heroes, people who work hard and over-deliver, who feel, often rightfully so, that the company’s very survival depends on them and act accordingly. Without such people startups just die. However, this behaviour is sometimes associated with interesting shadows that may be more counterproductive than heroes expect.

Being a hero is hard but it’s also highly rewarding. Everyone knows that the company is alive thanks to these heroes and their incredible efforts and self-sacrifice. This is gratifying: it allows the hero to justify their role and importance, often subconsciously.

There are two associated shadows. One is that there’s less of an incentive to help the hero’s own team to do great work together. This work is often invisible and unrecognised by many. Instead of flying into the sunset, the hero will need to quietly rejoice in the knowledge that the team as a whole has achieved a great result thanks to their help behind the scenes.

Another shadow is the perverse disincentive to prevent crises in the first place. If the intrinsic motivation of a hero hinges on saving something or someone, they may be — often without realising it — seeing a crisis as an opportunity to be a hero rather than something that shouldn’t have happened in the first place. The reason is that prevention is often unrecognised, whereas saving the world is a highly visible feat.

Ultimately, these shadows lock the person in their hero role and prevent personal and professional growth.

A hero can ask themselves a number of questions. Am I a hero? Why do I choose to play this role? What price are the company, the team and I paying for this behaviour? What pleases my ego? What are the implications? Crucially, how can my ego be aligned with the goals of the company and the team?

Frank conversations with someone who can ask these questions and clear understanding of the role the person wants, consciously, be playing are two mechanisms that will help to bring these shadows into the open. This will open the way for significant personal and professional growth that wouldn’t happen in the presence of hero’s shadows.

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