Workplace Culture: The Career Minded Individual and Heroic Leader Myths
Jul 11, 2018
Where does teamwork fit in a workplace culture where everyone is career minded? When everyone independently pursues their self-interest and aspires to be a heroic leader, there isn’t much room left for true collaboration.
We celebrate and measure leadership against an ideal of the heroic leader in many of our workplace cultures. We see one another as independent individuals, each maximizing our choices in life, and pursuing the freedom to make those choices.
When it comes to the world of work, we want to be recognized for our achievements and personal potential. So where does collaboration and teamwork really fit in our workplace culture?
Career Minded Individuals
Many of us consider ourselves career minded and build personal stories about our work lives. As we prepare for our performance reviews, we craft and practice retelling stories that illuminate our potential and remind reviewers of our achievements as independent individuals.
Depending on our workplace culture and our working relationships, conversations with our superiors can carry a vague sense of performance review. Acknowledged or not, we might approach such conversations as if they really are informal performance reviews.
Even when we talk about teamwork and collaboration in such conversations, we talk about our individual talents as collaborators. When we talk about team success, we look for our personal actions and decisions that led to successful outcomes.
As career minded individuals, we expect to be rewarded for our personal achievements. We see our gradual career advancement as a signal that others recognize our personal potential.
Three Heroic Leader Myths
We are primed by culture to formulate our personal stories with ourselves at center-stage. We each become the main character and bona fide hero in a great adventure unfolding before and about us.
Our notions of independent individualism are reflected in how we interpret and retell our heroic leader stories. The heroic leader is often a self-made individual who, despite personal adversity, is ultimately successful in their self-chosen goals.
Heroic leader narratives are not the only kinds of stories we tell, but they’re the loudest celebrations of independent individualism. These stories can influence the shape of stories we generate about ourselves.
1. The Heroic Leader in Search of Authenticity
Many pop culture narratives tell of a heroic leader who overcomes adversity embodied as society. Sometimes, the hero’s family becomes the symbol for such a society. In these stories, the alienated hero succeeds despite family resistance.
More poignant are those stories in which we understand the heroic leader’s family are imposters. We learn that our hero was adopted. The hero’s search for authentic origins launches their journey of personal transformation into the heroic leader.
There is often a nostalgic final twist in these stories. The hero discovers his / her noble heritage, but only after this heritage has faded beyond recognition. In the end, the heroic leader alone remains to carry forward the family legacy and rebuild hope for the future. This twist provides a certain satisfying sentimentality and reinforcement of the heroic leader myth. Modern fictional heroes Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter loosely fit this template.
2. The Heroic Leader Delivering Righteous Vengeance
Our more violent stories take the hero’s alienation to the extreme and frame their family as true adversaries deserving of retribution. There is no personal transformation into a heroic leader in these stories. We simply follow along the trail of destruction, learning the back story as the self-reliant hero overcomes the obstacles placed by their adversaries and by a corrupt and uncaring society. Eventually, the mayhem culminates in the heroic leader skillfully exacting their righteous vengeance.
Within the revenge film genre, The Bride in Kill Bill and El Mariachi in Desperado come to mind. The exaggerated independence and alienation of these heroes becomes obvious when we realize that we never learn their names.
3. The Heroic Leader Rising to Protect the Innocent
Other movies directly pit our self-reliant hero against the horrific, personified consequences of a corrupt society. We watch our heroes as they rise to take responsibility and act with distinction. Their heroics unfold as those with authority and clear responsibility fail to act.
We notice a heroic transformation, because these heroes initially seemed to be ordinary people. Our heroes become heroic after recognizing the impending danger that others deny.
In these stories, adversaries are monstrous. These monsters are magnified forces of nature that become dangerous because of a corrupt and over-reaching society. The heroes in two movies from my childhood, Martin Brody in Jaws and Ellen Ripley in Aliens, are typical examples. Brody and Ripley are each quick to recognize the impending danger and implore the authorities to act.
We watch in horror as the technical experts fail due to their lack of wisdom, excessive pride, or cowardice. In their efforts to protect the innocent, Brody and Ripley each reluctantly assume command and eventually face the monsters alone.
Our heroes prevail through the expression of virtue. Humility tells them that the odds and potential consequences are terrible. Compassion for humanity compels them to act. Armed with basic tools and the wisdom to use what they’ve learned, they find the courage to face and defeat the horror. (1)
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The Heroic Leader is Independent and Complete
In all these pop-culture stories, we watch our self-reliant hero express their virtuous character in righteous action. Their self-reliance is possible because they alone in these stories have a true read on reality.
These heroes choose their own path, independent of society. We are swept along as they forge ahead on their heroic, self-reliant journeys. They collaborate with others at times, but such collaboration is eclipsed by their heroics.
We reinterpret any collaboration as the hero’s instrumental pursuit of learning and development towards their self-perfection. Cue the triumphant anthem and montage.
The Heroic Leader is an Unrealistic Fiction
All these examples of lone heroes are fictions. In the real world, no one has an unequivocal read on reality. The most enduring leaders collaborate rather than dominate the apparently flawed humans around them.
We are not independent individuals with impenetrable borders encapsulating and protecting our authentic selves from the corruption beyond. Those are the mythic qualities of the fictional heroic leader. If we see ourselves as leaders, then we are collaborative leaders at our best. Otherwise we only lead our personal lives, protecting our precious opinions behind borders of imagined self-reliance.
Our cultural preoccupation with independent individualism blinds us. Do we avoid looking at life on a larger scale as we focus in on our personal lives?
American Professor of Literature, Joseph Campbell tried to remind us of this larger scale. “Full circle, from the tomb of the womb to the womb of the tomb, we come: an ambiguous, enigmatical incursion into the world of solid matter that is soon to melt from us, like the substance of a dream. And, looking back at what had promised to be our unique, unpredictable, and dangerous adventure, all we find in the end is such a series of standard metamorphoses as men and women have undergone in every quarter of the world, in all recorded centuries, and under every odd disguise of civilization.” (2)
The Threat of a Larger Perspective
In the affluent West, we have difficulty taking comfort in Campbell’s words of the larger life-scheme. We’re horrified by this challenge to the ultimate relevance and significance of our own independent individual lives. We defend our individualistic significance by framing our life stories as the heroic leader’s “unique, unpredictable, and dangerous adventure.”
Ironically, the original purpose of myths and rituals was to help individuals understand their part in a greater scheme. “The tribal ceremonies of birth, initiation, marriage, burial, installation, and so forth, serve to translate the individual’s life-crises and life-deeds into classic, impersonal forms… The whole society becomes visible to itself as an imperishable living unit. Generations of individuals pass, like anonymous cells from a living body; but the sustaining, timeless form remains.” (3)
As the Borg say, “Resistance is Futile”
We are social creatures. Our assumptions and perceptions are interconnected with our cultures. Our culture prompts us to see ourselves as independent individuals, dislocated from the larger life-scheme of humanity. We believe in our right to define ourselves and create our own relevance beyond any social context.
Regardless, we still behave like anonymous cells from a living body. As consumers, we become anonymous actors in free markets. Unfortunately, such market anonymity doesn’t bring us the larger meaning or the life-affirming nobility that traditional roles did.
As we seek larger meaning, we might challenge our perception of independence. We might then open new possibilities for our relationships and our adopted roles.
Can We Authentically Embrace Collaboration?
If we can relax our preoccupation with being self-defined, we might notice how culture influences us. With this richer perception, can we resist the urge to live our heroic leader myths? Will we listen to the perspectives of others and collaborate for collective success?
Instrumental collaboration is all-too-common among us career minded individuals and heroic leaders. We participate, but we do so to advance our goals of recognition and development. Altruistic collaboration is the higher form of teamwork that opens more choices in our shared responses to the world. We might together make better decisions and take more appropriate action, especially in our most ambiguous situations.
Supported by enriched relationships and open dialogue, we expand the possibilities for our mutually assigned roles and identities. Through practices of shared interpretation, decision-making, and action, we elevate collaborative ways in our culture. As we stop seeing ourselves as heroic leaders, we start making sense of this larger life together.
Authentic Collaboration for the Career Minded Individual
Do you consider yourself career minded? Do you aspire to be a heroic leader? If you truly believe in teamwork, then it might be time to reflect on the following questions:
- Is teamwork and collaboration genuinely valued and celebrated, or are individuals rewarded for individual contributions?
- Are your most important working relationships high trust and collegial, or are they low-trust and transactional or hierarchical?
- How would you characterize your workplace? Is communication open and honest? Is it safe to express ideas and opinions in the spirit of improving workplace culture and teamwork?
Depending on your responses to these questions, do you dare raise them with your colleagues and bosses? What would become possible if people in your workplace began openly talking about workplace culture and teamwork? What kind of collaborators and leaders will you and your colleagues recognize, support, and aspire to become?
(1) Philosopher Joseph Kupfer explores moral completeness in Jaws and Aliens in his 1999 book “Visions of Virtue in Popular Film.”
(2) Refer to Joseph Campbell’s 1949 book “The Hero with a Thousand Faces.” Quotation from pages 12-13.
(3) Quotation from “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” page 343.
(4) Quotations from an article by Stanley Milgram, “The Perils of Obedience.” Harper’s Magazine, December 1973.
About the Image
This image, composed by the author in Adobe Illustrator, uses licensed Adobe Stock vectors #106472919 and #106472845.
About the Author
James David Thomas is a leadership coach and training facilitator, with a background in engineering and management. He is an alumnus of Harvard Business School and a Certified Executive Coach. He helps leaders collaborate and team members participate.
James grew up in Newcastle, Australia, a traditionally working-class city with fantastic beaches. He lives in Hamilton, Ontario (another traditionally working-class city) with wife Erika, and their two fearless sons, Miles (age 4) and Oliver (age 2).
This post is based on excerpts from his 2018 book An Unselfish Perspective: A Self-Help Book by a Self-Help Skeptic. Visit www.leadteamculture.com/books for a free preview and localized Amazon purchasing links.