Starting and running a business off the ground is no easy task. It takes time, energy, and persistence to get it on its feet and keep it going. And when you add employees to the mix, the issues are magnified. Then, as the owner or leader, you may want to fly in and save the day. This is fine every once in a while, but there is a problem if you are doing this regularly. Because when you play Hero in your own life or business, you’re limiting your success and maybe even undermining your team. So how do we stop being Heroes?
Mindset matters, so step one is to be aware that you’re playing Hero. Step two is to get honest with yourself. That means you need to realize that as much as you might feel like it’s a burden to have to do everything yourself or to step in and save the day for your team or company, you continue to do it because you’re getting some benefits from it. And once you acknowledge that, you can start unlearning the habit and develop your leadership skills instead.
Am I The Hero?
Take the following statements:
“I can’t rely on anyone else to do it the way it needs to be done.”
“No one can do it as well as I can.”
“I don’t get anything done because everyone comes to me with questions all the time.”
Do they sound familiar? Is this something you find yourself thinking or saying a lot in your business or life? If so, then there’s a strong chance you have created a culture and environment in your company or team where you are required to save the day.
It may have started innocently enough, but it’s possible that through your actions, you trained your team to stop taking the initiative and to wait for you to tell them what to do. This creates a vicious cycle because you become frustrated. After all, there isn’t enough of you to go around.
I have seen this very independent, take-charge personality trait not only in the women I’ve worked with but also in myself. Sometimes this behavior comes from well-balanced opportunities throughout life to gain confidence in oneself. But for many women, fierce independence is the survival tactic we developed as we played the Hero in the family.
How did we become Heroes?
When talking about the Hero in this article, I’m not referring to Joseph Campbell’s mythological version that leaders often attempt to replicate. I’m talking about the kind of Hero family therapist Virginia Satir noted in 1988 as a way to bring order to a family experiencing hardships and challenges.
By studying families for decades, she noted that the child’s role in the family is in response to compensating for dysfunctions in communication. She also saw that this role becomes the basis for shaping the personality of the adult the child grows into, and the more the child played it, the harder it was to change.
Of the five primary roles that researchers and therapists have seen develop in families, the Hero Child is one most entrepreneurs and business leaders can identify with, including me.
In many families, the Hero Child role lands on the shoulders of the oldest born. This child then picks up the additional responsibilities of caring for younger siblings, taking on household jobs to relieve the burden of one or both parents. Unlike the other family roles, A Hero Child is usually given or assumes responsibilities that are more than what a child should take on. The Hero Child grows up with the belief that their job is to sacrifice their own needs to save everyone else. And as Hero Children grow older, they continue to be the ones everyone comes to for advice, financial support, and sometimes more.
While being a solid rock to lean on is admirable, being a Hero does not make you a true leader and not the leader your organization needs. Further, this role could also be such a strong presence in your life everywhere that who you are is buried underneath this sense of responsibility that was unfairly placed on you.
So it’s crucial for your well-being that you learn how to stop playing the Hero role in your company. And to do that, you have to start with getting honest with yourself and ask yourself this next fundamental question.
What benefits am I getting when I am the Hero?
In business, the most significant benefit we think we are getting from being the Hero is that the work gets done, right? On the other hand, we also know that we aren’t as effective as we could be because we’re busy doing everything ourselves. So, then that must mean that even though we hate it, we continue because there are usually other benefits we don’t realize we are getting that keep us from changing our ways.
For example, suppose your staff is not performing the way you want, and you don’t know how to change it. In that case, the benefit from being the Hero is that you get to avoid the uncomfortable feeling you have about not learning how to lead and manage your staff to better results. So you pick up the slack because you choose the lesser of two evils: work on figuring out to manage or take on the labor and do it all yourself.
Another benefit, quite frankly, is the ego-stroking saving the day brings. The pats on the back, the applause from the grateful common folk, the confirmation that you are a hard worker are all things that make us feel good about ourselves and that what we are doing matters.
However, the need to seek these affirmations is a carryover from playing a role in our family. And when someone told us, “I don’t know what we’d ever do without you,” we learned that to be valuable and accepted meant we needed to be a Hero. And that’s a brutal way for a kid to grow up.
Here’s another benefit most people don’t realize they are getting by stepping in saving the day — it’s a distraction from their work!
Being an entrepreneur or leader in your company has piles of responsibilities associated with it. It also requires a high degree of self-agency or an ability to keep yourself focused, motivated, and control your own needs.
The problem is that if you have some robust wiring towards taking care of other people’s needs over your own, self-agency can be tricky. Suppose your family relied on you heavily to stay in your Hero lane. In that case, your attempts at any self-agency may have been punished out of you through rejection or guilt. If that happened, then it’s understandable that when you find yourself emotionally struggling to stay focused on your tasks, projects, or work you know you need to do for yourself, you fall back on what’s familiar — taking care of everyone else.
This so-called benefit is challenging because we can justify it by saying we’re still doing important work. Still, in reality, we’re just avoiding the effort it takes for us to keep ourselves on track. And we could be fighting against voices in our head, shaming us for not helping other people.
That’s why this bears repeating: The greater the dysfunction we grew up with, the stronger the need for us to play the Hero in our family, the harder it will be to break away.
But the double-edged sword is that when we want to do something for ourselves, like bring on help, hire a business coach to build our skills, or even pay ourselves, it doesn’t feel right to think of our needs. We immediately justify not doing any of those things for the sake of the company.
So, be honest with yourself here because this question can be the most revealing for yourself.
The role of the Hero is to save the day (and be a hero) by taking on all tasks, answering every email and phone call, never letting anything go undone, and putting ourselves in harm’s way. And even if we know better, it’s a role that many leaders continue to play in their business and personal lives. But as you continue being the Hero more often than not, your success becomes dependent on playing this role, and your results will be limited.
To stop playing Hero means looking inwardly for motivation about why we do what we do to cultivate new skill sets while still feeling fulfilled with our work and life commitments. What small change could you make today to develop this awareness?