The Spark Blog

An occasional series of thoughts and reflections on the role of narrative in organizational change, branding and knowledge work

heroism and counterheroism: masters of the universe?

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Alicia Pickering, a long time friend of Sparknow, is working with us on ethical and cultural auditing. She writes about the problems that heroism brings in an institutional context. 

As other parents of primary school age children will know, last week was Book Week. And the climax of Book Week is Book Character Day, when our little darlings are invited to attend school dressed as a character from a book. At my children’s school, the theme this year was Heroes and Heroines. So I spent some time searching the internet for a sharply tailored suit, Jermyn Street shirt and designer silk tie sized for a 7-year old, because my son was not going to dress as a mere super hero. No caped crusader here. Oh no. My son was going as a Master of the Universe.

Tom Wolfe coined the phrase “Master of the Universe” to describe the self regard of Wall Street trader Sherman McCoy  in his 1987 book The Bonfire of the Vanities. A quarter of a century (and a couple of banking crises later) and the phrase still resonates amongst Wall Street bankers and City traders. In the aftermath of the LIBOR crises, e-mail exchanges between individuals at different banks referred to each other in congratulatory and exhortatory terms such as “the three muscateers [sic]”, “SUPERMAN”, “BE A HERO TODAY” and “captain caos [sic]” (see para 17 of the FSA letter to UBS)

The myth of The Hero – well embedded into the psyche of 7-year old children – clearly lives on in some adults. And this myth is not just found in comic books and a certain genre of film. Joseph Campell’s hero’s journey (“The Hero with A Thousand Faces” 1949) has exerted extraordinary, often counter-productive influence, via its journey to Hollywood, on business leader and communications assumptions around story structures, heroes and myths.

Recent history, however, suggests that heroism in the work place might not be such a good thing after all.  At a more prosaic level, I am far from alone in having observed the type of programme manager who almost let a crisis brew so that they could “be a hero” and very visibly be The One who sorted it out.   

 Acts of heroism are easy to spot and to praise. The chain of events (which often includes some or all of procrastination, disorganisation, lack of basic controls and occasionally rank incompetence) which leads to the need for the act of heroism (generally working a huge number of hours without a break, supported by black coffee, cigarettes and delivered pizza) does not appear to be looked at closely, far less castigated. And managers who manage such that they never have to be heroes, I would suggest, get less notice and, it often appears, less reward. The age old image of praise being given to those who put out fires (irrespective of the cause of the fire) as opposed to those who install fire alarms continues to ring true.

Heroism is, essentially, an individualistic act. Heroes don’t consult with their Board, their colleagues or their clients. There is no consensus building prior to taking action – decisions are unilateral and unchallenged. David Tuckett (indirectly) discusses this point within the context of banking in his influential work on emotional finance “Minding the Markets” (2011), which delves into the causes of the 2008 financial crash. Tuckett found that, despite significant quantities of financial data, traders use “gut feel” and/or “instinct” to make decisions on their trades. These decisions are unilateral, and “claimed” by the trader as his/her own. Tuckett is clear that this is not necessarily a bad thing, quoting Gigerenzer, Todd et al 1999: “Gut feeling and intuition can be reliable guides to successful decisions and actions.” Should the trade prove to be a poor trade, the trader will tend to shoulder responsibility to explain them away. However Tuckett concluded “I came to the view that explanations of misfortune were actually coping devices which did not really constitute taking responsibility to investigate what had happened.” Heroism within financial services may be necessary to enable traders to take risks; however this behaviour also makes the possibility of learning from mistakes difficult. (Tuckett’s work will be discussed more fully in another posting in this counterheroism short series by Aidan Prior.)  

Heroes do not build sustainable systems or leave succession plans to prevent the need for future heroes. There is no Batman Training Programme. As Dov Seidman argues, there is a need for heroes from time to time, but “You cannot build a great, enduring … company on the backs of superheroes”. He goes on to point out, “Leaders are not superheroes; they build succession and continuity into everything that they do.  They don’t build anything that depends on a single person to show up…” (“How: Why HOW We Do Anything Means Everything in Business (and in Life) ” pp 279 – 280, 2007).  Heroism may not be quite so … well heroic after all.

Recent press headlines re-enforce the perception that heroes may be on the way out. Headlines like “Goldman Sachs: The real masters of the universe come crashing down to earth” (Telegraph, 30 April 2010), tell their own story about prevailing attitudes, as does Methodical financiers replace ‘masters of the universe’Boring bankers take over from high-octane predecessors”.  This article (Financial Times 16 October 2012) continues:  “There are few bankers running Wall Street institutions these days a before the financial crisis. Mike Corbat’s elevation … as Citigroup’s next chief executive adds another methodical financier to a growing group of low-profile bank bosses.” And adds that shares rose 6%.

So is “methodical” now seen by investors as a better bet than a “Master of the Universe”?  Perhaps quiet, unheroics offer a better way forward for embattled banks?  After all, Aristotle said “We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit”. Which sounds about as far away from heroics as it is possible to get.


About Alicia Pickering  

Alicia was leading the Accenture side of a knowledge management engagement with HM Customs & Excise in the early 2000s when Sparknow were brought in. We did a cracking job, over a couple of years, of making the most of Accenture’s beef and Sparknow’s flavouring and the client noted, in evaluations, how much more value we’d given as a double act than either would have given on their own. She’s recently left Accenture, having been working most recently in change management and in banking, and is working closely with Sparknow on developing our ethical auditing offer. She has the Freedom of the City of London.


This is the first in a short series of postings that different Sparknow associates and partners will write exploring heroism and counterheroism tactics in today’s workplace.  It’s a telling coincidence that today’s Guardian G2 has an extract from an essay by Eric Hobsbawn on the myth of the cowboy.

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