Helpful Heroes

I received a text from a friend recently which included a picture. The picture was of a ten-storey building in downtown Calgary. On one side was an impressively painted mural. My friend has been involved for a long time with the Calgary Homeless Foundation. His text proudly noted that the picture was of what was now a building that would be able to provide shelter and a home for over 80 families, an impressive accomplishment to be sure. What was even more remarkable is the commitment and contributions of my friend and others over a long period of time. He has been involved with the foundation since its inception twenty-four years ago. This is the biggest project that has come to fruition during his efforts with them.

As well-intended as the purpose of a non-profit may be, they are just as likely to be rife with bureaucracy and petty politics as other organizations. Bruised egos and clashes of priorities are common headaches afflicting those involved. Moreover, people come and go. Reasonable people can rightly question whether their contributions are making any difference to those they intend to serve. My friend was not immune to either these difficulties or doubts. Nothing about his time with the organization has been a smooth, steady uptick. Homelessness in this city was and remains a problem. Real people have and are suffering. Not everyone has been able to be successfully saved. Yet, through this backdrop he’s put his head down and contributed year after year. He’s done this as one of several volunteer commitments coupled with a hectic work pace and personal life. Through these twenty-four years, he’s changed jobs several times increasing his responsibilities. He’s become a father and raised two daughters which are both now attending University. He’s been busy but has never wavered in his commitment to the cause of reducing homelessness in Calgary.

His actions, in my mind, are admirable. They reflect the words written by Ryan Holiday in Discipline is Destiny, “The self-disciplined don’t berate. They don’t ask for anything. They just do their job.” My friend has put his head down and served, month after month, year after year, and continues. His goal is to make a contribution to the mission. He’s not seeking personal benefits of any kind. He long ago lost interest in padding his resume. Attention or recognition aren’t a concern. The only objective is making a difference to those that are down on their luck and suffering in their own way. He’s fueled by a positive purpose and this drives his focus that has sustained decades of service.

Part of cultivating your character involves determining the types of characteristics you admire. We do this by observing people like my friend. What is it about someone’s actions that attracts you? For me, my friend represents selfless commitment over decades. His contributions are not “have tos” but “get tos.” He looks forward to helping and giving of himself. As former soldier and now US Congressman, Dan Crenshaw, writes in his book Fortitude, “Throughout your life, you have people you look up to. You have noticed the way a teacher, parent, coworker, mentor, or friend interacts with others, and you come away thinking, ‘That behavior simply works better.’ They are respected, admired, and successful, and you find yourself wondering why that is. You are noticing attributes and character traits that are good and worth aspiring to.” Said differently, in the Bhagavad Gita, the spiritual book of Hindu, there’s a line that offers, “The path that a great man follows becomes a guide to the world.”

The late wife of a friend of mine offered a separate compelling example of dignity and grace. She immigrated to Canada as a trained physician. While working to have her credentials recognized in Canada she found a place to work within her husband’s technology firm. She would meet you with a consistent demeanor. She presented with a calm and curious disposition. She always was interested in you and came with questions about how things were going with you personally. A few years after having her first daughter, she received the awful diagnosis of breast cancer. She sought treatment and managed as many natural aspects of her healthcare as she could as well. She maintained her consistent temperament throughout her ordeal and soldiered through tough treatments while continuing to add value through her work, bring current her medical training, and focus as a mother. She made progress against the disease as the Cancer remitted.

She then gave birth to twin girls. With her three daughters she had her hands full. While all the girls were under seven years of age the Cancer returned. Knowing the disease, the doctor’s prognosis, and her training, she recognized the severity of her circumstances. Again, she sought treatments and endured the struggle with not just a calm almost accepting approach, but one that was incredibly constructive. This time the disease took hold and got the upper hand. In spite of her and her doctors’ efforts, the Cancer spread. Concurrent with her fight, she gave thought to the future. Accepting that she may not be part of her family’s future she took steps to ensure care would be there for those she loved most. She thought of a friend that lived in the UK and invited her to Canada to visit. She, effectively, set up a girlfriend with her husband with hopes that a connection would result. On some level she was seeking her own replacement to ensure both her husband and her daughters would have someone ready to step in and help. Yes, there’s some cultural aspects to this, but the selflessness of this perspective is remarkable. Even in the late stages, her focus was on leaving memories of a strong fighter for her daughters. She remained committed to supporting her family as a focus over her own suffering. She didn’t fall into a pity party and wallow in what was being taken away. She faced reality square on and controlled what she could to continue to be of value to those she cared for the most. Though lost long before forty she had a fortitude that was admirable. The selflessness and constructive action in the face of suffering are two aspects of her journey that resonated deeply in me as I watched through my small window of contact with them.

Does your organization have heroes? Does it consciously offer examples of positive behaviors exhibited by others as reflecting the values of the organization? Your heroes can be individuals or other businesses. If it is another business, what is it about the business that you’re holding up as an example to follow? Is it just their financial results or a specific, concrete example of their strategy? If it is an individual, what specific character traits or actions of the individual are of interest? Do these apply to staff in your organization independent of their role or is the hero archetype offered as being specific to a particular job function? How are your heroes presented and communicated within your organization? Have you considered creating a caricature that exhibits the precise behaviors and values that you would like your staff and organization to represent? This could become an avatar that is embedded in corporate training materials. How would they dress? How do they present themselves? What kind of preparation are they willing to undertake?

David McCullough’s biography of President Theodore Roosevelt notes the biography of Roosevelt “is the story of a small boy who read about great men and decided he wanted to be like them.” Warren Buffett offers as his success a similar source to that of President Roosevelt noting, “The best thing I did was to choose the right heroes.” Buffett prompts us to consider the question, “Who do you look up to as role models, mentors, or examples in your life?” Catherine Hoke writes of her personal experience getting intentional with idolizing in A Second Chance. Hoke writes, “It was time to start getting advice from people who I actually want to be like when I grow up.” Our heroes don’t have to arrive from within our immediate peers. Yes, we need exposure to them, but that doesn’t necessarily mean physical contact. We don’t need to depend on whom our culture presents as heroes. We can look past athletes and musicians and seek historical figures. The candidate pool for our cherished characteristics is the entire world and our entire history. We’re limited only by our willingness to look. Barrett Brooks offers a great question to spur our search writing, “Who haven’t I been exposed to that would inspire me if I knew they existed or knew the details of their lives? And how could I learn about those people?”

Our heroes don’t have to be 100% of the character and personality of a real-world individual. The beauty of picking things to which to aspire is that we can cherry-pick bits and pieces from several people, both people we know, don’t know, and even fictional characters. Our personal hero becomes an amalgamation of these individual traits. In Heroes: What They Do and Why We Need Them, Dr. Scott and Dr. Goethals offer that for most of us our heroes represent one or more of what they call the “Great Eight Traits.” According to the research of these authors, heroes tend to be smart, strong, selfless, caring, charismatic, resilient, reliable, and inspiring. In both of my personal examples, these individuals seemed to represent being selfless, caring, resilient, reliable, and strong. Their actions exhibited a number of these Great Eight Traits.

We begin to answer the question of who we want to be by looking at others and determining what it is in them we like to see. Who are you trying to model? In Discipline is Destiny, Ryan Holiday writes of Seneca. Seneca studied the leaders of the past and served those aspiring to lead in his times. Seneca considered the emperor Cato as a wise and kind ruler that served as an excellent example. Seneca thought of Cato as an admirable example of what leadership was. He urged those he taught to pick someone like a Cato to serve as a measuring stick against which to evaluate their own actions. Seneca believed in the importance of a model to inspire us to improve. We’ve been doing this on some level since we were kids. In school we worked hard to fit in. We were likely watching those that were seen as popular and trying to figure out how to become part of the “cool kid” group ourselves. What were they doing, saying, wearing in order to be admired? We asked these questions and then mirrored their actions with hopes of being accepted. What does who we celebrate/idolize say about who we are? How conscious are we of exactly the types of characteristics a person has whom we’re seeking to celebrate? Are we recognizing someone simply for athletic accomplishments or for something else? What else?

We can chip away at cherry-picking character traits that resonate with us where we observe them in people we know or see. An alternate approach is to choose a role or profession that you want to become. For example, Crenshaw wanted to become a Navy Seal. He picked the generic idea as being reflective of what types of behaviors he would determine as being useful. As he enlisted and became part of the training program he was exposed to a number of actual Seals. From here, he could see which specific Seals were respected and started to reverse engineer what traits seemed to serve. The generic role was the start of his selection process, but the targeted traits were determined by closely watching those that were revered and respected within the ranks. The high-level aspiration of becoming a soldier became clearer by observing. Crenshaw saw that those that maintained their fitness and were able to assist others on challenges were respected. Physical competence became its own goal. He noticed that leaders that remained calm under pressure were better able to command the attention and respect of their team. Learning to manage stress became a trait towards which to aspire as a result. By watching closely those he was trying to become more like, Crenshaw was able to distill the detail and determine specific actions to develop. He created his character by consciously copying those he admired.

Everything that we’ve discussed related to personal heroes also applies to our businesses. We can pick personal characteristics we want our staff to emulate that are performed by others. In a team setting a great exercise to consider that will help your group come up with heroes as well as help you bond by learning about what character traits are valuable to each person is to ask each attendee to list three people they admire. These can be people they know personally or historical figures. They can be alive or dead. They can be family or famous. List the responses on a whiteboard in the meeting room. Then ask each person what it is it about the person that they specifically admire. Put this information besides the person’s name on the whiteboard. Look for and explore as a group common themes of traits that several people seem to admire. There may be more we have in common with each other than we think. How many of those we admire seem to exhibit one or more of the Great Eight Traits?

We can also pick pieces of a business to copy independent of our industry. For example, we can embrace the practice that Jeff Bezos instilled at Amazon meetings in order to keep the focus on customers by reserving a seat at the board room table which is intended to represent a customer. Copying these practices that are done by others that share the value seeking to be instilled is a great way to reinforce it within your company. Picking pieces of other people and places to pursue is a reflection of our Drive to Emulate (DTE). It’s the heart of strategy. It reflects the first two stages of the Evolution of Excellence. Our DTE is how we Look and Learn. It’s both how we see what not to do as well as determine our desired direction. Choose Catos and avoid Neros. Look and learn at those around you personally and in business in order to identify some helpful heroes. Perhaps, Remembrance Day is a worthwhile time to think of those that sacrificed and consider some of their traits as those towards which we could seek to aspire?