As Labor Day approaches, I’ve been thinking about those whose labors we honor in organizations. Another recent spate of embarrassing revelations about once-revered leaders has made me even more skeptical of the “cult of personality” that can so quickly and easy develop around an organization’s stars. Instead, I believe that we would be much better served to honor the unsung heroes amongst us.
Feet of Clay
I recall a favorite high school English teacher remarking that “we all have feet of clay.” So true. In recent months, we’ve come to find out that:
- a bicycle racing champion, whose personal story has inspired millions around the world, would be stripped of his record-breaking titles due to overwhelming evidence of cheating;
- a football coach, whose name for decades was synonymous with integrity and leadership, looked the other way while a longtime aide repeatedly committed horrendous crimes against children on the very campus on which the coach held virtual god-like status;
- the CEO of a global bank who, with his team, was widely considered the best in the business, fell asleep at the wheel and allowed outrageous bets to be laid that cost stockholders $6 billion and counting.
So often, organizations create myths about their leaders and star performers that raise them to rock star status, fame, and fortune. Before continuing this pattern, we might do well to consider some of the dysfunction and disillusionment (see above) that this hero-worship brings about when the (almost) inevitable fall from grace does occur.
True Organizational Heroes
Since this blog is all about hopefulness and forward progress, how can we refocus our energies in the right direction and celebrate those who truly should be celebrated? That part is simple, but hard to do.
It is saying “thank you” to the men and women who show up every day and do their jobs to the best of their abilities; the people who serve the customers, get the shipments out the door, and make the trains run on time. We might not recognize them with huge bonuses (or any bonuses at all, sadly), or set them up for magazine profiles, and laud them at corporate events. But they are the ones who truly make the business possible, and they are the ones we must thank. And honor. And respect.
One of my favorite quotes about work and life—which I’ve used in this space before—comes from David Cone, a former major league baseball all-star. Cone was once asked what it was like facing the pressure of pitching in a big game. He smiled thoughtfully and answered, “Let me tell you about pressure. Pressure isn’t pitching in a game. Pressure is what my dad did — getting up every morning for 40 years to go to work, rain or shine, to support your family. That’s pressure. This is nothing compared to that.”
Indeed. Let us commit to remembering this and appreciating those who make our organizations what they are by showing up and taking care of business every day.