In the comics, Heroes and Villains are typically clearly defined. In reality, particularly in business, things are less obvious.
In the comics…
Heroes may be distinguished by overtly patriotic imagery, association with the military or law enforcement, their tendency to rescue people in peril, or simply by contrasting them against the villains.
Villains may be distinguished by the colors they wear, often oranges, purples, and greens. We’re generally shown a detailed exposition on their background, giving us context of what led them to villainy. We’ve become accustomed to grandiose, lengthy, and strangely detailed monologues recounting their nefarious plans.
Heroes do not often have giant muscles, Vibranium shields, or spandex suits. Many of those that could be heroes know the right thing to do, but are often either scared or don’t believe they can’t do it.
Villains don’t reveal their intentions and plans. They may be disguised to conceal their true intentions. They will instead say the “right” thing, even if they don’t believe it.
We’re conditioned to believe that certain types of people are heroes. We use uniforms, titles, and symbols as shortcuts for separating good and evil. However, as we’ve just covered, it’s not that simple and we’re starting to wake up to how those can be tricks used to hide the truth.
Let’s talk about what it means to be a hero.
Heroes and Villains
Here’s the truth…
There are no heroes. There are no villains.
That’s because being a hero or a villain is not a destination, it’s a practice. No hero is perfect and without mistakes. No villain is cartoonishly evil. Both think they are making the world a better place.
The big differences are in how their respective decisions create or reduce harm, or promote justice, fairness and equity.
Both heroes and villains exist inside of systems and both carry their own ideologies. Let’s go through some real world examples.
Please select all that apply
Who are the heroes in society? Are they the…
- Grocery store workers?
- Members of the Military?
- Instacart drivers?
As front line employees during a pandemic, many grocery store workers and Instacart drivers are being called “heroes.” Yet, many of the people working these jobs do not wake up to venture out on deliberate mission to save the world. For the vast majority, it’s just a job, possibly one they are trapped in as a matter of survival.
It’s a job where their labor is being openly exploited, exposing them to unsafe working conditions, often without healthcare benefits, while often being paid less than a living wage, as owners and shareholders reap the profits. If their heroism is compulsory rather than voluntary, is it heroism or are they victims of an unjust system who are celebrated as heroes in order to obfuscate the reality of their situation?
What about cops and the military? We know that the answer is complicated because we’re all too familiar with the overused “bad apples” narrative at this point.
Is it noble to be willing to put yourself in harm’s way, sacrificing yourself to protect others? Of course it is. It’s a hallmark trait of heroism. But…
- Is it noble, in the case of cops, to use that position of power to consistently harass and murder marginalized communities?
- Is it noble, in the case of the military, to kill civilians on their own land and chalk it up to collateral damage in the name of “freedom?”
Are cops, or those who serve in the military, heroes? Sometimes yes, but sometimes they’re the worst kind of villains.
To summarize, heroism isn’t a role or uniform. It’s complicated.
Systems of Heroism
- Each of the roles listed above is part of a system.
- Each of these systems is part of a larger system called society.
- Both systems and society have spoken and unspoken values and expectations that combine to define the culture.
If we want to have more heroes in any role, then we need to look at the systems and societies that they are a part of. Both systems and society directly influence the actions of people by way of what is celebrated, what is tolerated and what is punished. If you want to alter the caliber of people in any system, change the incentives and punishments of that system.
You will have people who do great things in terrible systems and people who do horrible things in noble professions and systems. You are not a hero because of your role in society, your uniform, or your title. You are a hero because of your actions, specifically in the context of the system you are in.
So, where do we go from here?
Heroism in Action
I believe, now more than ever, we need more heroes in this world. We need people who have a commitment to making the world a safer place. We will always need those who fight for truth, justice, compassion, and decency. This is as true in the boardroom as it is in the streets. We need Superheroes everywhere.
I believe the time has come for those aspiring to be heroes, to rise up together and change the systems we are a part of and consequently the society we live in.
With enough movement, we may even change the world.
Since business is the lens most readers of this blog will be comfortable with, I’ll explain it this way.
Being heroic in business means creating work cultures that are equitable, thinking about the downstream negative impact of our work, and setting a bigger and more ambitious purpose than simply making a profit. It means using your business to influence the market. It means thinking of your business as a global citizen, putting sustainability in your business plan. It means your business is no longer a neutral entity in this world on matters of injustice, you must take a position.
To be indifferent or worse to dig your heels in to justify creating harm in the name of business, is the mark of a villain. We know that there are better alternatives and we know that the systems are not fair. Those that don’t, are either willfully or unknowingly ignorant. Either way, it is our responsibility to change it.
Choose a side.
If you don’t know where to start, allow me to assist you in getting started. I created the Superhero Code to serve as the North Star for those who want to build a better world. The better world I’m describing is fair, equitable, safe, kind, and sustainable. The better world I’m describing is possible.
Here is the code. I hope you adopt it. If you want to talk about it or help me improve it, I’m eager to hear your thoughts.
THE SUPERHERO CODE
If I have the power or privilege to make a difference, it is my responsibility to do it.
I will not allow harm to come to others.
I am willing to put the needs of others over my self-interest, even if I’ve had moments where my needs were overlooked.
Even when I’m scared and even if I must endure pain or struggle, I will confront it.
Sometimes, I will fail or face obstacles and challenges in my life. I accept this as part of my learning. I will always get back up and persevere.
I will always try to understand other points of view, even if I do not agree with them.
I will always see the humanity in others and care about their well-being.
My greatest source of strength comes from my failures. Sharing these experiences and my feelings/inner thoughts keeps me balanced and allows me to connect with others.
In order to help others, I must establish trust. Trust cannot grow in the absence of truth. Therefore, I will not lie, I will speak only what I know to be true.
In order create real change, especially in service of these other commitments, I must take action to move beyond words and ideas.
Also published on Medium.