I’ve seen a lot of super hero movies this year. Okay, I’ve seen three—but that’s probably two more than the previous 10 years combined! If the box office results are any indication for these types of movies, I’m not alone. I’ve joined in on a collective societal hunger to see victory play out and helped pave a golden path for producers who help us tap into it.
We don’t just go to super-hero movies—another trend is the success of all kinds of competitive TV shows where participants get eliminated until somebody “wins.” I pretty much just binge-watched a glass blowing competition (okay, it was really cool to see glass blowers on TV, but there had to be a winner!).
There’s no question that triumph is exhilarating—by action or by association. Why else was I all puffed up the day after my alma mater, Old Dominion University, won what some pundits have called the biggest underdog upset in sporting history? ODU didn’t even have a football program when I went there, and I’ve never attended a game! That feeling of victory was viral just because I had an affinity for the group itself. But there are definitely some up sides and some down sides to this results-oriented kind of energy.
Hero isn’t just dominating the entertainment world. It’s shaping many of the positive and negative trends in our working lives. Businesses are under constant pressure to produce short-term financial results. Productivity and performance are the bell weather measurement standards for employee value. Non-profits can’t get grants without evidence-based results of how you’ve achieved victory. Let’s not even get started on politics—the polarization in today’s political climate and the horse-race mentality of media coverage is all about the Hero storyline.
Here’s where it gets interesting and a little disturbing. Hero is such an intoxicating storyline in American culture that there’s a whole sub-genre of movies, books and TV shows devoted to the anti-hero—the character who operates almost entirely on the disempowering side of the storyline and actually gets revered for it. There doesn’t even have to be a redemptive arc for the protagonists in these stories (think Breaking Bad).
So what does it mean for our workplaces if we’re so consciously and subconsciously tied to a sense of identity around results—or a need to create one if we want to look successful–that actual harm can begin to look okay (the ends truly justifying the means)?
Getting conscious about your relationship with results
This is my second blog post in a four-part series on the empowering and disempowering faces of the most universal story types. I’m writing a post on each of the organizing quadrants included in Dr. Carol S. Pearson’s archetype system (each of which represents one of the four most important tasks of professional life and the underlying human needs that drive them).
This post is about the results quadrant, with its laser-like focus on human mastery and self esteem—and it’s the most potent quadrant in American culture right now. Results rule the day in this country’s politics, business and social justice movements. We want things to happen, and we mostly want them now. All three of the story types in this quadrant feature characters who are highly motivated to get results (although in different ways). Heroes want to win; Revolutionaries want to change the game; Magicians want to realize big visions. Each of those characters has juice in the world, but none of them is as ubiquitous today as the Hero.
What does this have to do with the empowering and disempowering faces of the Hero story type? Hero has both, just like all the other story types. On the empowering side of the storyline, a Hero shows up prepared to compete valiantly, defend what matters most to those they hold dear, and ultimately triumph for a cause that’s bigger than themselves or the interests of their own circle. On the disempowering side, a drive to achieve can descend into burnout, bullying others into acquiescence and seizing the spoils for themselves.
We can also glorify the other two types in the results quadrant when we can find ourselves glorifying thieving outlaws (Revolutionary) and rooting for bad sorcerers (Magician). This rarely happens on the disempowering side of archetypes in any of the other quadrants, which is a cautionary tale all by itself. Take a look at the chart to see the trajectories of empowerment and disempowerment associated with each of these types:
All of this means we have to be especially vigilant and conscious of who we are when we take on the strengths and values of these characters. Professionally, this doesn’t usually play out with the kind of drama we see in the movies. There aren’t many car chases but there’s a real human toll.
An unconsciously relentless drive for results can create driven workplace environments with high levels of burnout and disengagement, and/or toxically assertive cultures where employees have to be either winners or losers. Just search for Amazon or Uber workplace culture to see exactly what this looks like. And be well aware that you could be shaping your own mini-versions of these cultures in your very own team or group.
Getting back to your empowering ground
What to do? Well, this is one of the areas where I think coaching can be the most powerful. If you’re a leader, you have to manage your own relationship with results and what that means for you and the people around you. Consider getting a coach to work you through the kind of inquiry below, or answer the questions for yourself:
- Does my quest for results sometimes land me in disempowering terrain? NOTE: Be brutally honest
- Are the results I’m driving attached to anything meaningful besides financial gain or a self esteem boost?
- What are the consequences for me, my team and/or my organization?
- THIS IS THE IMPORTANT QUESTION: What is actually worth fighting for in your professional life? What’s the bigger cause that has great meaning to you, the people that matter to you, and the world around you?
- How can you shape your leadership around that, and engage others to bring the best of themselves to that purpose, mission or vision?
Good luck. May the force be with you.
Cindy Atlee is a Creator type who loves to help professionals, teams and organizations understand and express who they really are in the world. She’s the principal of The Storybranding Group and co-author of the Professional Strengths, Values & Story Survey (SVSS). Cindy helps individual and organizational clients cast themselves in a compelling, enduring story that authentically conveys their unique value. Take the SVSS for yourself here: http://www.storybranding.com/take-the-svss-survey/.