It’s been a rough year for my heroes. Jonah Lehrer, a talented neuroscience writer and thinker, has a plagiarism and taking-things-out-of-context problem. And, Lance Armstrong has a doping and bullying problem. I find Armstrong’s example particularly troubling. He didn’t simply dope to win a race.
No, Armstrong architected an intricate system of lies, drug use, and intimidation to dominate a sport. In the process, he wreaked havoc on many, many, many people’s lives. He actively and intentionally tried to “destroy” people’s reputations, careers, and even personal lives. In many cases, he succeeded. (For a well-articulated summary, check out this column on CBSChicago. Don’t miss the book by Tyler Hamilton, either.)
On top of that, he manipulated a larger-than-life persona based on his cancer comeback. Who doesn’t love a comeback story? And a comeback from cancer, of all things? To win the most grueling and prestigious bike race, of all things? The media loved it. The sport loved it. The brands loved it. The cancer cause loved it. I loved it for a while, especially because my brother died of a cancerous brain tumor. I was more than happy to watch someone beat the shi* out of cancer. The troubling part, of course, is Armstrong manipulated this modern-Christ-like persona to become a shield for his bike doping in three ways:
1. To cultivate insanely lucrative endorsement deals. At one time, Armstrong was ranked eighth for endorsement earnings out of all athletes from all sports. Much of that money went toward…more doping, legal defense, bullying people, and of course, maintaining the persona.
2. To defend himself from accusations of doping. Here’s a sample of how he cleverly referenced his cancer work in a sworn defense testimony over a $5 million bonus. He said it wasn’t logical for him to dope because he would lose too much…
“(The) faith of all the cancer survivors around the world. Everything I do off the bike would go away, too,” Armstrong said then. “And don’t think for a second I don’t understand that. It’s not about money for me. Everything. It’s also about the faith that people have put in me over the years. So all of that would be erased.” (See more in this New York Times article.)
Red herring, anyone?
Troubling, indeed. I found Armstrong’s malignant narcissism so troubling, in fact, that I wrote to Nike saying I would not buy another Nike shoe or shirt or anything “swooshed” until they just did the right thing and dropped Armstrong. That was the first time I ever boycotted a company over an endorsement. Nike finally did do the right thing this morning, and I can consider getting my “swoosh” on again.
I’m far from dim witted, and so are you, if you’re reading this blog. We should be smarter than to fall for this false hero stuff, right? Part of the problem is the hero narrative—no matter whether the hero is a character or a real person like Lance—captivates our unconscious by tapping into archetypes. (For well-researched but practical looks at archetypes, check out “Marketing Metaphoria” and “The Hero with a Thousand Faces.”) That means the hero story gets our attention quickly, is easy for us to remember, causes us to leave out details that don’t fit the narrative, and has a mysterious emotional grip on us we can’t quite rationalize. In the case of Armstrong, he played into even more emotion by trumpeting cancer survival and, at times, being terribly charming.
On top of that, the information overload we face today creates an interesting paradox. In some ways, we are more susceptible to the hero narrative because we have many things competing for our attention. We “get” a hero story quickly. And, we don’t have time to investigate every little detail. In other ways, however, we can find out more easily than ever when a hero doesn’t live up to the hype. We have more and faster ways to check key facts, to publish what we observe quickly, and generally communicate than ever. Hello, social media. I’m not sure Armstrong could have gotten away with his system of deceit for so long if he started out today.
That’s all well and good. But why care about the down sides of this false hero stuff? Well, there are a lot of reasons. But the biggest reason, in my mind, is clinging to the hero narrative distorts our view of reality to the point we have unrealistic expectations for ourselves and others, make poor decisions, and set ourselves up for failure. In short, our attempts to distort humans into heroes screws up our thinking and our behavior. Let me explain a bit more by exploring what this means for businesses, brands, media, and disciplines.
When some businesses choose executives, they choose false heroes. Several studies show the proportion of executives who fit clinical definitions of narcissism or psychopathy is high. Better yet, other rigorous studies show that executives who get the best results are not the narcissists. The sooner businesses stop hiring false heroes and fire the ones they have, the better their businesses will perform.
For brands and media, the hero narrative gets attention quickly. That’s fine. Just stop trying to create a larger-than-life hero out of a flawed human. The complexity and nuance that arise from flaws can be more interesting, as well. With the high demand for content, brands and media have plenty of space to explore that complexity and nuance over time. Other options for brands, of course, are to use characters such as Progressive’s Flo or to poke fun at the larger-than-life hero. The over-the-top machismo of the Old Spice guy, for example, never fails to crack me up.
Academic and practical disciplines have their share of bullies, or false heroes, too. Recently, an exasperated friend vented that an up-and-coming researcher was seeking a new job because the boss kept trying to take credit for the research. Yes, that still happens in 2012. Fortunately, the up-and-coming researcher isn’t going to tolerate it. None of us should because if we don’t have honest contributions to a discipline, we don’t have an honest discipline.
The fall of my heroes has disappointed me and, in many ways, tortured my emotions. I’ve been watching the truth about Armstrong eek out for years … and experienced all the phases of grief at the death of a hero. Denial. Anger. Bargaining. You name it, I felt it. The hero idea also has held me back. When I think, however subconsciously, that a hero might save me or that I am not heroic, I’m less likely to take the steps to be a hero in my own life story. No more.
And so, now, the fall of my heroes gives me hope. No one really is larger-than-life. The real heroes are you and I, flawed people who take steps each day to do, think, or be better. And, we take responsibility when those steps don’t work. False heroes eventually fall away. You and I will build businesses, brands, media, and disciplines that last.
Originally published on the now-archived Content Science blog in October 2012.
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