Most nonprofits have foundational stories. These are usually heartwarming and sometimes heartbreaking stories about people overcoming adversity, challenging prejudice, or battling chronic illness. Organizations often feature these stories on their websites or in promotional materials, and they are used for recruitment purposes or donor solicitation. Foundational stories are rightly a source of great pride and organizational identity. They serve to inspire others to act and justify the creation of a framework for that action: a nonprofit organization.

There are other stories that don’t always make it into the brochures but are equally significant in terms of how they shape and inform the culture of an organization. These stories celebrate the early days of an organization; days of scarcity, when a small group of extraordinary people kept things together with bubblegum and shoestrings. It is remembered as a time when organizational heroes went to extraordinary lengths to advance the mission; a time when the passion of these heroes mattered more than process or planning.

These two narratives—one that speaks to organizational identity, the other to organizational culture—often overlap. We’ve all heard these stories, and we feel tremendous admiration for organizational heroes and their devotion to the mission. Yet it is our admiration for organizational heroes that can keep us from addressing the pitfalls of hero culture.

While it receives more attention in the business world, hero culture finds fertile ground within nonprofits and easily takes root.

The term hero culture is more frequently used in the corporate world, where heroes are often described as driven, overachieving, and influential people within a company who always seem to save the day. Heroes most often come from the ranks of the founding members of a start-up, but heroes can exist at all levels. The position heroes occupy is much less important than their outsized influence. Indeed, the participation of stakeholders at multiple levels is what helps hero culture thrive.

While it receives more attention in the business world, hero culture finds fertile ground within nonprofits and easily takes root. The broader nonprofit cultural sensibility—one of altruism and empathy—lends itself to those who hold high the mission banner. It is our default position to celebrate our mission zealots.

The benefits of hero culture are obvious. Heroes burn bright and radiate infectious enthusiasm. They are guardians of organizational identity and keepers of institutional knowledge. For this reason, heroes make excellent organizational ambassadors and are often used in this capacity. Perhaps most importantly, heroes can be counted on in a crisis, and frequent crises are a hallmark of hero culture.

The pitfalls of hero culture are numerous, though not always as obvious. Many organizational challenges are symptoms of hero culture: siloing, poor communication, staff turnover, and a failure to develop key competencies to name a few.

The benefits of hero culture are obvious. Heroes burn bright and radiate infectious enthusiasm. The pitfalls are numerous, though not always as obvious.

Some heroes are very eager to defend their status within an organization and may not be inclined to share the spotlight. The recognition and reward that come with that status are not easily relinquished to others. This prevents the transfer of valuable institutional knowledge. Why teach others to fix a problem when the hero can save the day? Flawed systems are allowed to remain in place simply because the hero is comfortable with them. Processes are never codified. There is very little room within hero culture for non-heroes to contribute and this can severely limit organizational capacity.

This capacity cap can be unwittingly fitted to an organization by its own leadership. It is easy for leaders to fail to recognize the role they play in the proliferation of hero culture. Leaders elevate heroes through frequent accolades. Who wouldn’t want to celebrate a diehard mission enthusiast and hold them up as a model to follow? Leaders may be inclined to reinforce the outsized influence of heroes by ceding decision making to them. This is particularly true if the hero is a founder, the Executive Director, or a member of the board.

Many leaders are not eager to challenge their organizational heroes, doing so may disrupt the status quo. They may acknowledge the status quo is imperfect but at the very least things get done—or so they think. Leaders understandably fear angering those within the organization who have long served to inspire others. All of this complicates attempts at reform, but reform is inevitable—reform or dissolution.

The fundamental problem with hero culture is that it’s not sustainable. An organization cannot grow beyond the capacity of its heroes. It becomes stymied. And there is a limit to how many crises any organization can withstand. The organization risks descending into chaos. Eventually, the level of risk becomes unacceptable or at least impossible to ignore. This is when someone rises to challenge hero culture, and this is when things can get ugly.

READ Part II of The Benefits and Pitfalls of Hero Culture

Kevin George is a Senior Consultant at Pathfinders Consulting Group

Featured photo by Javier Garcia

More to come.

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