I once worked with a behavioral sociologist who would often ask,”Who screwed up that we needed a hero?”  This question made us all think hard.  Our conclusion was “maybe nobody ’screwed up,'—maybe someone just did something above and beyond—something really heroic.”  The three pieces below frame the subject of “heroes” in three different ways. (I didn’t cover “first responders" like police, EMT, firefighters, etc.whose jobs put them in heroic crisis situations.)

Today, far too often, we have replaced admirable heroes with celebrities. Role modeling is hard. Real heroes are role models—in that moment at least. “Sully," the pilot who safely landed a jet plane on a NYC river, was, in my book, a hero. The tragedy of 911 created many heroes, too many of them are no longer with us. Everyday people are heroes; maybe by saving a child or a dog from an oncoming car, or rescuing a person from a flaming auto crash or a frozen lake. 

Heroes exist in all walks of life, at all ages, and in all genders, races, and ethnic backgrounds. Take a minute right now and think of 2-3 real heroes you’ve known, seen or emulated.  Deciding who are real heroes these days is very difficult. Media's always-on coverage exposes many people to be neither as heroic or admirable as we might have thought. Fame is fleeting; so is misplaced heroism.

Who do you truly admire and tried to emulate during your life? If you can name a few (other than your parents or Jesus Christ) you are truly  fortunate. Think about people who inspire you to be a better person.

We need more genuine heroes these days. Our next generations desperately need people worthy of admiration and being role models. Being able to win, to run fast, throw or hit or catch a ball accurately, sing a song or play an instrument, or portray real heroes from history in dramas. That doesn’t make those athletes, musicians, actors or entertainers no matter how highly they might are regarded in their professions.  Ditto elected officials, business leaders, and other notables.

There is a depth to people who are true heroes—and it is no about being famous. It is more about being worthy of respect, admiration and an inspiration to others for what they do and why or how they do it.  So now tell me: Where have all the heroes gone? Who are yours?


Where have all the heroes gone?  Perhaps business leaders can help fill the void.

©John Mariotti 1998

When I was growing up, the folk-singing group Peter, Paul and Mary had a hit song: "Where have all the flowers gone?" The melody is coursing through my head as I begin this column. Another thing I remember about growing up was that, back then, we had heroes. They were real people, but somehow larger-than-life figures whom we could admire and emulate.

Maybe it was the influence of being a post-war child that made it possible to believe in heroes–-at least some of them—like Sir Winston Churchill. You may remember his stirring admonition--"Never, never, never, never, never give up."

I remember heroes in sports. There were legendary figures like Joe DiMaggio, Jackie Robinson, Mickey Mantle, and Green Bay Packers Coach Vince Lombardi. We looked up to Presidents like Franklin Roosevelt, General Dwight Eisenhower, and John Fitzgerald Kennedy. 

Even business and congressional leaders commanded respect in days past--people like Thomas Watson of IBM, Alfred Sloan of General Motors, and Sen. Everett Dirksen.

Music and the movies created stars--not as role models for their own personal lives, but for those they portrayed.  What man hasn't at times admired "The Duke"--John Wayne--or at least the characters he brought to life on screen?

Today's young business people--the so-called "Generation X"--grew up in an era when their heroes inevitably were proven to be not only human, but fallibly so. With the assassinations of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King, our heroes began to die--although more often at the hands of the media than from an assassin's bullet.

Sports heroes fell victim to the excesses of their youth and riches. Meanwhile, business and government leaders lost their luster as inspiring figures. Often they were painted as the "Ugly American," "The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit," or "Barbarians at the Gate."

In the wake of all this disillusionment maybe--just maybe--things are about to turn around again. Perhaps a revival of the age of heroes can be built on the legacy of such people as the late Sam Walton, who was a hero to those who worked for him; or Michael Eisner, whose main asset is a big-eared mouse named Mickey; or even a wunderkind billionaire named Bill Gates.

Walton believed in his Wal*Mart "associates" and he treated them well. He also believed in giving Americans the best value for their money, and treating them like friends. While Michael Eisner is not as revered as Sam Walton was, he is respected by many for what he has done with the Disney legacy. With only a few exceptions (in the movies) Disney has done it with largely wholesome products.

Young people are incredibly computer literate today--and getting more so. They know Bill Gates, who recently was named by IW readers as America's most-respected CEO. Gates is young enough to be a real role model for the next generation. So far he has only been "exposed" as being brilliant, tough, visionary, and hugely successful.

I know who my heroes were. They are all gone now, but I really got to know three of the four--my mom and dad and "Mr. Sam" (Walton). The fourth was Coach Vince Lombardi. I could do worse than to measure up to them.

My dad was a talented professional musician who died when I was eighteen. My mom was my real mentor--a successful businesswoman in an era when that was very uncommon.

Lombardi was well known for his work ethic, his insistence on flawless execution, and his relentless pursuit of excellence (and winning). So was Sam Walton. I admired these traits. And I can think of literally hundreds of instances in my business career where hard work, superb execution, and high standards led to success.

What is it about heroes or maybe I should call them role models that make them worthy of respect? 

First and foremost, these role models have integrity, character, and principles. They invariably have a fire within them based on deep-seated beliefs and values. There is an almost-visible "aura" about them that makes people want to believe in them and follow their lead. And, finally, they have energy and enthusiasm for what they do and believe in.

We all need role models, a mentor, and some heroes. They don't have to be famous people--just someone we can aspire to emulate. It provides a foundation upon which to build the success of our country, our businesses, our careers, and our lives.

Who are your heroes? 


Corporate Executives--Villains or Heroes—Can you really tell how compensation much anyone in "worth"

© John L. Mariotti 2002

Headlines lately have been vilifying corporate CEOs for their downsizing actions and large compensation gains. Is this right or wrong? I have been considering this dilemma and decided to share my thoughts here. Business leaders are not (categorically) villains. They are not ogres or mindless, heartless, evil people. They are usually hard working, God-fearing people trying to do the right thing. Only a small minority of business leaders deserves such criticism.

Businesses exist for the purpose of creating and delivering value, for which customers and consumers will pay money. This money goes to pay the employees and suppliers (and their employees) of those businesses and create wealth for those who have invested their money (at a risk) in the businesses. In free enterprise systems such as ours, the private sector--companies--are the only real source of wealth creation and employment. 

The government can create jobs. They certainly have proven that as employment in the public sector--U.S. government now exceeds the private sector.   Those jobs and the paychecks of those employees can only be paid from the revenue created by taxes. These revenues come from taxes on profits of companies and earnings of employees.

Raj Aggarwal, the Mellen Chair professor of Finance at John Carroll University reminds me that a business, which cannot earn a return on invested capital that exceeds their cost of capital, will eventually cease to exist. Some of the cuts in employment are made to reduce costs and generate a sufficient return to stay in business.  If competitors, particularly foreign competitors whose countries enjoy a much lower pay level and standard of living (such as China) choose to compete with U.S. companies, the jobs held by employees of those companies come under attack in a different way.  The result is the same.  Compete or cease to exist.

I am not a fan of downsizing. It hurts, often more than it helps. I just helped a corporate client go through it. They had to do it or go out of business.  In the U.S. alone, millions of lives have been disrupted, and whole communities damaged. The way it is done often seems heartless and even cruel. But is it so terribly wrong--or just painfully necessary? In nature, trees and shrubs require pruning. Dead wood must be cut out. 

The words from Star Trek ring very true. In these shows, Captain Kirk and First Officer Spock remind us "...the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one..." Many of the corporate layoffs are done to save the jobs of the many people by the layoff of "few." (While ATT's well-publicized 40,000-employee cutback was devastating, those cuts represented only a small percentage of their total employment.)

Productivity gains, which are critical to improving our standard of living, have another side to them. When population grows at 1-2% and industrial productivity grows at over 2% the total increase in output is 3-4%. If our economy is only growing at a 2.5%, then1% must be added to the rolls of unemployment (or underemployment--working for less pay). This is why the growth side of the equation needs attention. Controlling inflation by restrictive monetary policy (instead of fiscal responsibility--spending less than income) limits growth and adds to the dilemma. High taxes (especially on capital gains) consume investment capital that could be used for growth and channel it to one of our least productive sectors--government.

Corporate management usually does their best to make such painful cuts in the most humane manner possible. They will also continue unless or until we can grow our way into using our improved productivity.  Stephen Covey's research confirmed that as a country, we have created a generation or two of managers and executives who sometimes are misguided. They fail to create new value and growth, and thus must reduce costs (and people which are usually one of the highest "cost" items in the budgets of companies). This is wrong and can lead to what is called corporate anorexia.

What is the manager, executive and professional to do? First, understand that the market is the relentless predator of the weak. If corporate management doesn't do the necessary pruning, either the plant will die, or it will happen due to competitive pressures "clearing the dead wood." William Safire says it this way in his New York Times column; "You can't make a prosperity omelet without breaking some eggs." When this happens, many more who are undeserving will likely suffer.  Second, productivity gains must be made or the jobs will just as certainly be lost in even larger numbers. 

 Competitiveness is driven by constantly improving productivity.  Third, <i>don't let yourself or your department/function/team become technically obsolete--continue learning to be competitive.

Victims often choose to be just that. Be proactive about continuous learning.  Most companies encourage it and pay for it.

What about the conflict between the rights of shareholders to profits and the rights of employees, customers, suppliers, and communities. I contend they are not in conflict in the long run--just in the short run. Corporate executives are paid to look out for  all of their several constituencies:  Shareholders, Employees, Customers, Suppliers, and Communities. If they do not look out for the shareholders interests adequately, they are fired and replaced. If they do this well, they are rewarded, sometimes handsomely (or even excessively). But what about these exorbitant compensation packages received by CEOs.   Most of the "really big ones" are due to performance bonuses or appreciated stock options. This means they did what the shareholders wanted, and helped cause the stock value to rise. 

Why shouldn't they share in the rewards?  Think about some of our society. Mike Tyson gets millions of dollars for a few minutes in the ring.  Madonna and Rush Limbaugh make more in a year than a hundred working people make in their lifetime.  Stallone or Schwarzenegger make millions for mediocre, violent movies.  Twenty-two year olds receive multi-million dollar contracts in many professional sports.  Who complains about these as injustices.  How many jobs do they help secure?  Should we indict them if their teams lose, movies fail or attendance falls?  Or are they just being paid "competitively?'  The same could be said of CEO pay levels!

The solution to this dilemma is not simple.  What most of us can do is simpler--provide superior customer value and do it in partnership with suppliers, employees and intermediate customers.  This is the foundation on which to provide excellent rewards to shareholders and communities.  This is what the majority of these corporate executives are trying to do--not to be "villains, killers or hit men."  

They may not all be heroes.  A minority are selfish, and misguided, but don't let the few reflect on the many who are trying to do the right thing.  Do your share to help by understanding the competitive pressures of the marketplace, improving productivity, and staying personally competitive through continuous learning.   That is the best "job security policy" there is.   These companies and their leaders (with the exception of the misguided minority mentioned earlier) are the only source of jobs and wealth.  Let's start looking at the good they do instead of the harm.  We might be surprised.



©John Mariotti 1999

Every successful company has these “unsung heroes” – and no company can survive without them.They are seldom recognized, appreciated or properly compensated. They are not listed among the assets, or even itemized in the “goodwill” on the balance sheet. One hardly even notices that they are there, but without them the wheels of business slowly grind to a stop. Who are they?  They are the unsung heroes who make a business hum. 

  • They are dedicated line employees who come to work every day, do boring and repetitive jobs over and over, and take pride in the quality and quantity of work they produce. 
  • They are group leaders who risk ridicule and resentment from their peers and take the heat for decisions in which they had no input. 
  • They are supervisors whose cars are the first in the parking lot and the last to leave, because they feel the responsibility for the company’s and the employees’ well being. 
  • They are the maintenance people who work weekends and holidays so the plant can function at the optimum level during normal running hours.  
  • They are the line engineers who labor long and hard to design and build increasingly efficient and profitable equipment. 
  • They are customer service representatives who handle each customer’s concerns courteously and effectively, even though no one seems to notice or care. 
  • They are truck drivers who leave their families on Sundays, drive on increasingly crowded highways to get product to ever-more-demanding customers, and try, by their example to sell the customer on the fact that theirs is the best company in the industry. 
  • They are the accountants, clerks, middle managers, janitors, buyers, computer technicians, and ordinary people who do their level best to do a good job every day in spite of the fact that they are seldom asked for their input or given credit for their dedication and intelligence. 

God bless them all!

Without these unsung heroes, America’s unprecedented run of prosperity in the last couple of decades would not have been possible.  People who are visible and in the spotlight in their companies should make an effort to seek out these folks and, once in a while, give them a sincere face-to-face “Thank You.”  It costs nothing and means so much to the individual who contributes every day.  In our experience, executives who do this are seen as heroes themselves, because it is so rare for someone in the “visible” organization to recognize the people who make them successful. 

If you are one of the unsung heroes, give yourself a pat on the back, and accept a sincere “thank you” from one fellow American to another for your contribution.  You have made and are making this a better world.  If you are a “visible” person in your company, remember the efforts of all the people behind you who are making you and the entire economy look good.





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