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Heroes or Villains: Does the workplace make them?

“Heroes don’t have a special personality. They are not more compassionate, more altruistic, more or less of anything. They are simply people that in a particular situation where most people, observing something bad, do nothing, then the hero is the one who steps out of the crowd and challenges the definition of the situation, challenges the authority, dissents, defies, rebels and does not comply.”

That’s psychologist Philip Zimbardo talking to BBC Radio 4 in an interview this week.

Zimbardo is famous for the classic Stanford Prison Experiment when back in 1971 he turned the university basement into a fake prison where the young men playing the guards soon started abusing the people they were told were their prisoners. He showed how much circumstances can distort how individuals behave and how, given complete control over others, anyone can act as a monster.

Now he’s turned his attention to how to create environments in which people do the opposite – act heroically. His definition of ‘a hero’, above, maps onto the everyday leaders carrying out acts of leadership up and down the organization, regardless of position, that we need today.

I can’t reproduce a transcript here of much more of the item than the quote above without breaching the BBC’s copyright. But, if you have Real Player installed and go to this link, you should be able to listen to it yourself. After you hit the link, below, and once you are in the BBC site, look for the ‘All In The Mind’ programme title and click on that to listen again. If it doesn’t let you in jump down this page to the other link, which also lets you take this further:

BBC Radio 4, All In The Mind Programme, Thursday June 5th

In case that doesn’t work for you, this link, below, goes to a blog post from Zimbardo in which he talks about stimulating the heroic imagination.

“I believe that an important factor that may encourage heroic action is the stimulation of the “heroic imagination”– the capacity to imagine facing physically or socially risky situations, mentally struggle with the hypothetical problems these situations generate, and consider one’s actions and the consequences.”

Your role as a leader, then, becomes stimulating the heroic imagination in people – making them realise what they are capable of. There’s a clip in The Leadership Hub, on the Home Page at time of writing, that gives a fictional example of a teacher stimulating the heroic imagination – the belief that someone can take the lead and accomplish something great – in the movie Paying It Forward. Here’s the link to the Zimbardo blog post:

Philip Zimbardo on the heroic imagination