Heroes – both real and imaginary…

So I just got home from taking my kids to see Green Lantern. Yes, it was overdone, hokey, and lived entirely on its special effects. As I didn’t expect anything else, I enjoyed the film and wasn’t disappointed. However, what was more thought provoking than the movie, was the reaction of my children. My son in particular took the movie in stride, and was even obviously bored through several parts.

Some of that was because Green Lantern is a character he is not very familiar with (GL isn’t really in mainstream media and my son doesn’t read comic books), but also because he’s seen it all before. The reboot of Superman, Hulk, Iron Man, and others have all given him a certain expectation from a superhero movie. There are lots of special effects, the good guy gets slapped around a bit, and then he wins. If the writer could imagine it (and the budget permits), it will appear on screen.

This is in stark contrast to when I was young(er) and the first Superman came out with Christopher Reeve in the title role. It was very exciting for me. We expected him to win, but we didn’t know what we would see on screen. Would it be like the old TV series with talking heads and short flying sequences? We didn’t know. Plus, once we had seen it, all my friends and I dove back into our comic books looking for inconsistencies and contradictions to discuss and argue about. Without cable or Internet, the only references we had were the comic books and each other, but that didn’t stop us from having lengthy discussions on how Superman (and other heroes) would deal with this or that threat. That inevitably lead to the “which hero was best” discussion, which also inevitably led to one of the greatest philosophical discussions of our time: “Who would win in a battle between Superman and Batman?”. (This is pretty important to a 10 year old).

Usually this would devolve into me against everyone else. All, or almost all, of my friends would come squarely down in the Superman camp. He’s invulnerable, has super speed, super strength, x-ray vision, heat vision, and he doesn’t need to rely on anything for his powers. Batman was just a regular guy with a lot of cool gadgets. I viewed it differently. If Superman was so undefeatable, then why did he need to be rescued every so often when Lex Luthor would get him with Kryptonite, a red sun ray, or some other deus ex machina / plot device that let Lex gain the upper hand in the first place? I, on the other hand, viewed Batman as the obvious winner in such a competition. First, he was incredibly smart – basically Lex Luthor, only without the fail. Second, he planned ahead. If Batman locked Superman in a box with a lump of Kryptonite, then you can bet that step two would find that box at the bottom of the ocean, or some other place Jimmy couldn’t get to him at the last possible moment. Finally, as paranoid as Batman is, you know he always had a plan on tap to beat his friends as well as his enemies, in case the need ever arose.

That thought leads me to how contrived the whole superhero / supervillian dynamic really is. Take Green Lantern, for instance. So long as you don’t catch him asleep or in the shower, he’s pretty much unbeatable except against anything yellow. So of course all his enemies are in some way yellow. Same with Superman – he’s invincible, so his enemies attack those he cares about. Batman doesn’t care about anyone, so his enemies are either very smart, or unpredictable. If Green Lantern called up Superman one afternoon and said, “Buddy, I’ll do all the heavy lifting, if you just make sure nothing yellow gets through,” then the DC comics universe would be crime free in a week.

Which all comes back to no one can do it all alone. When Microsoft Windows Server 2008 came out, I was part of the launch event in Detroit. The main theme of the launch of the (then) new version of Windows Server, SQL Server, and Visual Studio was “Heroes Happen {Here}. There were lots of showcases of people doing incredible things with nearly no resources (or sleep) by using the latest of Microsoft products. The heroes showcased performed these actions as matters of pride – and reinforced the IT stereotype of the lone gunslinger keeping everything running on nothing but coffee and duct tape.

I have to admit that in the past I’ve fallen into that mindset myself. In fact, once I chose to leave my position at Warehouse 86 in January of 2010, my only criteria for a new role was that it keep me in Memphis so I could finish school and we wouldn’t have to worry about selling the house in such a down market. Everything else was secondary – including workload. The position I accepted kept me in Memphis, but at the expense of 18 – 20 hour workdays (when I was trying to juggle 21 credit hours) and with almost no support except from the 2 other members on my team. I enjoyed it for a while since it was nice to be purely technical instead of running the department, but I tired of it quickly. I saw that I was beginning to resent the demands made on me, and since I value enjoying my work and the people I work with, I moved on after only 10 months. Sadly, for those I left behind, the environment at that company has not improved. In fact, their weekly report from the IT department to senior management now includes a slide called “regrettable departures”. The fact that such a slide needs to exist should be setting off all sorts of alarms, but apparently they are happy with chasing off the people they should be keeping, and keeping the people they should be chasing off.

The Thoughts From The Raised Floor blog had a post a few years ago that flatly stated that heroes would ruin your organization. I disagree. Yes, many organizations had a culture where the minimum expectation was “do something insanely hard or insanely brilliant” every time someone in sales sold a customer on something, or when an executive had a whim. That’s bad. You shouldn’t have to perform heroic feats as part of day to day operations – that mindset led me to more than one 40 hour work shift at a datacenter.

However, you can still have heroic results without heroic effort. Instead of focusing on your weaknesses, focus on your strengths and turn your weaknesses over to others. If you can’t deal with end users, put someone between you and them. If you can code like the wind, you shouldn’t be building servers. Even the smallest team can gain competitive advantage by having people work where they’re strongest.

You can bet if I were the Green Lantern, the first thing I reach for when I saw a guy in a yellow suit would be my cell phone…

3 thoughts on “Heroes – both real and imaginary…

  1. Nice segue from the superheroes to your experiences in IT! That kind of must-be-a-hero attitude dominated my career in graphic design and interactive media until I decided to make a big change in 2002. And, even though that now I juggle trying to make a living with my new career as a hospital chaplain from a hodge-podge of income sources (performing weddings, preaching in elder-care facilities, and even some freelance graphic/web work — I get paid by the hospital about 1/4 of what I made prior to 2001), my family is a lot happier, my kids see me and are a lot happier, and I can say that _usually_, I’m a lot happier too. Being a hero is OK for a while, but it’s not really sustainable.

  2. I too would choose Batman over Superman, but we think alike on many fronts probably why we are still friends even though separated by 1500 miles and we haven’t had lunch together in 5 years or so. The “hero” at work either gets burned out or fired all too often as they are either worked 80 hours a week, or let go by a boss that feels his/her position is at risk because of your abilities. The idea of delegating your weaknesses is an excellent one…..when budget exists for that. Unfortunately in today’s struggling economy, departments are stripped to “barely operating” and expected to do everything and at constant “heroic” levels. I sometimes think about moving on, but the grass here is greener than at the last position, I do like where I live and the family has gelled here…so I will make it work……………..for now.

    • Being that lone hero is harder to give up than some people think. Like Walt Disney said, “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible…”

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