#401  from Innovative Leader Volume 8, Number 5          May 1999

The Hero Syndrome
by Laura Berman Fortgang

Ms. Fortgang is author of Take Yourself to the Top: The Secrets of Americaís #1 Career Coach (Warner, New York, 1998).  She is founder and president of InterCoach, and can be reached by calling (888) 23-COACH or visiting www@intercoach.com.

Matt was known as the ďtechno-wonder kidĒ at the Northeast offices of a large American food company.  While he was in his thirties, his nickname stemmed from his do-it-all capacity when it came to fixing system glitches or designing additional Web site materials.  Everyone had come to depend on Matt, but he hardly felt appreciated.  What he did feel was overwhelmed--and constantly.

Matt hired me as his coach to help him become more organized and effective at work.  It took months to get him out from under a backlog of projects and disorganization, but what was most clear was that Matt suffered from ďThe Hero Syndrome.Ē  As soon as I mentioned it, he knew it was true.  He had become indispensable, but he wasnít doing anything that mattered to him.  He was so busy making everyone else happy he forgot about himself.  He was such the hero that when he asked for a temp to take some of his overflow, his request was denied.  He always managed things so well they couldnít justify bringing on someone else.

Matt knew he had to change the perception of those around him by shedding his hero cape and trading it in for a legitimate position on the team.  He came out from behind his computer and learned how to foster relationships with the right people.  He said no to projects that would take him away from his new goals.  He showed those that relied on him how to rely on themselves.  He came up with ideas and shared them freely at meetings. 

He saw where the company could grow, using more technology, and presented the top brass with a plan.  In a matter of months, he was a player and an integral part of the marketing team.  He went from techie to marketer, was fulfilled by his work, and felt valued in the company.  All because he cured himself from The Hero Syndrome.

Freedom From the Syndrome

So what exactly is The Hero Syndrome?  Itís an unconscious need to be needed, appreciated, or valued that disguises itself as a good thing but threatens to destroy you. 

This insidious need will get met when you say yes and overpromise what you can deliver in order to be liked, to please others, or to avoid the perceived consequences of saying no. 

The workplace is not the only place where it surfaces.  Mothers and community volunteers are also highly susceptible.

How do you know if you have The Hero Syndrome?  If you feel like you never have enough time to complete your work or always have a backlog of projects, watch out.  If youíre always the one called on in a pinch, the one to start early or stay late, or the one people call only when they have a problem, beware.  If you get great satisfaction out of being the only one who can solve a particular challenge, the one whoíll drop everything to help, brace yourself.  You may have The Hero Syndrome.

Now itís perfectly normal to gain recognition and satisfaction from doing some of these things, but when the joy of the recognition quickly fades into resentment, stress, or overwhelm, sorry.  Youíve become the hero--and at a great cost.

What can you do if you, or someone you know, suffers from The Hero Syndrome?  You have to learn how to say no and mean it.  It sounds easy enough, but it takes great discipline to learn how to put yourself first at the risk of disappointing others.  Practice by taking small steps.  Say no to things you clearly dislike doing, like being the one who always loads the office copier with paper when itís out or taking out the trash at home.  When no one protests, youíll start seeing how fun this will be!  Then build up to saying no to something on which you fear the consequences, like weekly dinners at your in-laws or constant business travel.  Once you see that the world will go on without these things, youíll experience a tremendous freedom.

Ah, but this newfound freedom may also present a dilemma.  What is it, and what can you do about it?  If you suffer from The Hero Syndrome, youíve been so worried about doing what you had to do to keep up with your obligations, you are probably out of touch with what you want and may find having freedom as overwhelming as being the hero.  Try this exercise (even if youíre not a hero, youíll benefit from it):  Take a whole day in which you make a point of having absolutely no plans or obligations.  Call it a (your name here) day.  From the moment you get up until the minute you go to bed, do only what you want to do--no musts, shoulds, coulds, have tos, or ought tos, just wants.   Rediscover who you are and what you like and want on this day, and start using that process as you measure the tasks that are asked of you daily.  Even at work, there are things you could stand to give back to its rightful owner to get more freedom to do what you want within the realm of what the job entails.

The key to turning around The Hero Syndrome is understanding its source.  Needs.  The hero is driven by the need for approval, recognition, and being wanted and valued.  The need is met briefly by the ďhighĒ of being asked to do something, but it is exactly this  short-lived high that makes it an addictive cycle.  In order to get it met, you have to keep saying yes.  The secret is getting the need met in a much healthier way.  Ask colleagues, managers, mentors, coaches, loved ones, or friends to help you get those needs met  without doing things for them (and only if the level of your relationship makes this an appropriate request).  Keep your eye on what need drives you, and youíll be able to keep it in check.

The bottom line is that you are no hero if you steal from yourself to give to everyone else.  A hero does not get his strength by doing good deeds, but by the fact that because he has great strength he is able to lend a hand to those in need.  So fill your cup and then give some away.  Weíll all be better for it, and then we can thank you, our hero.

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Are You Suffering From The Hero Syndrome?

Check the statements below that are true for you.  Be brutally honest.  If an item causes a strong reaction because you donít want it to be true, you can bet itís true for you.

1.  _____  Iím often the one on whom people depend in a pinch.

2.  _____  Iím someone whom several people trust with private information.

3.  _____  Iím often overwhelmed by the obligations I have to meet because of a promise Iíve made to others.

4.  _____  Itís important for me to feel needed.

5.  _____  I get great satisfaction from knowing that Iím the only one who can solve a specific problem.

6.  _____  Itís hard for me to delegate tasks.

7.  _____  I have several friends or colleagues who only call on me when they need something.

8.  _____  I usually volunteer for a task or project.

9.  _____  Itís difficult for me to receive praise even when I deserve it.

10. _____  I want to feel calm and in control more often.

11. _____  Itís hard for me to end each day with a sense of accomplishment because thereís always so much more to do.

12. _____  Iím the first one to begin my day at work or at home and the last one to call it quits.

13. _____  I catch myself complaining about the same problems over and over again.

14. _____ I often count on adrenaline to get through the day.

15. _____  Iím not compensated with money, rewards, or recognition for the extra things I take on.

To score, give yourself one point for each statement you marked true. 

0-2        Congratulations!  You set your limits and honor your own priorities and well-being.

3-5        You are predisposed to The Hero Syndrome.  Work to keep things in check now so that you donít pay the price later.

6-10      You make life harder than it needs to be.  Start setting boundaries and giving back responsibility to others.

11-15    Youíre suffering from The Hero Syndrome.  Without a doubt, youíre exhausted and have little room to enjoy work or life.  Take immediate and radical action to reverse this condition.

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