Tiger Woods. Kobe Bryant. Rajat Gupta. Steve Jobs.
No, they’re not members of a “fallen heroes” club. They’re just names that large swathes of population are aware of, and subsets revere or have revered at different points in time and then cast aside. In the case of the last name, there might be several rounds of both for a while.
What triggered the line of thought was the HBR article titled “Idolize Bill Gates, not Steve Jobs”. The author repeatedly asks the question “who to idolize”, almost as if desperate to have some kind of template of greatness to aspire to. I have serious doubts about that line of thinking.
The reasons that cause us to bestow “hero” status on certain individuals are easy enough to understand, typically boiling down to excellence in a chosen field. What causes us to rip the plaque off the wall with disgust, not so much.
Their Rocky-like ascents to greatness, in our minds, are usually accompanied by well-documented stories of coming from unfertile backgrounds and using sheer force of will to impressive achievements. As they emerge from oblivion to cause us to take notice, the sole point of discussion is their field of work or play. As Tiger Woods was in the process of making golf sexy, I doubt there were many admiring conversations about his charitable donations or his exemplary manners, or for that matter, his fidelity. With 14 seconds to go and a point down, Lakers fans didn’t want the ball to go to Kobe for his graciousness but for his ridiculous talent honed to near-perfection with hundreds of hours of hardwork.
But once their achievements are widely acknowledged, something funny seems to happen. The goalposts shift. The smallest inkling of a character flaw is examined, magnified and discussed. So much so that not-so famous peers huddle around tables analyzing so-called behaviours from ‘way back when’ that apparently got them wondering. The author of the above article points to Jobs concern for Apple as a reason to rank him below Gates who spends time with his foundation. Seems like flimsy reasoning to me. As if there is some kind of direct causality between any perceived errant behavior and all the achievements. It’s almost as if being made aware of a flaw in such a person gets us to heave a collective sigh of relief that goes “so that’s what was wrong with him so now I don’t have to aspire to that kind of greatness”.
The flaw, I think, lies in the concept of “idolizing” individuals. To really be able to do so, you have to be aware of, not only their achievements, but also their motivations. Something we can never be sure of. Would it not make a difference if you were aware that a given athlete’s superlative performances stemmed from a deep-rooted insecurity about their self-worth versus one whose motivation was just to be the best?
Instead, we would be better off recognizing greatness in deeds rather than associating them with the very human individuals that carry them out. That a bright young engineer from a lower-middle class Indian background went on to become not only the first non-American partner but went on to head the most recognized management consulting firm in the world for well over a decade is a deed worth acknowledging as great. Sketchy information about a few ill-advised phone calls do not detract from that deed. It would therefore be a pity if young professionals refused to take inspiration from such examples, at the same time recognizing that that they are distinct unit of muscle, bones and tissue.
Fools admire, men of sense approve