The Super Hero Myth

Marlboro man

We like to believe that one person can save the world, win a project, and deliver the lights out performance that will change everything. No culture believes in super heroes quite like America does, and that includes our marketing.

Just consider the strong man image of the Marlboro Man. Heck, even the Old Spice guy is a play off this dream of one super hero.

The post-mortem deification of Steve Jobs over the past 10 days can be considered in this light. We know more than one person created all of these Apple products, software, marketing, store and web materials.

When it comes to creative we see the same phenomena. David Ogilvy is considered a God amongst advertisers. Many people in his agency (while he was alive) adhered to his methodologies. They also exercised their own creative license in writing and designing legendary ads.

Online, we see the same thing with bloggers. We idealize them as great voices and sages. Yet, many don’t have public accomplishments. Or when they do, we fail to see the critical role players that help make them a success.

Really this super hero/pedestal concept applies to all aspects of our culture.

Consider last Friday’s Give to the Max Day training event, which by almost every single account was a smashing success. Some people have offered props to me as the general manager for Give to the Max Day: Greater Washington, and organizer and point person on the training conference. The reality is much different, considering all of the critical players who executed almost perfectly:

  • AARP’s Tammy Gordon and Beth Carpenter lent us their facility, including its fantastic live streaming and wifi capabilities. They also supported directly not he AARP Facebook page and the Create the Good Twitter handle.
  • Razoo’s community manager Ifdy Perez did a fantastic job on Twitter, and also cultivating blogger attendance.
  • Razoo’s Shai Chu handled all of the logistics for the event, and it came off seamlessly.
  • The nonprofit attendees and their excitement to learn and participate was critical to making the day productive
  • The speakers — including Beth Kanter,‘s Dana Nelson, Razoo’s Justin Wredberg, NWF’s Danielle Brigida, Care2’s Clinton O’Brien, Atlas Corps’s Abby Flottemesch, and ACTion Alexandria’s Tracy Viselli — all did a bang up job.
  • Two speakers — Katya Andresen and Jocelyn Harmon — came from Network for Good, which is the underlying backbone behind Causes and Crowdrise, two Razoo competitors. They came in a spirit of industry cooperation and in support of our mutual hometown’s nonprofit community. Special hat tip to Network for Good.
  • Gary Vaynerchuk took time to provide a video to attending nonprofits
  • The Razoo Foundation underwrote the whole thing. Give to the Max Day parters United Way of the National Capital Area and the Community Foundation of the National Capital Region promoted the event.
  • Last May then interim Razoo CEO, now CTO Brian Fujito had the idea for Give to the Max Day: Greater Washington, without which none of this would be occurring.
  • Many Razoo executives and staffers touched this event, including Lesley Mansford, Alison Risso, Bo Lotinsky, Claire Moore, Matt Camp, Heather Pringle, Jacques Villareal, Bryce Melvin, and on and on.
  • Beth Kanter deserves a second credit, simply for teaching me how important capacity development is to nonprofits, who can have all the tools in the world, and could not execute, simply for not having the resources, training and talent to succeed. This training event, in fact the whole design of Give to the Max Day: Greater Washington, is infused with this knowledge.

You can see that many, many people came together to form the recipe of success for Friday’s training event (please excuse any forgotten mentions). That’s the truth behind most successes. One person rarely is the sole generator of great efforts.

What About Those Super Powers?

My favorite super hero is Batman. He is always able to succeed with determination and skills in the face of his own tragic flaws. He does so with the help of friends, and no true super powers. Sheer moxy (or craziness), help from others, technology and training power Batman to success.

We all wish we had super powers. We wish we could change the world by flying through the air and laser eye vision or the like. That’s why we admire the super acts of individuals, placing them on pedestals.

All of us excel in certain areas. While all humans are equal in rights and random chance, we are not all equal in skills. Some of us are very talented in areas. However, invariably these skills are certainly offset by character flaws.

This is not to say that the strengths aren’t noteworthy. They are. Albert Einstein was brilliantly thoughtful and analytical. It doesn’t mean you’d want to hang out with him at a baseball game. Such are weaknesses. Understanding one’s strengths AND weaknesses, and how others round out a total effort is the art of management.

All stars have weaknesses. And even if they claim not to, one person eventually hits a limit to scaling. That’s why we need others: To counter weaknesses and collectively achieve what one person alone cannot.

The Myth Lives On

Barack obama yes we can

“In life, there are teams called Smith, and teams called ‘Grabowski’….We’re Grabowskis!” Mike Ditka

Great quote for a team with no ultimate star, the 1985 Chicago Bears. Yet, we don’t love Grabowskis. We love super men (and women), icons who can supposedly change the world.

The hope that we, too, could be super one day touches an inner desire to be special. That’s why pedestals are built, and marketing images contrived. Because deep down inside we want to believe that we can conquer all.

So we celebrate those that appear to do so, in all aspects of our culture.

Yet, in reality, we know that it was many, it was the whole group that did it together. Even the stars need their Grabowskis to succeed. Just don’t shout it out too loud.

What do you think of the American super hero myth?


  • I much prefer the everyday Joe who becomes a hero by doing the right thing than the “superhero” we task with solving all of our problems for us. A game isn’t won by the quarterback. A battle isn’t won because of Rintintin. The Cold War wasn’t won by Ronald Reagan. We have to be the heroes in our own lives. Not super, not all day long, but when it matters.

    The real heroes I know don’t wear capes. You wouldn’t know them if they walked by you in an airport. But they’re all around us: EMTs, cops, soldiers, school teachers, surgeons, mechanics, children, fry cooks at McDonalds. They pull people out of burning cars, they pull someone back just as they were about to be hit by a bus, they stand up to bullies and muggers, they help little old ladies cross the street, they spend time being mentors, they spend every waking moment raising money for cancer research or to find home for neglected animals, they take a bullet for the guy next to them. We all have the power to be one of them. I find that a lot more interesting than the notion that a guy in a cape (figuratively or not) is going to suddenly appear and make my problems go away. And that goes for politics too.

    Having said that, cultures need hero myths. The Greeks had theirs. We have ours. We just need to remember not to confuse archetypes and real people is all. Good post, as always.

    • Thanks, Olivier. One of the examples I thought about using was Peyton Manning, who by all accounts is probably the singular greatest quarterback in the league right now.  In spite of all his MVP trophies and greatness, he has only one ring.  Indianapolis has not found enough quality Grabowskis. 

      You are so right to talk about the every day heroes, and we just don’t celebrate them enough in society.  It bugs me that Kim Kardashian or Steven Tyler are heroes to most.  Why? I don’t get it.

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  • We need both myths, Geoff. If you’re up on your Joseph Campbell, there are two sides to the “monomyth.”  The Hero’s Journey is about the godlike hero who reaches down to earth and pulls the rest of us up out of disaster at great sacrifice. But the complementary story is the Fool’s Journey, about a regular garden-variety person who eventually achieves something extraordinary, usually with help from friends and mentors. Gilgamesh and Enkidu; two sides of the same coin. :)  

  • My hero was my granddad. He worked for years down a dark mine, to ensure his family always had food on the table. He stood up for the little guy; always instructed his sons to never hit a woman; and stayed strong even when fighting terminal cancer.

    He never complained, and made sure everyone around him always left with a smile, and that they were loved deeply.

    Can’t ask for much more than that.

    Thanks for a wonderful post, my friend.

    • Wow, sounds like a champ!  My Dad went through some real bad times when we were tweens and teens, but he pulled us through it. He’s my hero for sure.

  • Thanks, Geoff. I learned it all from you so I have you to thank. :)

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