How to Awaken Your Employees’ Inner Super Hero

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A while back I was approached by the leadership team of an organization struggling with the emotional aftermath of a reorganization. Employees were feeling lost, adrift, and frightened.

One of the goals of the leadership retreat they asked me to facilitate was to explore how the team could foster what I call a “Bring it On!” spirit in their workforce. Organizations with such a spirit have employees who are resilient, optimistic, and filled with a “Can do” attitude.

To create such an ethos, you must know how to engage an aspect of your employees that is likely unknown to them: their Inner Super Hero.

Yet, the Inner Super Hero — a part of the human psyche capable of tremendous courage and resourcefulness against seemingly insurmountable odds — lives in within each of us. It lies dormant until called forth.

Let me explain what I mean — and then how to awaken the Inner Super Hero of your people — by sharing with you the exercise we did at the leadership retreat.

Drawing from an epic tale of an unlikely hero

To get the team thinking about their role in unleashing their employees’ Inner Super Hero, I played a brief video clip from The Lord of the Rings. I like to use The Lord of the Rings as a metaphor for unleashing a workforce’s Inner Super Hero, because the hero of it is not what we typically think of as hero-material.

The hero upon whose shoulders the fate of the world rests in this movie is not your typical testosterone charged, macho action hero type.

Rather, the hero is a small unassuming hobbit named Frodo. In case you unfamiliar with the movie, hobbits look like small humans. While these good natured, happy go lucky folks might be the first on your list of invitees to a party, they would be the last on your list of potential candidates for saving the world.

Yet in The Lord of the Rings, fate has chosen the hobbit Frodo to save the world from evil.

“Regular Joes & Janes” as potential Super Heroes

To me, the central role Frodo plays in saving the world from evil is a wonderful metaphor for how “average” employees hold the key to achieving amazing things in any organization.

When I say “average,” I don’t mean unremarkable or modestly talented. I mean the individual contributor who does not have an official title of “leader.”

The “Regular Joes or Janes” often has no realization of the true potential lying dormant within them. They have no appreciation of the full measure of courage and resourcefulness they possess.

Great leaders know how to help them see, access, and unleash that latent courage and resourcefulness, that Inner Super Hero.

How do you awaken the Super Hero in people?

One way is to model how Gandalf, the wise old wizard in The Lord of the Rings, responded to Frodo in the movie scene depicted in the video clip below.

In this scene, Frodo is bemoaning his fate to Gandalf. He’s a wizard who has joined Frodo on his journey, accompanied by a handful of other courageous souls who, unlike Frodo, fit the typical warrior archetype. The goal of the journey is for Frodo to find Mordor, and throw the Ring of Power into the Lake of Fire, so it can never be used to empower evil again.

If you have not seen The Lord of the Rings, one quick bit of context to explain Gandalf’s reference to “Bilbo.” Bilbo is the hobbit who originally came into possession of the Ring of Power, which was later passed onto Frodo.

OK, so enough set-up. As you watch this brief scene, notice how Gandalf responds and what his response accomplishes.

What can you learn from Gandalf?

Before you seek to inspire, first acknowledge the person’s fears, feelings, and perspective.

Notice that Gandalf acknowledges and normalizes Frodo’s feelings. He doesn’t start out by trying to convince Frodo to feel and think differently.

One of the common mistakes people make when they’re trying to be helpful is to immediately attempt to convince a person in distress to not feel the way they are feeling. If you recall times others have done that to you, you know how unproductive that is. You felt like you weren’t heard or understood, which probably made you unreceptive to the “helpful” advice you were given.

By first acknowledging the person’s perspective before offering an alternative perspective, you are modeling what made Dr. Milton Erickson a legend in the field of hypnosis and therapy.

Dr. Milton Erickson was famous for his ability to establish rapport with, and help, people who other clinicians dismissed as intractable and incapable of benefiting from therapy. One of Dr. Erickson’s secrets was his radically different approach to working with people. He didn’t immediately try to convince people to see their problems through his eyes. He didn’t try to convince them of the rightness of his perspective.

Instead, he said his first job was to do everything he could to see the patient’s problem and the patient’s world through their eyes. His next job was to communicate to them that he understood their perspective and why they held it.

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Expanding a person’s world view

Only AFTER he communicated that he deeply understood them, would he begin the process of expanding the person’s world view. Then and only then would he guide the patient to see their problem from a different, more empowering and possibility-filled perspective.

If you want to be a more compelling communicator, and you want to help employees who feel small, afraid, and stuck unleash their Inner Super Hero, don’t begin by dismissing their fears and telling them how they should think and feel.

Often people with powerful personalities or in positions of power don’t realize that telling people what to think, feel, and do might feel satisfying, but almost never creates the results they desire. The person with less power may respectfully sit in silence as they are being told, but are not truly listening.

Instead, they are feeling frustrated at being talked at and not listened to.

Now, if I were coaching Gandalf, and this wasn’t a movie scene, I would coach him to use more than a single line to acknowledge and normalize Frodo’s feelings and perspective, before offering him a new, larger perspective.

Help the person focus on their Circle Of Control

After Gandalf acknowledges that all people who find themselves in difficult times wish it were not so, he says “…that is not for them to decide, all we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

In his wise, wizardly phrasing, he reminds Frodo not to focus on things outside his Circle of Control. Instead, he encourages Frodo to focus on the choices he has moving forward and the decisions that he is responsible for making. When people focus on the things they cannot change, they feel small, helpless and victimized.

Whether it’s a bad economy, government incompetence, or a corporate downsizing that has left their department short-staffed, as long as they focus on things they cannot change, they feel helpless. This perception of helplessness seeps out into all aspects of their lives, leaving them unable to see opportunities, believe they can successfully face challenges, or try to make a difference.

Focusing on things they cannot change also means they are NOT focusing on things they CAN control and things they CAN influence. So not only do they feel helpless, they are also diminishing their effectiveness.

Offer a larger perspective to view the problem

This is the major lesson in Gandalf’s brief coaching session. He invites Frodo to look at the course of events from a larger, more mythic perspective. Because Frodo is in the midst of his drama, he feels small and overwhelmed. In this state, all he can see are the forces of evil bearing down on him. Gandalf reminds him of other, benevolent forces affecting the course of events and provides evidence of his assertion.

Gandalf does what great leaders do: he provides a larger, grander, wiser, and more optimistic perspective from which followers can view their current challenges.

By doing so, the leader helps elevate their people out of their small, fear-based ground level perspective. By helping them see their current challenges from a higher, wiser perspective, the leader helps shift people from small, fear-based behaviors to behaviors and responses that reflect the bigger, larger perspective.

By doing so, the leader helps others access their Inner Super Hero, and by doing that, animates them to face their challenges with courage, determination, and bold optimism.

Author’s Note: The Frodo and Gandalf analogy was excerpted from the “Bring It On!: How to Create a Resilient Workforce with a Warrior Spirit” presentation given at the 2011 SHRM national conference. For a copy of the audio recording, email david@humannatureatwork.com

David Lee is the founder and principal of HumanNature@work and the creator of Stories That Change. He's an internationally recognized authority on organizational and managerial practices that optimize employee performance, morale, and engagement. He is also the author of "Managing Employee Stress and Safety," as well over 100 articles and book chapters. You can download more of his articles at HumanNature@work, contact him at david@humannatureatwork.com, or follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/humannaturework.

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2 Comments on “How to Awaken Your Employees’ Inner Super Hero

  1. Great article, however (and it just may already been said), if you would take another look at the Lord of the Rings trilogy you would realize that the great hero of the story is not Frodo but is Samwise Gamgee, an even more unlikely fellow to assume the mantle of the hero archetype.

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