The greatest leaders realize hero worship has no place in business.  Long before I ever heard of Servant Leadership though, I learned this lesson from my grandfather, a Korean War veteran…

Army Helmet Upside Down

Real Heroes Wear Helmets

I had spent the year interning with a Fortune 500 company and visited my grandfather in Maine for a week before returning to Penn State. My priorities were not right yet. Money, fame and fortune were still the front of my mind. I dreamed of being the next Bill Gates or Donald Trump. So, as we sat on his front porch one cool summer evening, I casually made reference to a prominent executive at my employer as being, “my hero”.

“Nah! That’s no hero, Ben.” My grandfather cut me off, mid-sentence, in a thick Maine accent. He was not angry, but very serious. The conversation quickly turned from a casual chat to a very somber conversation. I had made a mistake and he needed to correct me. “Let me tell you what a real hero is…”

“… it was 1951 and I was in the 4.2 Mortar group of the 45th Division of the Oklahoma National Guard in Korea. We were firing mortars when we came under attack. As we heard the incoming rounds fly past us, I dove to the ground and my helmet went flying off. Let me tell you Ben, you never feel more naked than when you have bullets flying past you and you do not have a helmet on.”

“That’s when Visloski,  who was from Pennsylvania, saw I’d lost my helmet. He jumped on top of my head, shielding it with his body, reached out and pulled my helmet back to me. That is a hero.”

Lesson learned. The whole conversation took about 5 minutes, but I’ve never used the term “hero” in business since. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve referred to anyone, other than my grandfather, as a hero of mine since. So the next time you think anyone in business is your hero, think again. Let’s save that term for the people who really deserve it – our men and woman in military service, policemen and firefighters. All the real heroes are those who risk their lives for us, while the rest of us lead our happily sheltered lives thanks to their efforts and sacrifices.

Question: Who is your real hero? How do you avoid hero-worship in business?