The Pitfalls of Hero Worship in Nonprofits and Social Enterprises

It seems like hardly a day goes by without a celebrity or big-business icon becoming the latest “heropreneur.” Bill Gates, Bono, and Angelina Jolie are just a few of the socially minded elite who have launched charitable endeavors, capitalizing on their fame to help make the world a better place.

Nonprofit leaders need to be awary of the pitfalls of heropreneurship.Of course there’s nothing wrong with wealthy or famous people leading the charge for good. Still, nonprofit leaders need to remember that such “heropreneurship” has its drawbacks. There’s always a risk that newly philanthropic yet ill-informed leaders will blaze ahead without learning enough about the problems they’ve chosen to tackle and the best ways to solve them.

Actually, Gates, Bono and Jolie show have shown how to get heropreneurship right. Besides creating the kind of buzz that brings in like-minded donors, they’ve built well-functioning organizations. Still, nonprofit leaders who work with a heropreneur need to stay cautious about the potential for misguided hero worship. You can’t afford to lose your focus on developing the organization and fulfilling its mission.

A misplaced emphasis

Back when “social entrepreneurship” was a relatively new concept, many nonprofits looked to “heropreneurs” to acquaint the masses with this new way of doing business. And a host of people emerged with the title heropreneur, both well-known and not so well-known.

Yet it may have worked a bit too well, inspiring an entire generation of socially minded students to aspire to roles at the top of pacesetting social-change enterprises. It’s especially popular these days to starts a successful profit-making enterprise and donate much of its profit to various causes.

Unfortunately, they also shied away from less celebrated, but no less important, roles with new and established nonprofits.

Traditionally, experience in the ranks of any organization gives an individual a deeper understanding of how it operates and gets its work done. In nonprofits, such experiences equip budding leaders with knowledge of social issues and help them understand the best ways to effect change. If young people rush to the top, such knowledge gets neglected.

Broadening leadership

Thus, nonprofits of every sort need to stay focused on this critical element of developing potential leaders. In fact, the very term “leadership” is often misinterpreted by novice leaders as meaning at or near the top of an organization. Yet, leadership can take many different forms, such as leading a department or cross-functional leadership.

The latter refers to the ability of people to form and lead teams from throughout the enterprise. New grads might mistakenly downplay the importance of such roles, when in fact they are how much gets accomplished in any kind of organization.

It takes teamwork

Many entrepreneurs are driven by a desire to “tackle the impossible.” Indeed, such inspiration and motivation have led some to found brand-new organizations to work toward solutions. Where they may fall short, however, is in their ability to build and lead the kinds of teams that can help them bring about the change they seek.

Pamela Hartigan, director of the Skoll Centre for Entrepreneurship at Oxford University, calls for a new distinction between the noun “entrepreneur” and the verb “entrepreneuring.” In the latter, people use their leadership skills to perform the many diverse functions of a larger organization — rather than attempting to form yet another organization on their own.

Keep egos in check

While many people lament the star quality that has accrued to many corporate CEOs, social entrepreneurs often get a pass when they exhibit such qualities. There’s some evidence that our cultural biases and the stories and legends we learn as children make us more apt to turn leaders of some movements into heroes.

With the help of reporters and the media, who at times seem as star-struck as ordinary people, these do-gooders are often elevated to cult status.

Yet, some stories have a bad ending, with celebrated heroes taking a fall. A decade ago, that much-heralded fallen hero was Greg Mortenson, whose writings and speeches made him a media darling. That is, until reports emerged that he had siphoned funds away from the organization he founded to build schools in Afghanistan.

The challenge for ordinary people in nonprofits is to recognize the danger inherent in hero worship. Instead, always keep the focus of your organization less on the personalities of leaders and more on your mission and accomplishments.

One final note

While the term “heropreneur” is used generically here and in much of what’s written about social entrepreneurship in the U.S., Heropreneurs is also the proper name of a nonprofit organization in the U.K. In that organization, the word “hero” in its name refers not to the fame or fortunes of its leaders but to the people it aims to assist: former armed services personnel. That’s a cause that truly befits the title.

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