THE BLOG

No More Heroes?

03/02/2014 14:12 | Updated 03 April 2014

'Whatever happened to all the heroes?', sung British punk rock legends The Stranglers on their 1977 classic No More Heroes. Whilst this song might have been released the best part of 40 years ago - somewhat depressingly for those of us of a certain vintage - it's also a classic track that has lost none of its piquancy over the intervening period. Indeed, in today's post-crash landscape, its lyrics are perhaps more relevant than ever. Over the past decade, we have watched in morbid fascination as, one after another, cherished institutions and celebrated individuals alike have suffered dramatic falls from grace. From failed banks and once-proud high street names, to cheating sports stars and discredited celebrities, we have found ourselves living through arguably the most significant commercial and reputational reckoning of the modern era.

And yet, in spite of this backdrop - or indeed, because of this backdrop - the public's need for heroes remains undiminished. It's a trend we see in the seemingly unending conveyor belt of big budget Hollywood superhero blockbusters that dominate our cinemas every year. But it's also something that manifests itself in the real world as well. At freuds we were keen to understand more about who heroes really are in this complicated age. We commissioned a survey of more than 4,000 Britons designed to identify and rank heroes across a range of sectors from business and politics to sport and royalty. We also asked respondents whether they associated each of these names with a series of pre-determined 'leadership characteristics', ranging from authenticity and charisma to courage and vision.

The results of this survey form the basis for our inaugural Heroes Index, published this weekend, and even without my freuds hat on I think they make for some really interesting reading. For one thing, it was great in this era of reality TV 'celebrities' to see a proper, old-fashioned hero top the survey. Younger readers may not immediately recall the name of Falklands War veteran Simon Weston but I hope the fact he has topped our poll will enable more people to learn about his moving and powerful story.

Elsewhere, it comes as no surprise to see a number of Olympians and Paralympians featuring near the top of the ranking, cementing the sporting heroism witnessed by millions across the 'golden summer' of 2012. Equally, a strong showing by the Royal Family confirms the progress made since The Queen's annus horribilis of 1992.

All of these are interesting trends but for someone like myself, whose day job focuses on providing strategic counsel to senior management from some of the world's most successful companies, a less positive feature of our inaugural Heroes Index is the paucity of business leaders appearing in the final ranking. Sir Richard Branson is in many respects the exception that proves the rule, over-indexing on the qualities of 'likeability' and 'trustworthiness' but also scoring remarkably highly on 'vision' where he comes second only to Stephen Hawking, no less. It is this belief in the extraordinary strength of Branson's vision that elevates him far above his business peers in our survey. Crucially, we see his success as having benefitted wider society - improving lives through innovation, not just accruing personal prestige and wealth. Only time will tell whether the substance of Branson's achievements match up to the image and expectation.

Unfortunately from a corporate perspective, Branson is clearly something of an anomaly in the public's opinion. Whilst other familiar names including Stelios Haju-Ioannou, Philip Green and Alan Sugar feature elsewhere in the ranking, none of them come close to the Virgin founder. And business leaders in general are very much a minority compared with heroes from other spheres of public life.

What conclusions can we draw from this ranking? Firstly, the data reveal a striking pattern about how our business leaders are viewed. They are primarily associated with traits including 'success' and 'drive' but typically under-index on the qualities of 'trust' and 'likeability'. Whilst none of this should be a huge surprise given how the reputation of big business has suffered in recent years, I think it also raises some interesting questions about what we the public should expect from our business leaders. Are we right to expect our corporate titans to be 'heroes' in the first place? Perhaps an argument could be made that start-ups and smaller businesses need heroes to inject momentum, direction and creativity. But when it comes to big business, the annals are full of high-profile leaders who succeeded only in bringing household-name corporations crashing down - Enron's Kenneth Lay and Lehman's Dick Fuld amongst them - whilst elsewhere, away from the spotlight, a more effective class of CEOs have quietly ensured safe passage for their companies through what at times have been incredibly turbulent waters.

Examples that spring to mind include GSK's Sir Andrew Witty and John Chambers at Cisco. Both of them leaders who have prioritised the quietly effective growth and sustainability of their businesses over the tendency of the modern age to demand Dragons' Den-style 'celebrity CEOs'. This is not to say that the Bransons of this world don't deserve recognition for combining hard-nosed leadership traits with affable personalities that make them popular in the eyes of the public - it's a tricky and commendable trick to pull off, as the ranking confirms. But perhaps more than anything, what the thinking that has gone into this first iteration of our Heroes Index teaches me from a business perspective is that true heroism in the boardroom is not necessarily the same thing as heroism in the media or indeed on the sports field. And I for one don't think this is a bad thing.