I recently watched a video by author James Altucher where he railed against everyone's favorite billionaire grandpa, Warren Buffett. In the tirade, Altucher explains that, while we all look up to the man for his advice and supposedly moralistic investment practices, he is actually a 'f***ing liar'. While Buffett promotes the idea that 'his favorite holding position is forever', that is just what he wants us to do so he is free to play the market, and us, the only way a billionaire can.
Throughout the tirade, it becomes clear that Althucher isn't angry at Buffett specifically for any particular business deal he made. Yes, he seems disgusted by the fact that Buffett appears to hold himself up to be a role model. However, he seems more frustrated at us the viewer, for looking up to a man who he claims would 'slit your throat in a dark alley'.
I have never really considered Buffett a hero of mine, but the rant had a near blasphemous effect on me. Even if Buffett wasn't my hero, I was vaguely aware of his many philanthropic endeavors and decent business practices. However, I was significantly more shocked by his utter irreverence for this contemporary legend.
This is at the heart of our society's issues with hero worship; misrepresentation. Once an individual has been exalted to hero status by the general public, there is an implicit level of responsibility we place on them, whether they want it or not. We end up projecting our loftiest ideals of character onto these people and forget that whether its Mahatma Gandhi or MLK, they were always just human beings.
Hero worship has had a detrimental effect on business and innovation, especially recently with the rise of tech heroes like Jobs, Zuckerberg, Musk etc. Like every other hero before them, they are flawed characters who have all done great things and not so great things during the course of their lives. Whether we know about the specifics or not, the fact that they are human beings means they have made mistakes.
The many character flaws of Steve Jobs, for example, have been detailed through a number of autobiographies and movies in recent years. Yes, he was an incredible visionary who saw that tech could be fashionable and cool in a way that no one had up until then. However, he was also rumored to be a terrible father who denied the paternity of his first daughter for years, leading her to end up on welfare at a very young age. His biographer, Walter Isaacson, once referred to him as a 'world class jerk'.
Nonetheless, Jobs still remains idolized by many, especially in Silicon Valley. To many, Jobs could do no wrong and every claim that he had is rationalized away in an effort to keep his god-like image untarnished. In an attempt to explain this cult-like following tech leaders garner, Benjamin Zeller, an associate professor of religion at Lake Forest College said, 'people see these leaders as the personification of their ambitions, goals, hopes, and desires.'
This is where the important differences between merely looking up to a personality and worshiping them come in. We as a species are capable of achieving amazing things so we should admire people and great acts. However, once you intensify your admiration to worship level, you put yourself at a number of disadvantages.
Worshiping a person places them squarely in your blindspot. In business, when you begin to believe a person can do no wrong then you start to also believe that every choice and decision they have made, even the demonstrably wrong ones, was the intentional result of brilliance. Instead of viewing life as a path filled with possibility and potential, you view life through the very narrow frame of how your hero made it. You forego your individuality to instead mimic what you think your hero would do or behave like.
The stark reality is, no matter how clever or charismatic that person is or was, the vast majority of their legendary success came down to luck. Whether it's good timing, a lucky break, or a series of little, fortuitous turns, few heroes make it to where they are of pure merit. It is down to us all to make the effort to remain impartial and see these people for what they are; people. We can learn from them, admire their work ethic or vision, but always refrain from blind worship.
We perceive superiority in these characters because they have achieved renown in such a competitive world. Renown that we, despite years of being told we were special, start to believe isn't in the cards for us the older we get. However, the most poignant thing we can learn from any hero is that they are only human, and if they could pull off the impossible, so can we.