Cue the Heroic Dissonance

Thank you

It’s Memorial Day, and like many Americans, I’m taking some time to remember our fallen… our military heroes of all kinds. The newspapers have been displaying pictures of the Viet Nam Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery for days, now, reminding us all about those who have paid with their lives.

I think of my father-in-law, who carried German shrapnel in his legs till the end of his life. I think of his brother-in-law, who was in the Pacific Theater, and never liked to talk about it. I think of my great aunt, who didn’t serve in World War II, but traveled to France to help the country rebuild when the post-war dust was starting to settle. I think of the many, many Americans near and far who have sacrificed to some degree or another. And I think of what their sacrifice means to us all. I think about rewards and penalties, costs and blessings. I wonder what makes a hero.

In particular, I have been thinking of George Washington Bert, a distant cousin of my grandfather, who lost his life on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, 70 years ago this coming June 6. For his service, he was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star. A short description of his life in our family geneology reads:

George lifted his agricultural deferment in 1943 and enlisted in the US Army. After serving in Africa and Sicily, he was stationed in England until the invasion of the Continent. He was killed in action on D-Day, June 6, 1944, in the vincity of Colleville-sur-Mer in Normandy. According to the citation for his Bronze Star, “Realizing that he was facing certain death, Pfc. Bert remained on exposed beach and, by directing effective automatic rifle fire upon enemy gun emplacements, enabled his section to maneuver into strategic positions. In the performance of his heroic, self-imposed mission, Pfc. Bert was mortally wounded.”

I often imagine what that day might have been like for my distant cousin twice-removed, but I cannot possibly. So, I simply say a silent “Thank you,” and get on with my blessedly mundane life.

Meanwhile, it’s also graduation season, with crops of new grads freed up to enter the workforce or commence their higher education. Like many others, I have been watching the YouTube videos of entertaining commencement speeches my friends have “liked” on Facebook, navigating heavier-than-usual traffic in Boston on the weekends, and wondering what sort of world our newly minted degree-holders are entering. Rolling my cart full of haphazardly bagged groceries past the newpaper rack at the grocery store, glancing at the pictures of military tombstones with “Heroes” in the headlines, I wonder if the newly graduated cashiers and baggers behind me have any idea what they’re getting into.

And it occurs to me, they might not — but not for the reasons we typically call out. Modern critics and social architects call attention to the “skills gap”, the lack of workers who can take on the “shovel-ready” jobs, the increasingly eclectic tone of exorbitantly expensive education. Yes, a young former co-worker of mine did take a class in “wine pairing” while in college. Yes, there are a ton of professional positions sitting unfilled, while yet more tons of professionally prepped candidates sit on their parents’ couches Netflixing away. Yes, there is a bias against manual labor that not only hurts our economy, but also narrows the viable options for the able-bodied.

But another sort of gap threatens productivity and earning power. I call it “Heroic Dissonance” — a complete and total disconnect between the expectations of those who work, and those who pay them to get the job done.

Heroic Dissonance is the disconnect between those who believe heroism is about how much you suffer, and those who believe it’s about how well you perform.

It’s the gaping divide between the perspectives of those who expect to be compensated for what they sacrifice for a cause… and the willingness of others to reward them for what they deliver.

It’s the conflict between those who believe their pay grade  should reflect how much they’ve given up, how much hardship they’ve endured… and those who tie earnings purely to results.

This divide is very real, and it has its costs. It kills morale, undermines work product, complicates mangerial dynamics, and it hinders cross-group interactions. It also makes meaningful negotiation all but impossible — the equivalent of a French-only speaker working out contractual details with a Mandarin-only speaker.

Let me give you an example: I once had two friends (who shall remain nameless) who co-produced a number of events. One of the collaborators had health issues which prevented him from doing much physical activity until the actual event took place. He didn’t have a lot of energy to start with, so any effort he put into preparation pretty much sucked the life out of him. His contribution was largely passive, until it was showtime, when he sprang into action … and wore himself out.

The other collaborator did more of the active legwork and promotion. He knew none of the events were going to happen unless he could provide extraordinary value to their clientele — and he went to great lengths to make that happen. People signed up, because of his ongoing work. And they kept coming back to events, thanks to that level of attention.

Heroic Dissonance was an ongoing source of friction between these two folks. Each of them was a hero in his own eyes — but for very different reasons. The total time and effort the active collaborator brought to the events was exponentially larger than the passive collaborator’s contribution. And yet the passive collaborator complained every single time that he was not being paid nearly enough for everything he sacrificed personally for the cause. He had suffered and sacrificed a great deal, so he should be paid half the net earnings, despite doing a fraction of the actual work.

From his point of view, he was right — he suffered more and sacrificed more than his co-producer. But in terms of time invested and actual value created, he was way off base.

I see this same disconnect played out in the “class warfare” dynamics of the day. Those who feel a person should be compensated for what sacrifices they make, and those who feel a person should be rewarded for what value they contribute, can hardly be expected to agree on who should be paid what — and why. Those who feel pay levels should match what they sacrifice to show up at work every day, are never going to see eye to eye with those who feel uncapped pay levels should inspire an individual to drive growth. Those who feel that no one person is 3000 times more important than another, are never going to believe that any executive — no matter how brilliant or powerful — should be paid 3000x the average company salary. And those who believe salary levels should be commensurate with the extent to which they support and grow the business, are never going to buy into earning caps of any kind.

We’re at an impasse. In just about every corner of our society.

And I wonder if any of our grads are being prepared for a world where, yes, your earnings are in fact linked to how much others get from younot how much of yourself you give.

I wonder if they’ve been taught how to convey the value of what they contribute, in ways that their future bosses can appreciate, quantify, and convert into earnings increases.

I wonder if they’ve been warned that making a point, over and over, about how much you’ve sacrificed, how much you’ve toiled, how much you’ve suffered for the cause, is not going to make you look like a Hero in a business context. It’s going to make you look like a whiner, a poor planner, and a lousy self-manager who’s about as likely to get promoted as that yappy dog that lives next door.

I wonder if anybody’s mentioned to them that in the end, focusing on what you’ve lost for the Cause makes your life all about The Problem, while focusing on what everyone else has gained as a result of your efforts (be they large or small), makes your career all about The Solution. And bosses like Solutions. They like them a lot.

Maybe the message has gotten through. I tend to think there are people who instinctively pick up on these sorts of things — and they’re the folks you find in the corner office in a surprisingly short period of time. But all across society, we probably owe it to ourselves to mention these things to the next crop of wage-earners paying into the Social-Security pot.

My distant relative George Washington Bert was awarded a Bronze Star for the part he played in the success of D-Day. Would he have received the honor, if the offensive had not succeeded? Would he have been honored, if he had stayed on that beach, but been shot down before he had a chance to cover his section and let them get into position? Would he have received the Bronze Star, if he had done all he did, yet survived? What if he’d survived D-Day, but his gun had jammed and he hadn’t been able to do a thing? Would he have been rewarded just for showing up?

It’s impossible to tell. But these are the sorts of questions we all need to ask ourselves, as we pursue our careers and hope to advance in the world. What we are giving is one thing — what others get from us, can be something very, very different. And chances are good that others looking out for their own interests are going to focus on the latter.

If nobody else has mentioned this, then the latest crop of grads can hereby consider themselves warned. We live in a society which respects and celebrates personal sacrifice in pursuit of a shared goal. We declare our fallen “Heroes” and honor them in due course. We need those Heroes. The world would be a dismal, far more dangerous place if we had no Heroes who were willing to sacrifice for others.

But we conduct business in an economic climate which rewards those who create positive change for improvement and growth — with or without personal sacrifice. And in the eyes of an executive needing to stay in the black, someone who performs bottom-line miracles without breaking a sweat is a thousand times more of a Hero than someone who runs themself into the ground day and night to barely break even.

It doesn’t make one any more or less of a hero than the other. We just need to know which sort of heroism matters, and when– and then act accordingly.

To all those who have served, to their families and friends who have shared their sacrifices, thank you.

Today, yes, you are Heroes.


About Kay Lorraine

I'm a writer, poet, and artist... a technologist and a thinker, independently living my life.
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One Response to Cue the Heroic Dissonance

  1. Michelle Bert says:

    You and I may be related. Would you and I be able to email?


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