Stop being the hero

Why the best products and leaders are never heroes

TLDR: your customers and teammates want to be the hero, so the greatest opportunity is to help them get there; be the Yoda to their Skywalker

When I became a lead PM, I made a near-fatal career mistake. I was used to working at a tiny startup. A startup is like a baby. It cries 24/7 and requires a team of heroes to keep alive. I liked being a hero, someone trusted to save the day. 

A startup is also designed to grow fast. Unlike a real baby, it can become a teenager overnight. And a teenager doesn’t need a hero, it needs a guide.

Most of us see ourselves as the hero. We need to save our customers to win them over. We need to save our teammates to add value.

Here’s the truth: nobody is asking for a hero. Everybody is already the star of their own movie — they are the aspiring hero. What they want is a guide who can help them get there.

The best products and leaders recognize this nuance and make an ever-lasting impact. Let’s talk about how to try this for your product and relationships.

Every problem is 3 layers deep

Every juicy problem has three layers. It starts with a practical need, turns into an emotional desire, and is topped with a captivating narrative. 

Some examples:

Most of us fixate on the first layer: the practical problem, leaving emotional and narrative voids. We present our product as the best solution — it’s the hero! But customers don’t care unless you can translate feature into benefits that make them the hero. The most convincing benefits align with their aspirational identity.

Connect the dots

In most places, a different team is responsible for each layer, and it shows. A thing is first made, then marketed and explained in the most flattering light. 

The real magic happens when you work out the emotion and narrative before you build anything. Details can change, but the very act of drafting all three layers, connecting the dots, takes you to special places. 

Amazon famously asks people to write a press release before anything starts. I prefer to keep it simple and focus on these questions:

Practical: 

  • What is the direct thing you make possible? 

Emotional: 

  • What do your customers aspire to be? 

  • What will help them survive and thrive?

  • How can you help them step into their new identity with what you make? 

  • Hint: Pay close attention to the words they use because they reveal how you should describe your offering 

Narrative: 

  • Why is this the right thing for the world?

Competitive edge

Given enough time, the practical layer often gets commoditized. There is no shortage of electric cars, sharing apps, and device makers.

But a product’s emotional and narrative layers stay unique. There’s no substitute for a product that makes you the person you want to be. It becomes part of your identity.

The narrative makes the solution worth building. It breathes purpose into your effort. Like a beacon, it calls people to join you.

Curse of knowledge

Neglect of emotions and narratives also explain why people feel disconnected from each other.

Asking Where do you want to go? How can I help? helps you understand your peers and the people you manage, just as you understand customers. They, too, want to be heroes and are simply looking for guidance. They want to be Batman, not Robin. 

Instead of giving them your answers, start with questions like:

  • What’s the problem you’re solving?

  • What options are you considering?

  • What does your next step look like?

Having good answers can hurt your ability to ask better questions. It feels good when people see you as the expert, but the day you start believing it, you stop learning. You also unintentionally rob others the thrill of learning.

It took me a long time to realize that my eagerness to roll up my sleeves and solve problems disempowered others from doing the same. It’s a common mistake for first-time managers who grapple with a new identity.

Occasionally you do need to take the wheel but if you hire people, the point is to design a system where they become the drivers, and you become the guide.

The OG hierarchy

Think about your favorite product. Then think about your favorite project. Mine are Spotify and learning Webflow. It’s no coincidence that both are about self-expression.

Sound familiar? What we’ve been talking about is the summit of Maslow’s hierarchy, applied to building products and relationships.

Your customers and teammates want the same thing: to change for the better. When you identify that change, why it’s the right thing, and help them get there, you become an unforgettable guide.

Heroes compete for attention, but the Yodas and Gandalfs of the world earn the greatest respect because they make the rest of us better.


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Thanks for reading,

-Linda