As a child, my idea of a hero was strongly influenced by legendary figures from Greek or Norse mythology — individuals imbued with exceptional strength and the courage and guile to take on fierce beasts and evil tyrants.
Over time, this model of hero evolved to include military figures and war heroes.
At its most basic level, the hero’s narrative arc is well established — an individual is confronted by a choice of choosing between the easy option or taking on personal risk to help others — but implicit in this definition is the concept of independence, self-reliance and individualism.
The hero is at their most heroic when isolated, alone and facing a seemingly insurmountable challenge.
This concept has many contemporary equivalents — whether it is the “Great Man” theory of history or the Hero Founder narrative of modern business — great change is driven by visionary individuals.
The Ubuntu Philosophy
As a South African brand, Nando’s leadership philosophy and culture have been strongly influenced by its origins — by a South African emerging from apartheid.
While this African heritage is felt across the business, it is unsurprisingly most tangible in South Africa. Having had the privilege of travelling to South Africa, one aspect of this heritage has personally resonated with me.
It is the philosophy of Ubuntu.
No single word translation exists in the English language, but it is often defined as “I am because we are”; my humanity, the very definition of my personhood is created by the interactions I have with other people.
When one defines oneself in relation to others, it removes the emphasis on individualism and forces one to reject this concept of a singular heroic figure.
Instead, it places the importance on our community; on collective acts of heroism rather than a singular monolithic hero.
This not only removes the expectation of a white knight that will rescue us but also removes the requirement for innate exceptionalism. Taken together, it gives the impetus and permission for each of us to be heroes.
We All Can Be Heroes
We are living through a historic period of uncertainty — there are the immediate fears about the pandemic as well as longer-term anxieties about what will come after.
To try and reflect the scale of this moment, wartime imagery has been regularly used from Emmanuel Macron’s declaration that “we are at war” to Donald Trump’s description of “the invisible enemy”.
This wartime narrative is precisely when the traditional hero narrative emerges with victorious generals and fearless warriors.
However, what we have actually seen is something quite different.
Everywhere we look, we see something much more in keeping with the principle of Ubuntu — countless people stepping forward and doing their part to help and support others.
From healthcare workers putting themselves at risk to a whole range of essential workers keeping society functioning.
These are not necessarily feats that require exceptional strength, but they are certainly worthy of celebration. This was the inspiration behind an initiative we ran at Nando’s to recognise and celebrate a group we have called Frontline Heroes.
One example that I heard has particularly touched me and highlighted the power of small acts of community action. During the Circuit Breaker, we ran a scheme at Nando’s to donate 300 free meals a day to support those in need.
I learnt that some members of the restaurant team were also donating their own staff meals to extend this support to even more people. There are many other examples — whether it is the distribution of free masks, donation of groceries or opening of homes to migrant workers unable to travel home.
These are acts of heroism by everyday people, driven by the principle of Ubuntu, this understanding that “I am because we are”.
At an even more basic level, we see the power of individual decisions and small acts. The most powerful impact on fighting this virus does not come from some singular heroic figure; it comes from each person wearing a mask, maintaining safe distances and making personal sacrifices for a greater good.
As the world phases into many challenges — not least the deepening climate crises — hopefully, one of the lasting impacts of this current moment is our appreciation for the power of communities to effect change rather than waiting for a mythical “hero”.
Each of us, you and I, can be heroes in our own ways.
Moji Neshat is the general manager of Nando’s Singapore.
This story first appeared in the August 2020 issue of Men’s Folio Singapore.
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