I Am Legend, But I Shouldn’t Be

As change agents, we must not become what we hate.



They were everywhere.

In Richard Matheson’s classic book I Am Legend, the protagonist, Robert Neville, is the sole survivor of a pandemic that has left the rest of the human population converted to vampires.  Those who know the book and not the movies (especially the Will Smith version) know that the vampires could still talk and interact.  They could, eventually, be coherent individuals–still infected with a terrible disease that prevented them from being in the sun.

Neville, the last uninfected person standing, goes about his nights barricaded from the night stalking vampires–studying their evolution and weaknesses. And he goes about his days hunting them down and killing them while they sleep.  He drives stakes into their hearts with aplomb.

Every night, the vampires stand at his barricaded door…calling his name.

Eventually, Neville is captured.  He recognizes, after his capture, that the society of vampires that has formed now views him as the monster.  He has become the stuff of legends… the boogeyman who kills “good” vampires in their sleep.

I am legend.

The insight

What happens when the radical change agent goes too far?

What happens when noble goals like turning around a company or re-invigorating a culture get personal?

I’ve seen (and been) in situations where the radical change agents, focused on protecting or implementing the “good society” of their dreams or experience, get off track. It gets personal.  Everybody around them becomes a vampire to slay.

Their vampires might be in the form of people who represent the “old” culture of a company.

Or, their vampires might be in the form of people who simply won’t do things the way the change agent wants them done.

The change agent–a new executive or consultant, usually–wants a new culture or a new way of doing thigns. So, he or she goes about studying the vampires.  He identifies weaknesses, patterns, and ways of disposing of them.

He becomes a drop dead vampire killer.

But something happens on the way.

On the way, the notion of a “good society” gets left behind.  Killing vampires becomes the end in itself.

Where do you see this transference of a noble goal for a personal one?

Well, in companies that have gone through significant turmoil, vampire killers look like cost cutters.  They get so good at their craft that they take their eyes off the reason for cutting costs in the first place. As times improve, they kill the company’s mojo.

In companies that emerged from periods of zero financial discipline, the killers look like the spreadsheet artists. They work to the right of the decimal and find a way to control every “vampire,” but they lose sight of why.  Discipline becomes an end in itself.

In companies with highly innovative pasts facing uncertain futures, the vampire killers often look like old line leaders who “protect” their innovative heritage at the cost of the future of the company.  They kill off the vampires that look like spreadsheet jockeys. They resist any change whatsoever, even when it’s fully in line with the “good society.”  They are vampire killers.

The lesson

The lesson, then, I suppose is this:  Check your premises.

If you lash out at the old guard (or secretly harbor the desire to terminate them) because, well, you have power and they are the old guard, you might be on your way to becoming a legend.

If you destroy anyone who represents the “other” just because they are other, then you might be on your way to legendary status.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, if you find yourself killing vampires just because somebody else said to–with no connection to the good society–then you are simply a legend enabler.  Lots of people pursue agendas triangulated solely from their impressions of what some other vampire killer wants.

Life is too short to only slay vampires.  Don’t become a legend.  Don’t let it be personal. Have a purpose beyond the practice.

Robert Neville started out by killing vampires to eradicate a disease.  He then grew to hate vampires, and became their killer for sport.  Even when the vampires in his story had a point, he still killed them.  He became a legend because he lost sight of his goals.

He became the vampire.

As change agents, we must not become what we hate.

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