Kevin Brown: Redefining heroism

Kevin Brown

We’re here to be not ordinary, but extraordinary, says Kevin Brown, a general session speaker at ICBA LIVE 2020. The author of The Hero Effect explains why we all have the capacity to be heroes at home, in the community and at work.

By Roshan McArthur

What do you think about when you think about a hero? It’s something of an elusive concept, as Kevin Brown discovered a decade ago. “I was asked to give a speech about what it means to be a hero,” he says. “Of course, I enthusiastically said yes and then went about the business of absolutely freaking out, after I committed to doing this thing that I didn’t know how to do.” He started by writing down, “What does a hero look like?”

“We think about the military, first responders, doctors and nurses, moms and dads, teachers, coaches, all of the influencers in our lives, [plus] the people we classically define as heroes, world changers like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa,” he says. “I started digging a little bit deeper. I asked people what it means to be a hero, and what was interesting was people defined heroes as ordinary people doing extraordinary things.” At first, that definition made sense to Brown, but over time, his opinion changed. “I’ve come to the conclusion over the past decade that that’s absolutely false,” he says. “The truth is that if we buy into the idea that we’re ordinary people doing extraordinary things, first we have to convince ourselves that we are ordinary.

“I don’t think there is anybody on this planet who was put here to be ordinary. I believe that we were created with talents, gifts and abilities as unique as our fingerprints. And I believe we were put here to make an extraordinary difference. The true definition of a hero is extraordinary people who choose not to be ordinary. That changed everything for me.”

In his 2017 book The Hero Effect, Brown describes his own take on heroism, one that transports the hero out of the realm of the mythological and into the everyday world. His H.E.R.O. is an acronym for helping (H) without strings attached, creating an exceptional (E) experience, taking responsibility (R) for their actions and seeing the world through the lens of optimism (O). His heroes make life better, solve problems and move people from where they are to somewhere new.

Personal heroes

Brown has encountered such heroes throughout his career. That career started when his father, a blue-collar worker, helped him buy a franchise after he dropped out of high school in his hometown of Muskegon, Mich. The venture failed, but it launched Brown into a highly successful career in franchise expansion that spanned more than 30 years.

Years later, his wife, Lisa, became the greatest of his heroes. At the age of 3, their son Josh was diagnosed with a speech and language delay and, two years later, with autism. Brown credits Lisa with defying the odds; she left her career behind to help Josh succeed at school, learn to drive and get into college despite the hurdles he faced.

Kevin Brown giving a speech

“[Heroes] have this uncanny ability to show up larger than life. … Larger than life means bigger than life’s problems, bigger than the storyline that life gave us, bigger than the challenges that our clients and employees are facing.”

“They gave us a list of everything this boy wouldn’t do, all of the things he wouldn’t achieve,” Brown says. “And for the last 17 years, I’ve had the honor and privilege of watching a leader with the title of mother rewrite the vision for this boy’s life. This boy has achieved more than they ever thought he would, more than I ever did. This kid went to college. I didn’t go to college.

“That’s the beauty of leadership; leaders take the storyline life gives us and they rewrite it. I watched as this compelling vision that my wife Lisa created attracted all the resources and the people we needed.”

Brown has not only learned from his wife’s optimism, but from his son’s unwavering focus, too. “One of the things children with autism do is get very fixated on their heart’s desire, their passion,” he says. “They have this uncanny ability to not hear all the periphery, all of the noise. They’re very literal thinkers. Josh has taught me the power of focus. He doesn’t really understand other people’s opinions of him. Therefore, he doesn’t really pay them any attention, which is a fascinating thing to me because so many people get wrapped up in what other people think of them.”

Workplace heroes

Brown envisions a workplace where exceptional behavior takes precedence over the ordinary, where a compelling vision aims to make life better for the whole community. He says that starts with how bank leaders treat their employees, because a healthy workplace translates to how those employees treat customers.

“When we think about building that culture,” he says, “we think about building people, we think about helping them become the best version of themselves, so they can pour that into the customers and clients that walk through the door.”

Brown believes every single touchpoint in a community bank, from the drive-thru to the tellers to the back office, reflects the culture that leadership is committed to. He even extends this to the grocery store and the movie theater. “You don’t get to stop being an ambassador of the organizations that you serve,” he says. “A lot of times, people forget that.”

This means taking the time to look past day-to-day transactions to something deeper. “We’re all just a collection of stories,” Brown says. “People aren’t coming to the bank to make a deposit, to withdraw money, to get a loan. People are coming to the bank to write another chapter in the story of their lives. ‘I’m coming to the bank not to get a loan, but to finance the education of my son or daughter.’ ‘I’m coming to the bank to get a short-term loan because my mom just passed away unexpectedly.’ The question is, what are you going to do? What are you going to do to add to that narrative?”

Heroes see what everybody else sees, according to Brown, but differently.

“They have this uncanny ability to show up larger than life. I don’t mean flamboyant and wearing blue tights and a cape,” he adds. “Larger than life means bigger than life’s problems, bigger than the storyline that life gave us, bigger than the challenges that our clients and employees are facing.

“People want to be safe and secure and know that you’ve shown up to serve today at a high level, that you’ve got ways to help them through the storm that they’re in,” he adds. “We just want somebody who can help us make life better.”

How Kevin Brown defines a H.E.R.O.

Kevin Brown, author of The Hero Effect and general session speaker at ICBA LIVE 2020, says that heroes:

H: Help people without strings attached. “Most of us talk about service and going the extra mile, but most people only talk about it to the extent that it’s a return on investment for how helpful they are,” Brown says. “Heroes understand what the extra mile actually looks like, and they’re willing to make the trip.”

E: Create an exceptional experience for the people they serve. “Not ordinary with the occasional burst of exceptional; [they do it] every single time,” he says. “Heroes say, ‘Look, if I’m going to put my name on this, it’s going to be done to a level of excellence that most people don’t even aspire to.’”

R: Take responsibility for their attitude, actions and results. “Heroes are always accountable. Accountability is about self. What can we do to perform at a higher level?” he says.

O: See life through the lens of optimism. “Optimists see the world as it is, but they don’t accept it as it is,” he says. “They say, ‘Listen, it doesn’t have to be this way. I have the capacity to change this.’”

Roshan McArthur is a writer in California.