Imagine driving through a quiet countryside toward town. You round a curve in a narrow country road and come upon a traffic jam ahead. Cars in front of you are backed up around the next curve. Cars coming toward you are evenly spaced out and accelerating up to speed, as if they have stopped for something.

As you approach the centre of the jam, you notice cars in both directional lanes pulling off to get around something in the road. When you get to the centre, you spy a large mattress laying across the road. Apparently, it's fallen out of a truck. What do you do?

This true story happened to a professor in Great Britain. And, he did as everyone else did: he pulled half-way off the little two-lane road, drove around the mattress, and then back into his lane. Once back on the road - a frustrating five minutes behind schedule - he accelerated and headed for his office.

As a result of this incident, however, the professor found himself pondering several questions as he approached his office:

Q1. How many people were put how far behind schedule?

A1: Hundreds of people, thousands of minutes.

Q2. How much collective expense might have been saved if one person cared enough about the group of motorists to stop and move the mattress off the road?

A2: ALL of the loss following such an act.


Q3. What was missing?

A3: A "hero" willing to save everyone a lot while personally expending very little.

This true story, documented and studied by the professor, has been labelled The Theory of the Missing Hero.The "hero" is "missing" because NO ONE came to the rescue of the group. Instead, each person "saved" him or herself when they could have made a much larger save - a gift of huge leverage to the group.

When I originally read this story, I couldn't help but wonder, what would I have done? Which category would I fall into - the one who looked after my own self-interest and kept driving - or the one who provided a small self-sacrifice (getting out of my car) and made a difference for the greater good of all. At the time, I felt I probably would have driven around the mattress, but this story stuck with me.

Something to ponder:

How much do you truly believe that teamwork is the key to success? If so, then you have to be prepared to 'move the mattress'. To sometimes take the harder road vs the easier road; to take time to help others when there is no great gain or benefit in it for us.

As a leader, how regularly do you demonstrate this behaviour - picking up trash in the carpark as we walk past it, mopping the floor when there's a spill on it, working with your team to reduce the non-value adding work they are doing: even though each of these 'tasks' are not a part of 'your job', but you are "saving" others.

Lead by example - be a shining example by providing them with the gift of a present hero!

Your Growth Opportunity

  1. Would you drive around the mattress or would you take the time to get out of your car and fix the problem for everyone?
  2. How can you introduce this story to your team and help them to identify where they could 'move the mattress'
Author's Bio: 

Shelley Holmes is the creator of, a website filled with ideas, information and tools to guide, coach and inspire you to be your best. Click here to review more leadership and self-improvement ideas written by Shelley