Category Archives: Commentary and Analysis

Becoming A Hero: What’s Holding You Back?

By Scott T. Allison

The ingredients of heroism are well known to storytellers. A hero embarks on a journey of some kind that begins when he or she is cast into a dangerous, unfamiliar world. The hero is charged with accomplishing a daunting task and receives assistance from unlikely sources. There are frightening obstacles along the way and villainous characters to overcome. After many trials and much suffering, the hero prevails and then bestows a gift to society.

Often overlooked in this journey is the key to the hero’s success, namely, the hero’s acquisition of an important quality that he or she lacks. All heroes start out “incomplete” in some sense. They lack some essential inner quality that they must develop to succeed. This quality can be self-confidence, humility, courage, compassion, faith, resilience, or some fundamental truth about themselves and the world.

The question I have for you, the reader, is: What inner quality are you missing that is holding you back from becoming the hero of your own life story? Another way to put it: What attributes are you missing that you need for success?

If you’re like millions of people, you aren’t sure what you’re missing. Circumstances may not yet have revealed your missing quality. Or people have yet to enter your life who can guide you. If that’s the case, be patient. Buddhists have a saying: “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

Who are the teachers in your life? Let’s look at two examples of how heroes in the movies have received help from others to receive their missing qualities.

The Wizard of Oz. In the classic 1939 movie, The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy is sent by a tornado to the strange Land of Oz. Her quest is to find her way home, and she receives help from three unlikely sources—a scarecrow, a tin man, and a lion. She is mentored by a friendly witch named Glinda and, later, by a mysterious wizard. Along the way she overcomes an evil witch, flying monkeys, and apple-throwing trees.

Dorothy’s missing quality is an understanding of “home”. Her new friends teach her that she has always possessed the power to get home. She discovers that home means more than just your house or apartment. It’s wherever the people you love—and who love you—are found.

Gravity. Nominated for Best Picture in 2013, Gravity stars Sandra Bullock as Dr. Ryan Stone, a scientist stranded in space after her space capsule is damaged. Dr. Stone is terrified and appears to lack the confidence and inner resources to survive her dire situation.

Veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski, played by George Clooney, is there to mentor her and instill her with confidence. Dr. Stone summons the courage and resourcefulness to cheat death and return to earth safely.

Movie heroes are not the only ones who benefit from good mentor figures. Rocker Gene Simmons credits his mother for teaching him prudence and self-control. Actor Jennifer Lawrence has thanked her father for helping her learn how to deal with adversity. Barack Obama has said that his grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, taught him the importance of sacrifice: “She’s the one who put off buying a new car or a new dress for herself so that I could have a better life.”

In every good hero story, the hero discovers that he or she is missing something and receives help from others to acquire what’s missing. Every human life is a hero-like journey, making it imperative that each one of us identifies our missing quality.

Here are four steps you can take—not necessarily in this order:

1. Make an inventory of your strengths and weaknesses as a person.

2. Develop a list of your life goals.

3. Assess what’s missing to achieve your goals. List the strengths you lack and the weaknesses that need removal.

4. Find mentor figures to help you.

Some people do Step 4 first. A good mentor can help you identify your strengths and pinpoint what qualities are needed to fulfill your goals. Good mentors should be brutally honest about what you’re missing and how to acquire the qualities you lack.

Many of us fail, and fail badly, before we are willing to seek the help of a mentor figure. Learning from our failures and getting help from mentors is a sign of healthy human development.

Identifying missing qualities and acquiring them is essential for heroes to succeed with their missions. The discovery (or recovery) of these attributes is the basis for the personal transformation that the hero undergoes during the journey. The most satisfying heroes we encounter in storytelling and in real life are heroes who experience this transformative discovery of their missing quality.

One final caveat: Beware the dark mentor. As movies such as Whiplash and Fifty Shades of Grey show us, there are false mentors out there who will send you in the wrong direction. Choose your teachers carefully.

References

Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2011). Heroes: What they do and why we need them. New York: Oxford University Press.

Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2013). Heroic leadership: An influence taxonomy of 100 exceptional individuals. New York: Routledge.

Campbell, J. (1949). The hero with a thousand faces. New York: New World Library.

Franco, Z. E., Blau, K., & Zimbardo, P. G. (2011). Heroism: A conceptual analysis and differentiation between heroic action and altruism. Review of General Psychology, 15, 99-113.

Goethals, G. R., & Allison, S. T. (2012). Making heroes: The construction of courage, competence, and virtue. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. San Diego: Elsevier.

Smith, G., & Allison, S. T. (2014). Reel heroes, Volume 1. Agile Writer Press.

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How Hero Stories Energize Us

By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, we introduced the concept of the Heroic Leadership Dynamic, which we define as a system of psychological forces that can explain the human tendency to generate heroes, benefit from them, and even become them. For as long as humans have been able to communicate through spoken language, they have told stories to each other.  These stories, we suspect, were almost always about heroes.

In Part 2, we proposed that people are nourished by hero stories in at least two essential ways. These tales serve epistemic and energizing functions. The epistemic function refers to the wisdom that hero stories impart to us. The energizing function refers to the ways that hero stories heal us, inspire us, and promote personal growth.  In Part 2 we described the epistemic or wisdom benefits of hero tales. Now we turn to the energizing benefits.

As early humans sat around fire at the end of the day, they were in need of more than just physical comfort. Yes, there was disease and injury, but undoubtedly there was also fear and despair. We suspect that people longed for some understanding of their miseries, some meaning behind the suffering they saw all around them. Storytelling provided a salve for their psychological wounds.

Hero stories served at least three important energizing functions for early man — and for contemporary humans, too. Hero stories heal psychic wounds, inspire us to action, and promote personal growth. Let’s look at each of these functions.

1.   Hero Stories Heal Psychic Wounds

Hero stories serve a healing function in several ways. First and foremost, storytelling is community-building. For early humans, just the act of gathering around fires to hear the stories established social connections with others. This sense of family or community was, and is, central to human emotional well-being.

The content of hero stories also promotes a strong sense of social identity. If the hero is an effective one, he or she performs actions that exemplify the community’s most cherished values. The affirmation of a shared worldview, told vividly in storytelling, serves an important healing function.

Group storytelling is, in a sense, a form of group therapy. Many practicing psychologists believe that group therapy owes its effectiveness to group members’ willingness to share their own personal stories of hardship and triumph. When members share their success stories, hope is engendered. Many 12-step recovery groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, also promote healing through the open sharing of members’ stories.

2. Hero Stories Inspire Us

The classic mythic hero is often an underdog or ordinary person who is summoned on a journey full of extraordinary challenges. Our research on underdogs shows that we identify with them, root for them, and judge them to be highly inspiring when they triumph. Success on the hero journey requires courage and resilience, which are two of the most inspiring traits among the Great Eight characteristics of heroes.

According to Joseph Campbell, hero stories teach us that challenges and setbacks in life are to be embraced, not avoided. According to Campbell, obstacles help us learn to recognize the positive values in what appear to be the negative moments and aspects of your life. The big question is whether you are going to be able to say a hearty yes to your adventure.”

What Campbell means, of course, is that every human life mirrors the classic hero journey, and that this great adventure, even with its painful parts, can be a source of inspiration. The ups and downs of life are inter-connected, with the downs actually being necessary to produce the ups. This fact should encourage us all to trust that the main purpose of adversity is to transform our lives in ways that we cannot even imagine.

3. Hero Stories Promote Personal Growth

Psychiatrist Karl Stern once wrote that “the evolution of human growth is an evolution from an absolute need to be loved towards a full readiness to give love.” This developmental trend nicely summarizes the transformation that a mythic hero undergoes during the hero journey. At the outset of the journey, the hero is initially missing some important quality. It is often self-confidence, humility, or an accurate sense of one’s true purpose in life.  The hero journey is always a journey toward vast personal discovery.

The discovery, moreover, is the basis of a character transformation that enables the hero to bestow a gift or boon to his or her community.  This boon is the consummate heroic act that culminates the journey. Every good hero does more than just enjoy a voyage of self-discovery. Good heroes use the gift of transformation to change the world for the better. This type of gift-giving is apparent in 12-Step recovery groups, which require members to undergo 11 steps of self-discovery followed by a 12th and final step requiring them to “carry the message” to others in need.

Perhaps Joseph Campbell said it best: “When we quit thinking primarily about ourselves and our own self-preservation, we undergo a truly heroic transformation of consciousness.”

Author Ken Wilbur believes that heroic transformation often begins with the hero first harboring an elitist view of the world and then eventually moving toward an egalitarian view.  Famed psychologist Erik Erickson also saw the classic human trajectory as beginning with ego-constructing activities early in life and then moving toward a stage of generative activities late in life. When we are generative, we are giving to others what was given to us.

In short, the remarkable personal growth we witness in hero stories serves as a blueprint for our own growth journeys. We need only trust that the path of the hero is our own path toward redemption and growth. When we embrace that path, with all its inherent hurts and fears, we are charting our own course toward beautiful transformation. In this way, hero stories energize us toward self-improvement and selfless action.

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This series is based on a chapter that will appear in our forthcoming book, Conceptions of Leadership, published by Palgrave Macmillan.

The Role of God in the Heroic Journey

By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

In November of 2012, Paramount Pictures released a film called Rise of the Guardians, based loosely on William Joyce’s The Guardians of Childhood book series.   The opening scene of the movie is jarring.  The dead body of an adolescent boy, Jack, floats upward toward the ice-covered surface of the lake in which he has just drowned.  We see what Jack would see were he alive – a jagged hole in the ice above him, growing closer as he rises in the water, and beyond that hole we see an impossibly big, beautiful full moon shining down on his lifeless body.

You probably know the rest of the story.  Not because you’ve necessarily seen the movie or because the story is particularly predictable.  You know it because the tale of the hero’s journey has been told countless times in different forms across all human cultures.  Our hero, Jack, is dead physically but not dead in spirit.  That beautiful moon, which pulled him toward its light, decides to endow Jack with immortality along with the power to create instant snow and ice.  He is now Jack Frost.

Rise of the Guardians is a secularized version of an ancient tale of God’s role in creating and assisting heroes on their journeys.  The moon, of course, symbolizes a divine or higher power, a source of immense light, wisdom, and authority.  The moon is also a mystery to Jack; he does not know why the moon has transformed him into Jack Frost, nor does he understand why the other guardians of the world – Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy — wish to recruit him into their heroic fold to fight the story’s villain.  Jack’s efforts to infer the moon’s intentions and motives are a recurring theme in the film.

The spiritual significance of the hero’s journey has been aptly described by Richard Rohr in his 2011 book Falling Upward.  Rohr argues that all heroes are summoned by a higher power to a great journey, and that the catalytic agent of this journey is some type of death, deficit, or wounding suffered by the hero.  The story is as old as the fall of Adam and Eve in the first chapter of Genesis, and it emerges in countless stories of ugly ducklings, Cinderellas, and other underdogs who through magic or divine intervention turn their wounds into triumph.

In Rise of the Guardians, the large, luminous moon pulls Jack toward its light in a manner consistent with many accounts of near-death experiences.  His physical failing is necessary for his spiritual rising and for his true identity to emerge.  In his new life as Jack Frost, the boy is tormented by the fact that no one can see him or his icy cold handiwork.  For centuries he remains unrecognized and unloved, and he is haunted by his lack of memory over the circumstances of his death in the icy waters.

With the help of another character, Baby Tooth, Jack’s memory is restored.  He comes to understand that he died on the icy lake while saving his sister’s life, thus illuminating his destiny as a deserving guardian.  This knowledge empowers Jack to complete the heroic journey that the moon set in motion centuries earlier.  He uses his wounds to transform himself and to redeem the world, much like the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus in the New Testament.  Richard Rohr argues that nearly all hero stories follow this pattern.  Unlocking the divine secret of our wounds is the surest path to heroism.

Rise of the Guardians is not the best film of 2012, nor is it the best hero story of the year.  But it skillfully uses the classic elements of the hero’s journey to craft a compelling tale of loss, pain, transformation, and redemption.  The moon’s portrayal of a higher power that instigates the entire journey is unmistakable.  Richard Rohr believes that a higher power summons all humans on this heroic path.  Our falling is necessary for our rising, with setbacks serving as the essential redemptive seeds of our own heroism.  Rohr quotes Julian of Norwich: “First, there is the fall, and then we recover from the fall.  Both are the mercy of God.

Your Life Purpose? Go on the Hero’s Journey

By Scott T. Allison

What is your purpose in life? This question is as old as the human race itself. Some argue that our purpose is to find happiness. Others say our purpose is to love others, to become the best version of ourselves, or to follow God’s will. Still others say there is no purpose to life at all.

I believe that our lives do have a purpose, and that the clues are all around us in plain view. You can’t miss them. Our purpose is so deeply imbedded in our culture that we easily overlook it or take it for granted.

Put simply, your purpose in life is to live the life of a hero.

The hero’s journey is captured in all the great stories in literature, and in all the great movies we enjoy on the big screen. Hero stories endow our lives with meaning and reveal how a human life is meant to be lived.

Hero stories illuminate your true purpose in four ways:

1. You will go on a journey. At some point during your life, you will journey away from the comforts of your familiar world. In The Wizard of Oz, a tornado sends Dorothy to the land of Oz. In The Fault in Our Stars, cancer sends Hazel to Amsterdam. The hero’s journey can be real or metaphorical. Sometimes heroes choose the journey; sometimes the journey is chosen for them. Brace yourself – your life always includes some type of voyage, fraught with discomfort but crucial in revealing your life purpose.

2. You will grow from adversity. Overcoming obstacles and failures is a central part of your life journey. Children’s fairy tales prepare us for adversity by featuring heroes who grow from their setbacks. The three little pigs find a way to outsmart the big bad wolf. Bambi overcomes his mother’s death to grow into a great leader. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure,” observed mythologist Joseph Campbell. Heroes use adversity to better themselves. When you are challenged by the darkest of life circumstances, know that your journey is fashioning you into a wiser, more resilient individual.

3. You will assemble a team of allies. You should never undertake your journey alone. Heroes find a way to attract sidekicks, friends, and mentors to help them overcome obstacles. Matt Langdon of the Hero Construction Company calls it “building a team around you.” Often the person who helps you is someone you least expect. Remember that the point of the journey is to transform you into a stronger, better person. Trusted allies will guide you through adversity and will assist you in becoming forever transformed by your journey.

4. You will give back to society – The hero’s journey is far more than mere personal transformation. Once you return from your journey, you will use your new-found gifts to make the world a better place. In 12 Years a Slave, the hero Solomon survives his ordeal as a slave and then works to end slavery. In The Odyssey, Odysseus endures his turbulent voyage home and then becomes a wise ruler of Ithaca.

Your life purpose is to use your own personal transformation to help transform society. Once mentored by another, you will now mentor others. Your selfless service to the world will forge your place in the human chain of love shown by people who came before you and by people who will follow you.

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The hero’s journey is not just illustrated in fiction but in the real lives of the world’s greatest heroes, such as Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King, Jr.  These three legends lived the four truths of heroism outlined above and used their gifts to forever change the world.

You may not be on the life trajectory of a Gandhi or a Mandela, but rest assured you are on a hero’s journey that has momentous implications for yourself and for the world. Perhaps you are in the process of overcoming cancer, a difficult childhood, a financial setback, or some major transgression. As you struggle, remember that regardless of the outcome, you are fulfilling your life’s purpose. Each human life is meant to be a heroic life.

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Bill Cosby and the Transition from Hero to Villain

By Scott T. Allison

The unthinkable has happened again. Another widely admired public figure is facing allegations of horrific conduct, and fans are scrambling to make sense of it all.

For at least a decade, rumors have swirled about Bill Cosby’s improprieties with women. The accusations never stuck and so we could easily dismiss them and give Cosby the benefit of the doubt. But over the past few weeks at least a dozen women have come forward with allegations that Cosby sexually assaulted them, used date rape drugs on them, or both.

A former employee of Cosby has also admitted to helping Cosby find private time with these women and then paying them thousands of dollars, presumably to keep them quiet.

These repulsive acts, if they occurred, contrast so markedly from the image of Cosby as America’s dad, Mr. Huxtable, who gently and lovingly parented his children in his 1980s television sitcom. This same Cosby made us laugh and gave us great joy with his Fat Albert series and in his groundbreaking role in the 1960s series, I Spy.

Four years ago, we blogged about Cosby as a hero. He overcame racism directed toward him to blaze a trail for African-Americans. Cosby broke down stereotypes, and he was unafraid to take strong and sometimes unpopular stances about race and class in America.

Now this.

We don’t know all the facts yet, but what we do know is that the usual polarization of opinion about a fallen hero has occurred. Some fans have decided to remain fans of Cosby. At a recent concert, Cosby received two standing ovations. But many other fans have jumped ship and are spouting venomous ire toward Cosby. To them, he is now a villain.

The psychology here is not yet clear. What distinguishes fans who may be loyal to a fault from fans who bolt at the first sign of trouble? There appear to be individual differences in the elasticity of the hero concept. Those with low elasticity may not tolerate much deviation from the idealized image of the hero. In contrast, those with high elasticity may have a higher tolerance for ambiguity and for evidence that contradicts the heroic ideal.

Psychologists who study social cognition have found that people engage in motivated cognition. Our motivations influence the way we interpret information. For example, people who like President Obama will interpret neutral and ambiguous behaviors performed by Obama more favorably than will people who dislike the President. And those who truly love Bill Cosby may be willing to give him far more benefit of the doubt compared to those who only have a neutral or mildly positive opinion of him.

In an earlier post, we proposed that people form an implicit contract with their heroes. The agreement involves the idea that we will give heroes our adulation and support, but in return they must maintain an idealized image of human greatness. If a hero misbehaves, we consider it a breech of contract and we withdraw our admiration and support. We may also show considerable anger about the contract violation — witness the outrage directed toward Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong that still lingers today. A broken agreement can turn a hero into a villain quickly and easily.

For many people, Cosby has broken this implicit contract and deserves condemnation, if not a prison sentence.

More than a half-century ago, Carl Jung proposed the idea that all humans have collectively inherited unconscious images, ideas, or thoughts, which he called archetypes. These archetypes reflect common experiences that all humans (and their ancestors) have shared over millions of years of evolution, and the main purpose of these archetypes is to prepare us for these common experiences. Two such archetypes, according to Jung, are heroes and demons.

People tend to paint their social world with all-or-nothing brushstrokes. For many of us, Bill Cosby’s sexual transgressions moved him quickly from the hero category to the villain category. There doesn’t seem to be an in-between category, suggesting that there is more of a fine line between heroism and villainy than we realize.

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How I Came To Study Heroes

By Scott T. Allison

The famed comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell once said, “We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”

Campbell was profoundly wise. He knew that the hero’s journey was the grand blueprint for each human being’s path in life. Our journeys are wild and unpredictable to us despite the pattern of the journey being plainly evident in every novel that we read and in every movie that we see. My own personal journey fits the Campbellian path and led me to the study of heroism.

Studying heroes was not on my to-do list as a young assistant professor.  Years ago I was interested not in great people, but in the types of situations that give rise to cooperative behavior in groups. I published a number of studies that examined the conditions under which people placed their group’s welfare ahead of their own individual welfare (e.g., Allison & Messick, 1985, 1990; Samuelson & Allison, 1994). Not surprisingly, these conditions were hard to find, as people tend to show self-serving biases in their distributions of resources and in their self-assessments of their morals and abilities. I was struck by the ways in which subtle variations in the environment could lead people down the path of either selfishness or selflessness (Allison, McQueen, & Schaerfl, 1992).  It wasn’t quite heroism research but my research did focus on the factors that tend to make people behave badly – or well – in group settings.

Then in 1991, I found myself teaching a “great books” humanities course to first-year students at the University of Richmond. The course was multi-disciplinary and multi-cultural in its emphasis, and it required students to read such books as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Plato’s Symposium, Darwin’s Origin of Species, the Analycts of Confucius, Naguib Mahfouz’s Fountain and Tomb, Orhan Pamuk’s The White Castle, and many other great texts from around the globe. What most caught my attention were the two epic stories on the course syllabus: The Epic of Sundiata told by the Malinke people of Africa, and the epic novel Monkey (also known as Journey to the West) written by Wu Cheng’en during China’s Ming dynasty.

These two epic adventures were composed at different points of time in human history, and in different parts of the world, and yet they bore a striking resemblance to the two great western epic stories I had read in high school and in college, namely, the Iliad and the Odyssey.  The Epic of Sundiata tells the story of the hero Sundiata Keita, the founder of the Mali Empire.  Born an ugly hunchback, Sundiata was prophesized to become a great ruler of the Mali people.  The existing king felt threatened by this prophecy and thus banished Sundiata from the kingdom, but years later Sundiata returned to defeat the king and establish the great empire.  In Monkey, a brave young pilgrim named Tripitaka must travel to strange faraway places to retrieve sacred information needed to enlighten the entire Chinese people.  Tremendous courage, wisdom, and virtue are needed by Tripitaka to accomplish this objective.

People’s fascination with old dead legendary figures caught my attention.  Nearly every psychological theory I had encountered was centered on people’s fascination with living people, not dead people, and so I sensed an opportunity to study how human beings perceive and evaluate the dead.  This led my colleagues and I to write articles on the death positivity bias – the tendency of people to evaluate the dead more favorably than the living (Allison, Eylon, Beggan, & Bachelder, 2009).  It also led to our discovery of the frozen in time effect – people’s tendency to resist changing their evaluations of the dead even when new information surfaces that challenges that evaluation (Eylon & Allison, 2005).

Then, plain old good luck came my way. In 2005, my dear friend and colleague, George Goethals, who had toiled for decades at Siberia-like Williams College in Massachusetts, decided to move south and join me on the faculty at the University of Richmond. Goethals came with an expertise in leadership and an impeccable scholarly record. He and I had collaborated in Santa Barbara back in the mid-1980s while I was a graduate student at the University of California. At that time, Goethals was visiting Santa Barbara while on leave from Williams, and he, David Messick, and I embarked on a collaborative project that, on the surface, would seem to have no connection to heroism at all. We set our sights on understanding self-serving biases in social judgments.

Yet somehow, there was indeed an indirect connection to heroism, although we weren’t consciously aware of it at the time.  Looking back at our 1980s collaborative work in Santa Barbara, I should have realized that some day Goethals and I would surely write about heroes.  The first paper we published together, along with David Messick, was inspired by one of our heroes, the boxer Muhammad Ali.  We were always fascinated by Ali’s influence and leadership outside the ring, particularly his role in making race relations change in the United States.  Ali was always his own man.  He insisted on being called Muhammad Ali rather than what he referred to as his slave name, Cassius Clay.  At first the media refused to go along.  But as we know from his long boxing career, Ali never quit.  Eventually sports writers and broadcasters recognized that he was right to insist that they call him what he wanted to be called.  He led the way for many, many more African Americans to use names that reflected their pride in their racial identity.  There was no doubt that he was the first, and that he led the way.

As George Goethals and I tried to identify the qualities that made Ali an effective leader to a largely hostile white establishment, we focused on his wit and his obvious linguistic intelligence.  We remembered that when Ali was once asked whether he had deliberately faked a low score on the US Army mental test, so that he could avoid the draft, he mischievously quipped, “I never said I was the smartest, just the greatest” (McNamara, 2009).  That self-characterization led us to research some of the limits on people’s self-serving biases.  The result was our Social Cognition paper,  “On being better but not smarter than other people: The Muhammad Ali effect” (Allison, Messick & Goethals, 1989).

At that point neither of us had turned to studying heroism or leadership or the connections between them.  But we were inching closer in that direction.  I joined the faculty at Richmond in 1987 and continued to conduct work focusing on pro-social behavior in groups, examining the conditions under which people place their group’s well-being ahead of their own individual interests.  Goethals, meanwhile, returned to Williams and was publishing some great work on group goals, social judgment processes, and eventually leadership.

When Goethals was coaxed to join the faculty at Richmond in 2004, he and I renewed our collaboration, this time focusing on the underdog effect – the tendency of people to root for disadvantaged entities in competition.  This research was borne out of our earlier interest in such diverse heroes such as Muhammad Ali, Sundiata, and Odysseus, all of whom somehow overcame the most terrible adversity to achieve greatness.  Goethals and I embarked on a research program exploring people’s love for underdogs (Kim et al., 2008), and this research evolved slowly into work examining triumphant underdogs who became exemplary leaders and heroes.  Our interest in underdogs, Goethals’ exceptional scholarship on U.S. Presidents, and my own research on people’s reverence for the dead (Allison et al., 2009), all eventually led to the books and articles on heroes that Goethals and I have written today (Allison & Goethals, 2008, 2011, 2013, in press; Goethals & Allison, 2012).

Our first book on heroes, Heroes: What They Do & Why We Need Them (Allison & Goethals, 2011) addressed the psychology of constructing heroes in our minds as well as the path that great heroes take when they perform their heroic work. Although scholarship on leadership, particularly Howard Gardner’s (1997) Leading Minds, was always important in the way we thought about heroes, our general exploration of the psychology of heroism diverted us from focusing on the connections between leadership and heroism.  Those connections were explored more fully in our review article in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Goethals & Allison, 2012), where Goethals and I proposed a conceptual framework for understanding heroism in terms of the influence that heroes exert.  Heroes, we argued, vary in their depth of influence, their breadth of influence, their duration of influence, and the timing of their influence.

But there was clearly much more to consider.  This became increasingly clear in 2010 when we started to blog about heroes.  Within four years we have written more than 150 hero analyses, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors to the blog.  Exactly 100 of our hero profiles were included in our book on Heroic Leadership (Allison & Goethals, 2013).  Profiling so many great individuals made it increasingly clear that all of our heroes were also leaders.  They might not fit traditional leader schemas, or people’s implicit theories of leadership, but they were clearly leaders in the sense that Gardner defined it in 1997.  Either directly or indirectly, through face-to-face contact or through their accomplishments, products and performances, heroes influence and lead significant numbers of other people.

While I will leave it to others to assess the significance of my body of work on heroes, I do wish to share two observations about the history of my ongoing research on heroism.  These reflections speak more to the path I have taken in my work than they do to any destination I have reached.  My first observation is that I have benefited from researching the concept of heroism from multiple paradigmatic angles and methodological perspectives.  For over thirty years I’ve looked at selfless behavior using case studies, interviews, surveys, experimentation, dispositional analysis, and contextual approaches. Philosopher William James once wrote that science is best served when scientists not only remain open to fresh perspectives, but actively seek them out. James believed that a single perspective offers but a mere, limited slice of the world (James, 1909/1977).  Adopting multiple scientific perspectives expands what one can observe and thus can learn about a phenomenon (James, 1899/1983b).  I have found this idea to be certainly true in my study of heroism.

My second observation relates to the Joseph Campbell quote that began this essay.  We may think that we can plan how our careers will unfold, but in reality outside forces are always at work that have a far more powerful effect on our professional lives than anything we could ever imagine.  What exactly are these “outside forces”?  They are the influential people, resources, circumstances, luck, and zeitgeist which are forever lurking and shifting around us.  For me, these factors included David Messick’s willingness to serve as my advisor in graduate school, George Goethals’ decision to choose Santa Barbara as the location for his leave in 1985, my choice to work at a small liberal arts school like Richmond which offered that “great books” course, Richmond’s school of leadership offering a position to Goethals in 2004, and many, many more happy chance events.

The serendipitous events that shape our lives are inescapable.  During my career, I have been swept and swayed by these influences and have tried not to fight them but to embrace them.  These ever-present and ever-changing forces underscore the truism that nothing we can plan in life is ever as special as the unintended route we ultimately take.  Dan Gilbert, the eminent social psychologist at Harvard University, was once asked, “What’s the key to success?”  His immediate reply:  “Get lucky.  Accidentally find yourself at the right place at the right time.”  The idea here is that while we’d like to think we are the architects of our own destiny, we are more the product of forces beyond our control than we would like to think.   Gilbert later went on to explain this idea more fully in his best-selling book entitled, appropriately enough, Stumbling on Happiness (Gilbert, 2007).

“Serendipity,” wrote scientist Pek van Andel, “is the art of discovering an unsought finding.”  Many unsought events had to come together for George Goethals and me to embark on our exploration of heroes.  The beautiful orchestration of unpursued circumstances led to the books and articles on heroism that we published (Allison & Goethals, 2008, 2011, 2013, 2015; Goethals & Allison, 2012, 2015; Goethals, Allison, Kramer, & Messick, 2015).  The wondrous thing about serendipity is that it has our best interests in mind, as long as we trust it.  We need only remain open to receiving, and capitalizing on, the unexpected gifts and opportunities that sly happenstance throws our way.

References

Allison, S. T., Eylon, D., Beggan, J.K., & Bachelder, J. (2009).  The demise of leadership: Positivity and negativity in evaluations of dead leaders.  The Leadership Quarterly, 20, 115-129.

Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2008). Deifying the dead and downtrodden:  Sympathetic figures as inspirational leaders. In C.L. Hoyt, G. R. Goethals, & D. R. Forsyth (Eds.), Leadership at the crossroads: Psychology and leadership. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2011).  Heroes: What They Do and Why We Need Them.  New York: Oxford University Press.

Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2013).  Heroic Leadership: An Influence Taxonomy of 100 Exceptional Individuals.  New York: Routledge.

Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2015). “Now he belongs to the ages”: The heroic leadership dynamic and deep narratives of greatness. In Goethals, G. R., Allison, S. T., Kramer, R., & Messick, D. (Eds.), Conceptions of leadership: Enduring ideas and emerging insights. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2015). Hero worship: The elevation of the human spirit. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour.

Allison, S. T., & Messick, D. M.  (1985).  Effects of experience on performance in a replenishable resource trap.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 49, 943-948.

Allison, S. T., & Messick, D. M.  (1990).  Social decision heuristics and the use of shared resources.  Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 3, 195-204.

Allison, S. T., McQueen, L. R., & Schaerfl, L. M.  (1992).  Social decision making processes and the equal partitionment of shared resources.  Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 28, 23-42.

Allison, S. T., Messick, D. M., & Goethals, G. R.  (1989).  On being better but not smarter than others:  The Muhammad Ali effect.  Social Cognition, 7, 275-296.

Eylon, D., & Allison, S. T. (2005).  The frozen in time effect in evaluations of the dead.  Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31, 1708-1717.

Gardner, H. (1997). Leading minds — An anatomy of leadership.  Harper & Collins, London.

Gilbert, D. (2007). Stumbling on happiness. New York: Vintage.

Goethals, G. R. & Allison, S. T. (2012).  Making heroes:  The construction of courage, competence and virtue.  Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 46, 183-235.

Goethals, G. R., & Allison, S. T. (2015). Kings and charisma, Lincoln and leadership: An evolutionary perspective. In Goethals, G. R., Allison, S. T., Kramer, R., & Messick, D. (Eds.), Conceptions of leadership: Enduring ideas and emerging insights. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Goethals, G. R., Allison, S. T., Kramer, R., & Messick, D. (Eds.) (2015). Conceptions of leadership: Enduring ideas and emerging insights. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Goethals, G. R., Messick, D. M., & Allison, S. T.  (1991).  The uniqueness bias:  Studies of constructive social comparison.  In J. Suls & B. Wills (Eds.), Social Comparison: Contemporary theory and research (pp. 149-176).  New York:  Lawrence Erlbaum.

James, W. (1977). A pluralistic universe. In F. H. Burkahradt, F. Bowers, & I. K. Skrupskelis (Eds.), The works of William James. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. (Original work published 1909)

James, W. (1983b). What makes a life significant? In F. H. Burkahradt, F. Bowers, & I. K. Skrupskelis (Eds.), The works of William James: Talks to teachers on psychology and to students on some of life’s ideals (pp. 150–167). Cambridge: Harvard University Press. (Original work published 1899)

Kim, J., Allison, S. T., Eylon, D., Goethals, G., Markus, M., McGuire, H., & Hindle, S. (2008). Rooting for (and then Abandoning) the Underdog.  Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 38, 2550-2573.

Mackie, D. M., Allison, S. T., Worth, L. T., & Asuncion, A. G. (1992). The impact of outcome biases on counter-stereotypic inferences about groups. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 18, 44-51.

McNamara, M. (2009).  Muhammad Ali’s new fight: Literacy. Retrieved from http://www.cbsnews.com/2100-18563_162-2207050.html on June 15, 2012.

Samuelson, C. D., & Allison, S. T.  (1994).  Cognitive factors affecting the use of social decision heuristics when sharing resources.  Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 58, 1-27.