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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5 Reasons Why Jesus Is A Hero To So Many

By Scott T. Allison

Regardless of whether you believe in the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth, there is no denying his unparalleled impact on western thought and culture. Jesus is the spiritual leader and hero to more than 2 billion people around the world. What accounts for the enduring power of his heroism? An examination of his life reveals five important clues.

1. Jesus Was A ‘Born Hero’

In our studies of heroism, we have found that the “born hero” is a rare breed. Extraordinary situations typically bring out the heroes among us. But in every Sunday Christian service, and especially during the Christmas and Easter seasons, much of the world honors the most powerful story of the born hero in the western world. Being endowed with divine DNA makes Jesus an especially revered hero.

2. Jesus Was A Revolutionary

Jesus was, and is, a polarizing figure. During his lifetime, his followers witnessed him perform miracles and believed in the new morality that he preached: a message of love, gentleness, generosity, and forgiveness. These values conflicted with Roman values of power and strength.

People admire the courage of a revolutionary. In his day Jesus was a rebel who violated Jewish customs and defied Roman law. Like Socrates of ancient Greece, Jesus could have spared his own life by offering some defense of the social disruptions he caused. But he did not. His threat to the status quo was deemed too great by Roman authorities, and he was gruesomely executed.

3. Jesus Suffered On The Cross

Our research on heroes indicates that people especially honor heroes who experience pain and suffering during their heroic acts. The more that heroes suffer for their cause, the higher the pedestal on which we place them.

The Romans made sure than anyone who died by crucifixion would suffer horrifically. Jesus was violently flogged before his crucifixion. Iron balls and sharp sheep bones were fastened near the ends of the whips. The iron balls caused deep bruising and the bones lacerated the skin. There was ample blood loss and Jesus’ level of pain would have put him a state of shock.

Jesus was then forced to carry the heavy cross to the crucifixion area, where his wrists and heels were nailed to the wooden beams. After hours of agony on the cross, Jesus would have succumbed to a combination of asphyxiation and blood loss.

4. Jesus Died To Save Others

Christians believe that Jesus died to save the world. The circumstances surrounding his death are largely responsible for the formation of the Christian faith. The Gospels tell us that three days after he died, Jesus rose from the dead and was lifted to heaven. The story of the resurrection is a central part of Christianity because it signifies to Christians that God approved of Jesus’ work on earth and that Jesus lives forever.

After Jesus died, many of his followers were burned, stoned, or crucified by Roman authorities. This persecution backfired. As martyrs, these Christians were the source of inspiration for millions of people who began practicing the faith.

5. Jesus Transformed Society

Jesus was, and is, a transforming leader, inspiring people and elevating them to new levels of morality. Historian and author H. G. Wells wrote, “I am an historian, I am not a believer, but I must confess as a historian that this penniless preacher from Nazareth is irrevocably the very center of history. Jesus Christ is easily the most dominant figure in all history.”

Mahatma Gandhi, a Hindu, had nothing but praise for Jesus, describing him as “a man who was completely innocent, offered himself as a sacrifice for the good of others, including his enemies, and became the ransom of the world.” Referring to Jesus’ sacrifice at the cross, Gandhi said, “It was a perfect act.”

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In summary, there are five reasons for Jesus’ heroism: his birthright, his revolutionary beliefs, his suffering, his mission to save the world, and his transformation of the western world. Will he still be worshipped as a hero 2,000 years from now? We cannot even begin to conjecture. As with many transforming heroes, the legend is compelling, the message is powerful, and there are iconic institutions in place to ensure significant staying power.

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 Writers Press.

Our 4th Book — Conceptions of Leadership: Enduring Ideas and Emerging Insights

Our fourth book on heroism and leadership is now available.  Entitled Conceptions of Leadership, this new volume gathers together the latest work by distinguished leadership scholars in social psychology and related disciplines to explore classic conceptions of leadership.

The book reviews topics such as interpersonal influence, charisma, personality, and power, as well as recent perspectives on those enduring concerns. It includes contemporary departures from traditional approaches to leadership in considering gender, trust, narratives, and the complex relationships between leaders and followers. Together the chapters provide a wide-ranging and coherent account of how human beings get along and the ways they engage and work together to accomplish their goals.

Conceptions of Leadership is edited by George Goethals, Scott Allison, Rod Kramer, and David Messick. Here is an excerpt, taken from David Messick’s opening chapter:

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“In the spring of 1999, two of this book’s editors, Kramer and I, met for lunch at the Sheraton Hotel in Chicago. Kramer was on the faculty of the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University and I was on the faculty of the Kellogg School at Northwestern University. One of the topics that we talked about during lunch was the shift in emphasis in both business schools away from cooperation, trust, communication, coordination, and the like, to the related but distinct topic of leadership. Kramer and I were social psychologists and knew that the topic of leadership had been an important theme in some of the earliest research on group processes. However, as social psychology experienced an infatuation with the “cognitive” revolution in psychology, the topic of leadership shrank into obscurity. By the turn of the millennium, though, there were some new ways of thinking about leadership that had not been introduced to the business school environment. Why not, we thought, have a conference and invite some of social psychology’s most creative innovators to a conference to discuss these new approaches to leadership and then publish a book based on the talks? The conference was held in August of 2000 at the Kellogg School of Management, and the book based on this conference, The Psychology of Leadership, was published in 2005. Two of the creative innovators who were invited to the conference and who wrote chapters for the book are the other two editors of the current book, Allison and Goethals.

“Now, a decade, more or less, later, and there has been a virtual tsunami of books and articles about leadership. When the issue of updating the earlier book was first raised, Kramer and I wondered what the point of a revision would be. We then became aware of the creative work by Allison and Goethals and realized that there was indeed a body of research that had not been described in their earlier book. So Kramer and I discussed the idea of a revision with Allison and Goethals, and we all agreed that such a project was worth exploring. After much discussion and the exchange of scads of ideas, the current book was agreed upon by all of us, who, we should note, are all associated with the University of California, Santa Barbara, where I was a faculty member, Allison and Kramer were graduate students, and Goethals was a visiting scholar.

“The familiarity of us four editors with each other is a blessing but also a shortcoming. We are all male, white, North American university professors. These facts surely limit our views of what constitutes good leader- ship and who qualifies to be thought of as a leader. Famous people from around the world, people like Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, are all well known and admired. But there are many others who would be unrecognized by most Americans. Take, for instance, Lee Kuan Yew (familiarly known in Asia as LKY). LKY was the first prime minister of Singapore and one of the most famous and admired political leaders in Asia. When one of us (DM) taught in Hong Kong to a broad mix of Asian executives, LKY was one of the most popular figures executives wrote about to illustrate excellence in leadership. Consider also Molly Melching, about whom a book has appeared (Molloy, 2013). She is a volunteer in a not-for-profit organization in Senegal who spends time in rural villages where the practice of female genital cutting is a well-established cultural tradition. She has begun the process of gradually eliminating this barbaric practice from hundreds of villages in Senegal but remains relatively obscure in the United States. Finally, think of Simon Bolivar. His name is recognized by a fraction of US scholars, but he is famous throughout Latin America for having led the South American people in a rebellion against Spanish domination. Indeed he has one nation named after him (Bolivia) and is widely known as el Libertador throughout Central and South America. He is to Latin America what George Washington is to the United States.

“Inescapably then, we editors are constrained by our backgrounds in our selection of “core” issues about leadership, and we are constrained in ways that will often be invisible to us. For instance, we are all social psychologists and have read much of the same literature on leadership. But that literature is different from that which a political scientist or a journalist or a military historian will have read. Their books on core concepts would be different from ours—not better, necessarily, nor worse, just different. The way we define leadership is likely to differ from the way people whose backgrounds and experiences are different from ours define leadership. This fact is true about professional experiences and it is equally true about political and social differences. Most citizens of the United States, for instance, would not consider Fidel Castro to be a hero and a leader, but most Cubans would. Most North Koreans think their leaders have almost godlike qualities and most Americans think these leaders are monomaniacal lunatics. What is implied by these differences is that leadership, like beauty, may be in the eye of the beholder. If history is written by winners, one will either be viewed as a hero or a terrorist depending on who wins….”

Conceptions of Leadership is available in both hardcover and paperback.