Shavarsh Karapetyan: The Underwater Battle of the Champion

By Sharon Novikov, Matt Rosenthal, & Russell Pine

Shavarsh Karapetyan is a retired Soviet Armenian finswimmer. He is an 11-time World Record holder, 17-time World Champion, 13-time European Champion and 7-time Soviet Champion.

Despite his prolific accomplishments in the water, Karapetyan is much more well- known in the former USSR for his heroic, self-sacrificing actions on September 16, 1976. Just as he finished a 12 mile training run with his brother alongside the Yerevan Lake in Yerevan, Armenia, a trolleybus veered out of control, fell from the dam wall, and crashed into the reservoir, 80 feet from shore and 33 feet deep into the water. Karapetyan swam to the bus, and despite almost zero visibility in the dirty water, broke the back window of the bus with his legs and began pulling people out.

The trolleybus was crowded with as many as 92 passengers and Karapetyan knew he had little time, spending approximately 30-35 seconds for each person he saved. Karapetyan managed to rescue 20 people (he picked up many more, but 20 of them survived), before the combined effects of the freezing water and wounds from broken glass rendered him unconscious, where he remained for 45 days. The damages sustained from his selfless, heroic act included subsequent sepsis (due to the presence of raw sewage in the lake water), and lung complications, ending his athletic career. Today’s experts agree that no one but Shavarsh could have been physically able to do what did, and the passengers on the bus are lucky that he was there when the crash happened.

Karapetyan’s feat was not immediately and widely recognized. The photos from the accident scene were censored and released to the public only two years later, and the first newspaper article about this accident and Shavarsh’s heroic rescue actions was published six long years after the incident. The publication revealed that he was the rescuer, making his name a household name in the USSR. Subsequently, he received about 60,000 letters and was awarded a medal “For the Rescue of the Drowning”, the Order of the Badge of Honor, and a UNESCO “Fair Play” award for his heroism.

To this day, Karapetyan doesn’t consider his act as heroic or extraordinary. When asked how he managed to do what he did, he humbly replied, “I was simply closer to the crash than anyone else.” He also admitted that he would have rather died than not jump into the water that day. That was his only choice. He simply did what he knew was right, what he was supposed to do in such situation, no matter how difficult and dangerous it was.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Karapetyan’s feat is that he wasn’t satisfied with the number of people he managed to save. Later describing the incident, he said, “I knew that I could only save so many lives, I was afraid to make a mistake. It was so dark down there that I could barely see anything. One of my dives, I accidentally grabbed a seat instead of a passenger… I could have saved a life instead. That seat still haunts me in my nightmares.” Karapetyan managed to save the lives of 20 strangers in the dark, toxic waters, and he’s still haunted by the 21st he could have saved instead of the seat cushion.

Incredibly, Karapetyan found himself in another heroic situation nine years later. On February 19, 1985, he happened to be near a burning building with many people trapped inside. Without a second of hesitation, he ran into the building and began pulling people out to safety. Again, he suffered serious personal injury, this time in the form of severe burns to his body, and spent many weeks recovering in the hospital.

When his wounds healed and he felt better, Shavarsh got back to practices and managed to set yet another world record swimming with a scuba set for a 0.25 mile distance in 3 minutes and 6.2 seconds. This was his eleventh and last world record. He couldn’t proceed with his athletic career, as his injuries severely impaired his health, and he was forced to leave his outstanding sports career behind.

Karapetyan made a great moral contribution that was only possible through his exceptional swimming ability. His heroic act was one of incredible personal sacrifice and valor. While he doesn’t follow the typical monomythic hero path, his courageous behavior, coupled with an admirable sense of humility, exemplifies the heroic definition of someone who makes great contributions that require both great morality and great ability.

Throughout his life, Shavarsh never sought recognition and never claimed any credit for his super-heroic acts. After leaving his sports career he has been living a simple life, working as a school principal and raising his three children. Today he owns and operates a small shoe repair shop in Moscow called “Second Breath.”

- – - – - -

Sharon Novikov, Matt Rosenthal, & Russell Pine are undergraduate students at the University of Richmond. They wrote this essay as part of their course requirement while enrolled in Dr. Scott Allison’s Social Psychology class.

My Sister, the Quiet Hero

By Scott T. Allison

This past December 27th, my sister Sheree passed away from stomach cancer at the age of 57.

On the surface, Sheree was no different from many people. She had a husband and two children, lived in suburbia, owned some pets, played the guitar, and loved to tinker with her home decor and yard.

But for those who knew Sheree and loved her, there was much more below the surface. She was a hero in her own quiet way.

Heroism is tough to define, but most people would agree that heroism involves improving the lives of others in significant ways. It is love and compassion put into action. Here’s one story that shows how, even at a very young age, my sister Sheree had great heroic instincts.

Back in the 1960s, we lived in a lower-middle class neighborhood in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The houses in this neighborhood were packed very close together. The five of us – my father, mother, brother, Sheree, and me – lived in a small 800 square-foot home. Literally within an arm’s reach of our porch was the home of our neighbor, a woman named Irene.

Irene was a cranky, middle-aged widow with red hair and a terrible singing voice. We knew about the bad voice because she lived alone and entertained herself with loud singing. On warm summer evenings, with all the windows open in the hopes of catching an occasional breeze, we’d also catch that unmistakable singing. And to call it singing was generous. It was more like the screeching of a wounded owl.

The crankiness of Irene would be on full display any time the three of us kids ventured onto her property. We were very young kids who liked to play ball and go exploring, and so needless to say we’d stray into her yard now and then either out of carelessness or to retrieve a lost ball. When Irene saw us violating her space, she’d yell at us to get out. And much to my mother’s horror, her shouts would include a few choice swear words to boot.

None of us liked Irene, and we did our best to steer clear of her. But there were many times when we’d be shouted at, and the only comfort we took was that at least it momentarily stopped her from singing.

One day after one of Irene’s tirades, Sheree did something extraordinary. She was only five years old at the time, a sweet thing with blonde hair, deep blue eyes, and an endearing smile. She also had the instincts of a saint.

Sheree had just been on the receiving end of one of Irene’s outbursts. She ran home to escape our neighbor’s rant. But rather than stay home, she decided to go outside and pick as many wildflowers as she could. She gathered them into a beautiful bouquet and then walked up to Irene’s front door and knocked. When Irene opened the door, Sheree handed her the flowers and apologized.

And Irene was forever changed.

Obviously touched by Sheree’s kindness, Irene never yelled at us again. In fact, she became a friend to the family.  Sheree’s simple act of reaching out with love and generosity had transformed Irene into a kind, neighborly soul.

Irene’s loud and horrid singing continued, however.

Sheree’s kind gesture to Irene pretty much sums up the way she lived her life. She always went out of her way to show kindness to others, including me. Last September, after she had surgery to remove her stomach, she was very weak and in the hospital for almost a month. Yet she still found time to mail me a birthday card with her shaky handwriting wishing me well. I’ve kept the card and will always treasure it.

She died just two days after this past Christmas. Despite being in pain and obviously in a terribly weakened state, she still mailed me a Christmas gift just days before her passing.

There are other aspects to Sheree’s heroism, too many to describe here. She was an Art Docent in her local elementary school, teaching kids about art and famous artists, as well as tutoring and leading or participating in after-school reading programs. She took in stray animals. She reached out to people, and touched them with her smile, her heart, and her contagious laugh.

Irene was one of many whose heart was forever changed by Sheree. I count myself among this group, too.

Thank you, dear sister. I love you and miss you.

- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - -

John F. Kennedy: The Peace President?

By George R. Goethals

Over the past several weeks, a great deal has been written and spoken about the 35th President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated 50 years ago on November 22, 1963. That anniversary fell on a Friday, as did Kennedy’s murder in Dallas.  While nobody who was sentient at the time is likely to misremember Kennedy’s assassination – or the funeral that followed it, or the killing of his assassin on national television – recollections of Kennedy’s presidency are not so pure.  Human memory is imperfect in many ways.  At best, it is selective.  Much worse, memory is prey to numerous biases, errors and distortions.

In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Mark Antony said at Caesar’s funeral, “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”  One wonders whether the opposite is true in Kennedy’s case.  People are generally aware of both good and bad aspects of the Kennedy years, but memory of the good seems to win out.  On the positive side are his charismatic persona, inspirational rhetoric and ambitious agendas.  The negatives include philandering, passivity on some crucial issues and deception about his health.  All of these and numerous other aspects of his administration are debated endlessly.

But there is one aspect of JFK’s presidency that has received too little attention.  Kennedy felt that the Limited Test Ban Treaty with the Soviet Union, signed in August and ratified in September of 1963 outlawing nuclear tests in the atmosphere, was one of the most far-reaching accomplishments of his administration.  In a commencement address at American University in June of that summer, sometimes called the “Strategy of Peace” speech, Kennedy outlined the possibility of a completely new relationship with Russians, moving beyond the Cold War and its tensions and standoffs.

That speech and the test ban treaty were part of his evolving reexamination of super power relations.  As a result, the word “détente” entered the American political vocabulary during the last weeks of the Kennedy administration, although it did not become widely used until the Nixon and Ford eras in the 1970s.  Kennedy’s initiatives suggested what was possible for other willing presidents to achieve by way of reducing tensions with our Communist adversaries.

Kennedy had seen war himself and had seen men under his command die.  He also had seen the United States and the Soviet Union come far too close to nuclear annihilation.  He wanted very much to find ways to move beyond the Cold War and nuclear confrontation.  His hard-line National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy once quipped to an aide that there were only two pacifists in the White House, “You and Kennedy.”

But Kennedy was no pacifist.  He would have fully endorsed the Ronald Reagan/George H. W. Bush mantra that “peace through strength works.” But he was committed to building what would later be called a “new world order.”  In his last months he consulted with Russian diplomats about joint ventures in space.  He also came to believe that further American involvement in Viet Nam would never sustain the South Vietnamese regime.  He announced the redeployment of 1,000 military advisers from that country.

Although the question is one of those persistent unknowns, it seems most probable that the full-scale American war in Viet Nam would not have happened in a second Kennedy term.  More generally, it seems safe to imagine that the world would have been very different had Kennedy not been assassinated.  His intelligence and what psychologists call “openness,” that is, curiosity and broad interest in ideas and feelings, enabled him to grow and become ever more realistically flexible.  These are personal qualities that almost always serve leaders well.

In the decade after Kennedy’s assassination, some held that within a generation JFK largely would be forgotten, remembered, if at all, as a young and promising president who served for a short time with mixed results.  It was foreseen by few then that he would capture the country’s attention with unprecedented focus in the year 2013.  But memory, both individual and collective, works in unpredictable ways.

Images of Kennedy are pervasive and forever forged in our memories. We hear his voice, see him smile, listen to his banter with reporters and his speeches and comments on matters both large and small.  After five decades, it may be time to organize our own recollections and what we have learned as we grasp an unforgettable American original.

We might start with remembering what he said at American University:  “For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet.  We all breathe the same air.  We all cherish our children’s future.”

- – - – - – - – - – - -

Dr. George R. Goethals holds the Robins Professorship in Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond’s Jepson School of Leadership Studies

The Heroic Leadership Dynamic – Part 3: 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.

- – - – - – - – - – - -

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

The Heroic Leadership Dynamic – Part 2: Wisdom in Hero Stories

By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

In Part 1 of this series, we introduced the concept of the Heroic Leadership Dynamic, which we define as a system of psychological forces that can explain how humans are drawn to hero stories, how they benefit from these stories, and how the stories help people become heroes themselves.

We suspect that early humans first told hero stories at the end of the day, in the darkness, huddled around fires. These narratives supplied meaning, hope, and a welcome escape from the miseries of life. The earliest known hero tales, such as Gilgamesh, Etana, Odysseus, and Hesiod, taught important values, offered role models, provided inspiration, and healed psychic wounds.

We propose that people benefit from hero stories in at least two essential ways. These stories 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. Let’s look at these two functions in greater detail.

THE EPISTEMIC OR WISDOM FUNCTION

Theologian Richard Rohr argues that hero stories encourage people to think transrationally about ideas that seem to defy rational analysis. The word transrational means going beyond or surpassing human reason. Hero stories reveal truths and life patterns that our limited minds have trouble understanding using our best logic or rational thought. Transrational phenomena that commonly appear in hero stories include suffering, sacrifice, meaning, love, paradox, mystery, God, and eternity. These phenomena beg to be understood but cannot be fully known using conventional human reason.

Hero stories unlock the secrets of the transrational.

How do hero tales help us think transrationally? We believe that there at least three ways: Hero stories (a) reveal deep truths, (b) illuminate paradox, (c) develop emotional intelligence. Let’s examine each of these:

A. Hero Stories Reveal Deep Truths. According to Joseph Campbell, hero stories reveal life’s deepest psychological truths. They do this by sending us into deep time, meaning that they enjoy a timelessness that connects us with the past, the present, and the future. Richard Rohr notes that deep time is evident when stories contain phrases such as, “Once upon a time”, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”, and “they lived happily ever after.” By grounding people in deep time, hero stories reinforce ageless truths about human existence.

Hero stories also reveal deep roles in our human social fabric. Norwegian psychologist Paul Moxnes believes that the deepest roles are archetypal family roles such as mother, child, maiden, and wise old man.  Family role archetypes abound in classic hero tales and myths, where there are an abundance of kings and queens, parents, stepparents, princesses, children, and stepchildren. Interestingly, Moxnes’ research shows that even if hero stories do not explicitly feature these deep role characters, we will project these roles onto the characters. His conclusion is that the family unit is an ancient device for understanding our social world.

B. Hero Stories Illuminate Paradox. Hero stories shed light on meaningful life paradoxes. As author G. K. Chesterton once observed, paradox is truth standing on her head to attract attention. Most people have trouble unpacking the value of paradoxes unless the contradictions contained within them are illustrated inside a good story. It turns out that hero stories are saturated with paradoxical truths, such as those mentioned by Joseph Campbell in the quote that began Part 1 of this series. Let’s look at each of them:

* Where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god. Carl Jung is famous for saying, “what you resist persists.” Every human being encounters difficult people and challenging issues in life. Hero stories teach us that avoiding these people and issues is not the answer. Once we confront our dragons, they can become the seeds of our redemption.

* Where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves. What Campbell means here is that when heroes face their greatest fears, they are entering the dragon’s lair. And when heroes slay the dragon, they are slaying their false selves or former selves, thereby allowing their true heroic selves to emerge.

* Where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence. In the opening act of every hero story, the hero leaves her safe, familiar world and enters a dangerous, unfamiliar world. Going on a pilgrimage of some type is a necessary component of the hero journey. Hero stories teach us that we have to leave home in order to find ourselves.

* Where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world. The hero’s journey is far from over once the dragon has been slain. Campbell observes that the now-transformed hero in myth and legend will now return to his original familiar world and transform it in significant ways. The hero, once alone on his journey, becomes united and in communion with the world.

C. Hero Stories Develop Emotional Intelligence. Psychologist Bruno Bettelheim believed that children’s fairy tales were useful in helping people, especially children, understand emotional experience. With their many dark, foreboding symbols and themes, such as witches, abandonment, neglect, abuse, and death, these heroic fairy tales allow people to experience and resolve their fears.

Bettelheim believed that even the darkest of fairy tales, such as those by the Brothers Grimm, add clarity to confusing emotions. The hero of the story emerges as a role model by demonstrating how one’s fears can be overcome. The darkness of fairy tales allows children to face their anxieties and grow emotionally, thus better preparing them for the challenges of adulthood.

In Part 3 of this series, we explore the energizing function of the Heroic Leadership Dynamic. Here is Part 3.

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

The Heroic Leadership Dynamic – Part 1: Evening Fire Rituals

By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

“We have only to follow the thread of the hero-path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; and where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.”

Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces

- – - – - – - – - – - -

We begin with a day in the life of early humans.

Life is hard. Lifespans are short. An early death is the norm, either from disease or from danger. At night, tribes huddle around fires for warmth, food, safety, and security. But they also gather around community fires for something else that is nearly as important.

They come to hear stories.

The elders of the tribe know that because life is nasty, brutish, and short (to borrow a phrase from Thomas Hobbes), the members of the tribe are afraid. Those members – many of them sick, hungry, injured, or tired — seek some understanding of their misery, some sense of meaning to buoy their spirits.

As the elders begin reciting their stories, the huddled masses seated around the fires, in desperate need of comforting, lean forward in eager anticipation. They may not be consciously aware of what they need from these stories, but their need is strong nevertheless.

The stories told by the elders are hero stories. They tell of ordinary men who are called to go on great journeys or who face formidable life challenges. The protagonists in these stories are described as small, weak underdogs who must transform themselves in important ways to overcome long odds to succeed. These heroes receive assistance from enchanted and unlikely sources. Remarkable cunning and courage are required for these men to triumph. Once successful, these heroes return to their original tribe to bestow a boon to the entire community.

As tribe members soak in these inspiring hero stories, they themselves are affected in profoundly positive ways. Thanks to these stories, fears are allayed. Hopes are nourished. Important values of strength and resilience have been underscored. Life now has greater purpose and meaning.

- – - – - – - – -

Today’s humans are no different from early humans in their thirst for heroes and heroic leadership. The attraction to greatness in other human beings is as strong as ever. Our goal here is to outline a set of psychological events responsible for the powerful and inescapable allure of strong heroic figures.

We propose that a complex web of phenomena exist that capture the human drive to create heroes in our minds and hearts, in storytelling, in our behavior, and in virtually every crevice of every human culture. We call this web of phenomena the Heroic Leadership Dynamic.

We use the term dynamic, and its multiple meanings, intentionally. In its noun form, dynamic refers to an interactive system or process. Used as an adjective, dynamic describes this system or process as energizing and always in motion, a system that drives people toward heroes and toward hero storytelling.

We argue that the human desire to generate heroes implicates a complex system of psychological forces all geared toward developing heroes, retaining them as long as they prove psychologically useful and, yes, even discarding heroes when they’ve outlived their usefulness.

The Heroic Leadership Dynamic can almost be described as a story in itself, with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

At the beginning sits our craving for heroes, borne out of a longing for an understanding of the vicissitudes of life. Our early ancestors gathered around fires at night for reasons that went far beyond the physical benefits produced by fire. We propose that for these early humans, the drive to create heroism in their minds, in their stories, and in their culture was as necessary for their mental and emotional well-being as the fire was for their physical well-being.

And we suggest that humans today are no different at all.

Our human craving for heroes, our need for the psychological benefits that heroes offer, and our desires over time either to retain our heroes or to repudiate them, all comprise the constellation of phenomena that are implicated in the Heroic Leadership Dynamic.

And yes, an important part of the dynamic — maybe the most important  — is that it offers a framework for understanding the drive that all of us have to become heroes ourselves, given the right circumstances.

In Part 2 of this series, we dive into the details of the psychological forces underlying the Heroic Leadership Dynamic.  Here is Part 2.

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

———————————————————————————————————-

Sidney Poitier: Quiet Revolutionary

© 2013 Rick Hutchins

The word revolution suggests noise. People will do a lot to draw attention to their cause; yelling and shouting is usually the least of it. But some revolutions happen quietly, peacefully, inevitably. All Sidney Poitier had to do to change the world was to be Sidney Poitier.

His humble beginnings did not in any way suggest greatness. A premature baby born to a poor farming family from the Bahamas, he survived infancy against the odds. His early life in the islands, in Miami and in New York was an anonymous one of farming and odd jobs, primarily washing dishes. He did not learn to read until his late teens. After a stint in the army, he simply went back to washing dishes. While he was able to gain a spot in the American Negro Theater, his early appearances were not applauded.

Then things changed. One successful role on Broadway led to another, which led to a notable role in the film No Way Out, which led to more Hollywood successes. Suddenly this quiet, perseverant man was a star — the first Black actor to be nominated for a competitive Academy Award, then the first Black actor win the Academy Award for Best Actor.

But he was more than that. In the tempestuous 1960s, in the midst of the Civil Rights Era, a time of race riots and student protests and a counter-cultural overturning of tradition, a time of clashes between generations and ideologies and bewildered bystanders, a time in which the pent-up anger of centuries came to a head, Sidney Poitier found himself to be a role model. Without any ambition to do so, he touched the lives of millions.

You could hear a pin drop.

This is not to say there was no controversy; nothing and no one is immune to that. There were accusations of tokenism, of appeasement. With his serene manner, his gentle voice — even after all these years still informed by a gentle island lilt — and his general thoughtfulness, this gentleman was deemed by many to be inadequate to the revolution. As the only major Black actor of his time, he was encouraged to take stronger, grittier, more controversial roles — in the parlance of the age, Blacker roles.

Poitier was conflicted. He did not disagree, since, as does any artist, he thrived on challenge. But, in his thoughtful way, he determined that living up to his own expectations as a role model was more important. He did indeed tackle the great racial issues of his time– a man of his character could do no less– but he did it his own way.

In the classic film Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?, a movie whose theme of the marriage between a Black man and a White woman (miscegenation!) was still unspeakably scandalous to much of the nation, his character quietly said to his father, “You think of yourself as a colored man. I think of myself as a man.”

And that was it. While others accused and attacked, he led by example. While others incited passion, he incited peace. While others were fighting battles, he won the war by teaching us that the entire conflict was based on a lie.

Of course it’s not over, even after all these decades; the troubled times are not behind us. There is still racism and chauvinism, still confusion and chaos, still antisocial throwbacks and self-serving crusaders. Even so, standing serenely above them all is a giant named Sidney Poitier– actor, director, author, diplomat– a role model for those with sincerity in their hearts, a leader for those who will listen.

Sidney Poitier, you see, is not too quiet — the world is simply too loud.

- – - – - – - – - – -

Rick Hutchins was born in Boston, MA, and is a regular contributor to this blog.  In his quest to live up to the heroic ideal of helping people, he has worked in the health care field for the past twenty-five years, in various capacities. He is also the author of Large In Time, a collection of poetry, The RH Factor, a collection of short stories, and is the creator of Trunkards. Links to galleries of his art, photography and animation can be found on http://www.RJDiogenes.com.

Two of Hutchins’ previous essays on heroes appear in our new book Heroic Leadership: An Influence Taxonomy of 100 Exceptional Individuals.

- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – -

Andrew Jackson: Hero by Popular Opinion

By Jesse Schultz

On the surface the 7th President of the United States seems ready made for the mantle of hero. He was born into poverty from Irish immigrant parents in 1767, fought briefly in the American Revolution, studied law and became the prosecuting attorney for western North Carolina, elected to the House of Representatives in 1796, and later the Senate the very next year in 1797. He even served in the state supreme court.

He rose to fame during the War of 1812 when he soundly defeated the British at the Battle of New Orleans using a remarkably egalitarian force of slaves, Haitians, Choctaw, French pirates, Canary Islanders, and frontiersmen. The press declared him a hero and dubbed him “Old Hickory”. He went on to serve as Governor of the newly acquired Territory of Florida. He ran for President in 1824, winning the popular vote but losing the Electoral College. He ran again in 1828 and won and 4 years later won reelection. Andrew Jackson seemed to live a life that, had it been the product of some work of fiction, would seem almost too much to believe. Certainly a hero.

But…

There was another side to Andrew Jackson. He was a man who engaged in duels, killing Charles Dickinson in 1806. During in the First Seminole War he inflicted harsh discipline on his troops, including executions for mutiny. The necessity of some were questioned. Later he would capture two British subjects, Robert Ambrister and Alexander Arbuthnot, and believing them to be agents sent to supply the Seminoles Jackson had them tried and executed. The questionable aspects of the Arbuthnot-Ambrister Incident, which included the invasion of Spanish Territory, would see Jackson investigated by Congress. While Congress would find “fault” with Jackson’s handling of the trial and execution, they would not take any action against Jackson.

And as President Jackson would oversee one of the more shameful moments in American history. In 1830 he signed the Indian Removal Act which called for the forcible removal of Native Americans from their lands. The Cherokee Nation would actually take their fight to the Federal Court in an attempt keep their lands and in Worcester v Georgia The Supreme Court ruled against the relocation. Of the ruling Jackson would reputedly say “John Marshall (the chief justice at the time) has made his decision; now let him enforce it!”. There’s been dispute on whether Jackson in fact uttered those words, but unfortunately they did seem to sum up his attitude. While the Cherokee would not be removed till the Van Buren Administration, the Choctaw, Seminoles, and Creek would see removal under Jackson’s watch.

But none of this seems to have affected Jackson’s popularity, which only increased. After his death his image would appear on no less than 13 postage stamps, have numerous memorials, counties, and cities named after him, his image is on the $20 bill and has been on numerous other denominations over the years. In a 2009 C-SPAN Survey of Presidential Leadership, historians placed him at 13th.

So was Andrew Jackson a hero for his leadership during his Presidency? A villain for his actions? Both? Neither? This is why the notion of what is a “hero” is so nebulous. Public and historic consensus focused on his actions in the War of 1812, or his handling of the Nullification Crisis, or simply his stellar political career. The darker aspects of his persona are ignored or excused. Jackson certainly wouldn’t be a hero to Native Americans, or the British, or the Spanish. To this day we face these questions when declaring heroes. Do the person’s admirable qualities outweigh the frailty of the human condition? Who decides?

- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – -

The author, Jesse Schultz, routinely has a few $20 bills in his back pocket which he happily sits on.

The Invisible Heroes Among Us

dc_firefighter.jpgBy Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

Over the past year, we’ve blogged about many important heroes.  We described the globally transforming impact of Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King, Jr.  We shared the remarkably inspiring stories of Pat Tillman, Thomas Jefferson, and Mother Teresa.  And we discussed heroes who displayed unusual courage in doing the right thing, people such as Oprah Winfrey, Muhammad Ali, and John F. Kennedy.  Most of these individuals are household names whose faces we recognize and whose heroism is known to much of the world.

Yet, having said all this, they may not be our most important heroes.

Recently, we conducted a study in which participants were asked to estimate the prevalence of six different types of heroes in our society.  The participants were given a sheet of paper listing the six categories of heroes, along with a brief definition of each.  teacher-writing-on-a-9540.jpgTransforming heroes were defined as people who transform the society in which they live. Traditional heroes were described as individuals who show exceptional talent or who perform a single great moral action. Transparent heroes were defined as individuals who do their heroic work behind the scenes, outside the public spotlight. Transitional heroes were described as people whose heroism is unique to a particular developmental stage in our lives. Trending heroes were defined as individuals who are on a trajectory toward becoming heroes.  And transitory heroes were described as people who perform a single nonmoral action that bring them great momentary fame.

The results of our study revealed that people clearly view one of these types of heroes as far more abundant in our society compared to the others.  Which hero is it?  The transparent hero.  Participants estimated that 65% of all heroes are transparent — the invisible individuals among us whose heroic work we often take for granted, yet they perform their heroism quietly and bravely while others bask in the limelight.  No other category of heroes came close to matching this percentage.  Participants judged traditional heroes to comprise 13% of the heroes among us; transitional heroes scored 10%, transforming heroes 7%, trending heroes 3%, and transitory heroes 2%.

Who are these transparent heroes that dominate the heroic landscape?  We’ve found that people have no trouble at all thinking of many examples of these invisible heroes.  They are our parents who made great sacrifices for us.  They soldier.jpgare the teachers who molded our minds, the coaches who taught us discipline and hard work, and healthcare workers, emergency first responders, and military personnel who protect us and save us from calamity.  These heroic individuals are everywhere, quietly going about the business of nurturing us and keeping us safe. They are quite possibly the most under-appreciated members of our society.

And so if you see parents who are raising a child under challenging circumstances, we urge you to show your appreciation to them.  We encourage you to thank your teachers, both past and present.  Take a moment to express gratitude to your former and current coaches and mentors.  The next time you encounter a law enforcement officer, paramedic worker, hospital employee, or firefighter, be sure to let them know how heroic, extraordinary, and appreciated they are.  And most importantly, be sure to shake the hand of the next military serviceman or woman you see.  Their heroism may be unseen to most of society, but their sacrifice makes every good thing in our lives possible.

These invisible heroes may never make it into our school textbooks, garner their own Wikipedia entries, or have their own youtube video that goes viral.  But they are all indispensable members of our society.  These hidden heroes are also our most essential heroes.

- – - – - -

Do you have a hero that you would like us to profile?  Please send your suggestions to Scott T. Allison (sallison@richmond.edu) or to George R. Goethals (ggoethal@richmond.edu).

Constructing Heroic Associations: Making a Good Line Better

By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

There are many iconic quotes or lines from books, movies and television that crystallize an image of a hero, or a heroic moment. Earlier we discussed Nathan Hale, and his unforgettable last words, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” In Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry movies, the image of Clint saying “Go ahead, make my day,” is unforgettable. Such quotes create a clear, sharp and unforgettable image. But some memorable moments are made more so by readers and audiences making a good phrase even better, thus making the words even more heroic and more memorable.

Several examples are notable. We have written before about the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, and the related importance of sidekicks for many such heroes. For Holmes, that person is his friend and colleague Dr. John Watson. If people know only one specific Holmes quote, it is likely to be this comment to his partner, “Elementary, my dear Watson.” That’s all well and good, but in the four Conan Doyle novels, and his dozens of stories, Holmes never utters that phrase. He says “elementary” often enough, and he frequently says “my dear Watson,” but he never links the two. But the two go so naturally together, that they create a better image of Holmes and his relation to Watson than the many phrases that only come close to the memorable combination.

Speaking of Clint Eastwood, people easily recall one of the last scenes in Dirty Harry where the villain is deciding whether to reach for his pistol. He’s uncertain whether Harry has any more bullets in his .44 magnum handgun. Harry snarls, “Do you feel lucky?” It’s a popular culture phrase. But there’s one problem. Eastwood never says it. Rather, he says, “You’ve got to ask yourself a question. €˜Do I feel lucky?’” But the phrase as remembered is more natural and quotable, and can be used conversationally more easily. And in fact, Dirty Harry follows up his statement above with “Well, do you punk?”

Another example from film: In the well-loved movie Field of Dreams the character played by Kevin Costner hears a voice in his cornfield, “If you build it, they will come.” That memorable phrase is often used in conversation. It makes a point about how activity of various kinds can attract others, and it is nicely associated with the characters in the film. Except again, that’s not what Costner says. The voice he hears refers to a single individual, perhaps Shoeless Joe Jackson, or perhaps Costner’s father. It says: “If you build it, he will come.”

One of television’s most iconic series, subsequently made into a number of films and several sequel series, was Star Trek. And fans love Captain Kirk’s line, “Beam me up, Scotty.” This classic phrase underscores the role of one of Kirk’s sidekicks, Scotty, who frequently is called upon to transport Kirk safely from danger. But once again, this exact phrase is never uttered.

One final example:  Watch the movie Casablanca again, and listen carefully. Do Ingrid Bergman or Humphrey Bogart, playing Ilsa Lund and Rick Blaine, ever smile at Dooley Wilson, the piano player, and demand, “Play it again, Sam”? The answer is no. They say variations of the line, but never that exact line.

Why does this happen? Human beings have a need to organize experience in coherent ways. We create meaning, and construct memories that make the flow of events we encounter even more meaningful. Vivid images, such as the Iwo Jima statue in Washington, and pithy quotes, such as “Make my day,” stay with us. If we can make them even easier to remember than they are already, our constructive memories will do that for us.

- – - -

References

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.