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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

Heroism as an Emergent Property

© 2013 Rick Hutchins

It seems like it should be very simple-– the definition of heroism. And yet, as we’ve seen, any attempts to delineate a definitive set of properties or criteria result in debate, disagreement and dissatisfaction. The more we try to pin down the concept, the more amorphous it seems. This is because heroism is not an intrinsic property, but an emergent one. In the words of the great philosopher Anonymous, “Heroes are made, not born.”

This is not to say that the potential for heroism does not exist in everyone, but acts of heroism are decidedly situational. The woman who saved her platoon in Afghanistan may be useless when her neighbor’s cat is stuck up a tree –- she’s afraid of heights. Or the man who quietly devoted ten years of his life to caring for his sick mother may not be the person you want around if you’re drowning –- he never learned to swim. The scientist whose vaccine saved countless lives may lack the upper body strength to pull an unconscious adult from a burning building. The great orator whose speeches inspired millions may lack the esoteric knowledge needed to assist somebody having an epileptic seizure.

However, on another day, an undistinguished man with a questionable past may be sitting on his front porch, hear a cry for help, and find himself rescuing several kidnapped women from their captor. Or perhaps a woman who was previously known only as a baseball player’s daughter may be walking down the street, minding her own business, and find herself catching a one-year-old baby who fell from a fire escape. Or perhaps a middle-aged construction worker, waiting for a train with his two kids, will find himself saving the life of a seizure-stricken stranger who fell upon the tracks. Or perhaps a shopper at the supermarket, thinking only of taking home some groceries, may find himself performing CPR on the still body of a child, bringing her back to life.

Ordinary people, ordinary days, ordinary circumstances that suddenly blossom into extraordinary events. What seems inevitable is averted. Like life itself, heroism is a thing of self-organizing complexity, emergent, synergistic-– an antidote to entropy.

It is inevitable that we should seek to understand the existence and nature of heroism. Seeking to understand is one of the essential qualities of humanity and we are rightfully amazed at a universe that can give rise to beings who can conceive of such a sublime, but slippery, idea. Yet we also must realize that concepts in the abstract have no perfect analogs in the physical world. The zen concept of a chair is perfect to the intellect, but only infinite imperfect variations exist in reality. We can calculate the mathematical properties of a perfect circle, but no such thing exists outside the realm of pure thought. When the abstract is made real, it is unique and unprecedented-– it is emergent-– and, while it may have aspects in common with past examples, attempting to formalize the concept in absolute terms is like trying to psychoanalyze a person not yet born.

Perhaps, then, the best way to define heroism is to understand that heroism defines itself.

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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.

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Heroes in the Movies: Five Myths That Need Busting

By Scott T. Allison

For the past several months, I’ve been reviewing movies with my good friend Greg Smith at our Reel Heroes website.  Our reviews focus not only on the quality of a movie but also on the quality of the hero and the hero story within the movie.  It’s been great fun, and I’ve gotten a lot out of it, particularly a love for those cookie-dough bites that our local theater sells.

We’ve reviewed about 35 movies and I’m noticing some interesting trends.  Yes, I’ve been going to movies my whole life and have always enjoyed good movies and good hero stories.  But writing these reviews has sensitized me to story details and character analysis.  Whereas I used to sit in the theater, mindlessly munching on popcorn, now I’m sitting there with my cookie-dough bites actually thinking about the various characters, the functions they serve, and whether their actions are consistent with current theory and research on heroes.

So are movie heroes good heroes?

The conclusions I’m reaching are not terribly encouraging.  Granted, it’s the summer blockbuster season and Greg assures me that the movie studios are saving their best films for the fall and winter seasons.  Still, as we watch each movie, I’m asking myself, “Well, that was fun, but didn’t we just see this same movie last week?”  It’s true that the names of the characters are different, and the costumes they’re wearing are different.  But these summer movies are becoming almost interchangeable.

I have no doubt that the makers of Hollywood films are smart people.  The problem isn’t with their intelligence, or with the effort put into film-making.  In fact, the effort is astounding.  There is no shortage of breathtaking scenes and scenery in today’s movies.  The CGI effects are simply jaw-dropping.  And at the end, during the film credits, hundreds and hundreds of people’s names scroll down.  Each film is an amazing collective effort.

The problem, I suspect, is that filmmakers’ goals are somewhat askew.  Instead of aiming to produce great movies with great hero stories, they aim to make movies that make money. Armed with tried-and-true formulae and professional script doctors, movie studios will only invest vast sums of money into films that aim low and then invariably hit that mark.

Movie-makers appear to worship at the altar of five myths about heroes:

1) The bigger the muscles, the better the hero.  Maybe I’m just envious, especially in light of my cookie-dough bite obsession, but Hugh Jackman is now “Huge” Jackman.  Dwayne Johnson isn’t a rock, he’s a continent.  Apparently, heroism doesn’t involve selflessness and self-sacrifice.  It’s more about being able to lift enormous amounts of weight in the gym.  Look how superheroes have evolved into muscle-bound freaks.  Christopher Reeve’s Superman is downright anorexic compared to Henry Cavill’s rendition.

2) The more times a hero fights the villain, the better the hero.  The great comparative mythologist, Joseph Campbell, identified a pattern in the structure of the classic hero story from his observation of thousands of ancient hero myths.  Yes, in a good hero story there is a fateful encounter with a villain.  No, these encounters do not need to continue ad infinitum.

3) Heroes’ bones are unbreakable.  In almost every movie, we see heroes surviving several hundred-foot falls, impossibly violent collisions, and fiery bomb blasts.  Movie heroes get clobbered by steel beams, leap off speeding trains, and are punched senseless by bad guys.  Yet they suffer nary a scratch.

4) The longer the story, the better the hero.  Hollywood filmmakers are epic-philes who fail to realize that after two hours, most audiences are done.  Finished.  We don’t need two and a half or three hour-long marathons.  My cookie-dough bites just don’t last that long.

5) Heroes are only male.  Over 90% of the movies we’ve reviewed feature a male hero. The Heat, The Call, and Epic were exceptions to the rule.  Apparently, when the emphasis is on muscles and fighting, women don’t fit the bill.  How sad that the movies industry has virtually blacklisted women from heroic roles.

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Earlier this year, Greg and I watched a delightful movie called Mud that runs only two hours and garnered a meager $20 million at the box office –- chump change compared to the hundreds of millions earned by Iron Man 3, Man of Steel, Star Trek Into Darkness, and Fast & Furious 6.

None of the characters in Mud has huge muscles. There aren’t endless fight scenes or constant explosions or dramatic falls from great distances.  Instead, we meet a young boy who tries to help a mysterious stranger, and who falls in love with a young girl.  Both of these relationships cause him pain and he is forced to grow emotionally.

This is hardly exciting stuff if you worship at the altar of the five myths above.  But as of mid-July, Mud is the best movie of the year.  The hero of the story does the right thing and discovers his missing inner qualities that help him rise above adversity.

In the movies, we need more Muds and fewer duds.

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Why Scientists Who Study Good and Evil Are Vulnerable To Criticism

By Scott T. Allison

Roy Baumeister, an eminent professor of psychology at Florida State University, has spent much of his professional life studying the causes of evil.  Last year he published an article in which he lamented a problem with approaching evil from a scientific standpoint: “Social scientists are not supposed to let their values cloud their judgment, because doing so can impede the impartial search for truth,” he said.  Yet when scientists remain impartial about evil, they are often criticized for seeming to condone it.

Scientists who study evil attempt to understand perpetrators’ motives and attitudes, and while doing so, scientists may begin viewing evil actions as less atrocious than how others judge them.  After all, those who commit evil do not regard their actions as evil. And so understanding an evil-doer’s mindset may diminish (even slightly) the scientist’s beliefs about the evilness of the perpetrator’s actions. According to Baumeister, scientists who study evil “carry the moral risk of mitigating their condemnation of some of the worst things that human beings do.”

Baumeister concludes that “if we as social scientists restrict our focus to actions that everyone, including the perpetrator, agrees are evil, we will have almost nothing to study.  It is therefore necessary to define evil as in the eye of the beholder.”  In short, evil must be defined in a way that is “not strongly tethered to objective reality.”

In my studies of heroism, I’ve encountered a similar issue.  There isn’t as much consensus about what defines a hero as one would think.  Most people agree that heroes perform great actions, but one observer’s idea of a great action may be very different from that of another observer.  Just as evil-doers dismiss the idea that they are evil-doers, heroes themselves often dismiss the idea that they are heroes.  As such, my co-author George Goethals and I have adopted a view of heroism that is identical to that of Baumeister’s definition of evil:  It’s in the eye of the beholder.

This definition is very unsatisfying to people who claim to know the objective definition of heroism.  Goethals and I have asked hundreds of people to list their heroes and our position is that it’s not our place, as social scientists, to judge people as “wrong”.  If tennis players report that tennis great Roger Federer is their hero, we are not going to tell them they are mistaken.  If aspiring actresses list Meryl Streep as their hero, we will report it without condemning their judgment.  Our goal is to try to understand their reasoning behind their choices.

Can I, or should I, instruct my daughter about what a hero is from my own personal perspective?  Yes.  In my role as a father, I should probably share my values about heroic action with my child.  But as a social scientist, I just report the results of our surveys and try to make sense of them.  In doing so, I know I open myself up for criticism.

Ari Kohen, a professor at the University of Nebraska, for example, took issue with our inclusion of basketball great LeBron James as a hero in our 2012 article in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology.  James appears as a hero in that article by virtue of the fact that he was listed as a hero by about a dozen of our respondents in our large-scale survey of people’s heroes.  According to Kohen, James appears in our article “presumably because of his skill as a basketball player…. But the example doesn’t really work because James isn’t really a hero in the first place. There’s nothing heroic about being good at sports.”

Kohen and I may agree that athletic prowess is not especially heroic, but that won’t stop me from reporting what people say when asked who their heroes are.  Goethals and I believe that people’s beliefs about heroes, however misguided they may or may not be, are worth studying from a scientific perspective.  Kohen goes on to say that the people we choose to profile “generally aren’t heroic, but far worse is that [Allison] tries to defend those choices by appealing to the relativistic notion that heroism is entirely in the eye of the beholder.”

To that I plead guilty as charged.  People have very different ideas about who society’s heroes are.  My goal isn’t to support or refute their choices, but merely to explain them.  People believe their heroes are either highly moral, highly competent, or both.  Some people believe that heroism requires a lifetime of self-sacrifice; others believe that one self-sacrificing action is sufficient for heroism.  Opinions vary widely.  But we have found some common patterns.  For example, people tend to believe that heroes possess many or all of The Great Eight traits of heroessmart, strong, caring, reliable, resilient, selfless, charismatic, and inspiring. 

Kohen’s criticism of our work is mild compared to some other people’s criticisms.  Take a look at one scathing review of our Heroic Leadership book at Amazon.com.  Again, this reviewer doesn’t like our approach of reporting people’s lists of heroes and scientifically studying them.  You are also welcome to read my response to his diatribe on that same page, right below his review.

Here’s some encouraging news for people who don’t like many of the individuals that people list as their heroes:  Goethals and I have found that as people get older, they become more discriminating in their choice of heroes.  People tend to outgrow celebrity  and sports heroes who only show signs of competence but not much morality.  In our 2012 article and in our Heroic Leadership book, we call heroes whom we outgrow transitional heroes.  We’ve found that as people get older, they are less likely to list LeBron James, Roger Federer, or Meryl Streep as heroes. They are more likely to list Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., or Wesley Autrey, the New York subway hero who threw himself on the train tracks to save the life of a complete stranger.

As a social scientist who should remain objective about my reporting of heroes, I shouldn’t express my opinion about the natural maturation process leading people to place greater weight on morality than on competence when choosing heroes.  But I can’t resist saying I’m glad to hear it.

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Heroes Coming and Going: Our Sensitivity to the Changing Fortunes of Others

By Scott Allison, Athena Hensel, & George Goethals

People are highly sensitive to changing fortunes. We closely monitor our own changing fortunes, of course, but we also show strong sensitivity to the shifting fortunes of others. We want to know who’s doing better and who’s doing worse than they were before. Is Obama’s approval rating going up or down? Is China’s economy still growing rapidly? Are public schools in decline? Is my friend’s health improving?

We’re drawn to changes in our social environment because they may have implications for our own well-being, or because we find those changes to be a source of drama or entertainment. We are especially dazzled by unexpected changes in fortunes – the triumphs of obscure underdogs and the failures of established powerhouses.

In short, when we witness changing fortunes, we are often witness to either the creation of heroes or the demise of heroes (Allison & Goethals, 2011).

With the NCAA basketball tournament soon reaching a crescendo, conversations at the electronic watercoolers — Facebook and Twitter — are focusing on the changing fortunes of various teams. Ohio University, for example, is this year’s surprise success in the tournament. Earlier the twitterverse exploded with Duke University’s surprising exit at the hands of unheralded Lehigh University.

The labels we assign to teams such as Ohio and Lehigh tend to reflect our observations of their changing fortunes. Historically unsuccessful teams that finally enjoy some success are said to be plucky underdogs, up-and-coming programs, rising upstarts, and Cinderella stories. We seem to have fewer labels for fallen giants. We briefly revel in their misfortune, as befitting our schadenfreudian tendencies, but our focus is usually more on celebrating the unexpected successes of the downtrodden.

Changing fortunes can result in changing categorical labels. Gonzaga University’s sustained success in basketball has expelled them from the category of underdog. Butler University’s back-to-back appearances in the final championship game placed them on a strong trajectory toward top dog status, but the school’s relatively poor year this past season may have put their graduation from underdog standing on hold. Sometimes we just aren’t sure whether a team meets the criteria for underdog status, and when a team is in category limbo we may become especially attentive to cues that will pull them into one grouping or another.

Whereas our categorization of teams into underdog or top dog groups would seem to depend on their history of success, a change in that categorization would appear to depend on the direction that a team is heading and whether the team has sustained that directional change.

Let’s first look at the history variable. No team better fit the underdog prototype than did the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team. The Soviet Union had won every gold medal since 1960 and the U.S. was a predictable flop during those years. Stunningly, the 1980 U.S. team defeated the Soviets to win the gold medal, but the Americans had been entrenched underdogs for so long that no one dared to suggest that their change in fortune was anything more than an aberration. The dismal U.S. performance at the subsequent Olympic hockey competitions confirmed their continued status as underdogs.

In some areas of human judgment, the direction of change appears to matter more than one’s absolute position. For example, people are happier when their 3 dollars grows to 5 dollars than when their 8 dollars shrinks to 6 dollars. Similarly, we’re more attracted to people who dislike us but are starting to warm up to us than we are to people who like us but are beginning to criticize us. Sensitivity to direction of change is high in these contexts.

But the direction of change would appear to matter less in our practice of labeling people. Our categorizations of people into underdog and top dog groups are glued tightly in place, especially in the sporting world. Even during lean years, baseball’s New York Yankees are viewed as behemoths. Duke, the UNC Chapel Hill, and Kentucky have enjoyed so many decades of sustained success in basketball that it would take decades of futility for their top dog labels to wear off.

Outside the world of sports, categorical changes are volatile and more permanent. Consider the case of MySpace, which a decade ago was the unquestioned king of social media. MySpace had no rivals and was firmly entrenched as the top dog when Facebook took the social media world by storm and quickly rendered MySpace irrelevant. Almost overnight in the business world, a David can beat a Goliath and there is no question that Goliath will never get up again. Google+ is currently trying, without much success, to do to Facebook what Facebook did to MySpace. If Google+ fails, it will be yet another David we’ll never hear from again.

Other corporate examples abound: In the mobile phone industry, the BlackBerry quickly went from being cool and hip to becoming a dinosaur thanks to the cooler and hipper iPhone. Sometimes top dogs fall, not because of the new top dog on the block, but because several hungry underdogs eat into their business. Crocs shoes – those multicolored rubber clogs – came and went because cheaper knock-offs appeared on the market.

Whereas no one gives MySpace or Blackberry much of a chance of regaining their top dog status, there is always plenty of hope for individual athletes or sports teams to rebound from a downturn. The Pittsburgh Pirates have suffered 19 consecutive losing seasons, the longest streak in North American professional sports history. In a non-sporting business environment the Pirates’ survival prospects would be bleak indeed, but every year brings new hope for the lowly in athletics.

And speaking of hope for the underdog, the story of Jeremy Lin is a fascinating one. Deemed a marginal player from Harvard University, Lin was cut from two NBA teams and was languishing at the end of the New York Knicks bench for a long time before his coach, out of desperation, brought him into a game on February 5, 2012. He stunned everyone by scoring 25 points and leading the Knicks to victory. His greatness on the court continued game after game, and “Linsanity” was born – fans were erupting into a Beatlemania-like frenzy whenever Lin touched the ball.

Not surprisingly, Lin has been unable to sustain his phenomenal level of performance. Linsanity turned into Lin over his head. Perhaps the fragility of underdog success is what makes that success so very special to us. Cinderella may have lived happily ever after, but most sporting underdogs only enjoy the Andy Warhol fifteen minutes of fame before they retreat and ultimately disappear from our radar screens. We revel in their changing fortunes for the better, but we fully expect that change to be an ephemeral one.

The Goliaths of the world attract a peculiar mixture of admiration, envy, and resentment, but those Goliaths give us a sort of comforting stability that we need. Our sensitivity to changing fortunes, and our delight in perceiving those changes, probably depends on people’s stable fortunes remaining the norm in life.

References

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

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The Hero Round Table Conference This November in Michigan

By Scott T. Allison

This November 9th and 10th, 2013, a one-of-a-kind event will take place — The Hero Round Table Conference, to be held in Flint, Michigan. This is the first interdisciplinary conference on heroism ever held, and it has been masterfully organized by Matt Langdon, founder of the Hero Construction Company.

Matt Langdon (pictured below) has lined up a group of speakers whom he calls “an extraordinary group of experts from the fields of psychology, education, business, sports, philosophy, and entertainment”. Speakers from around the world will be sharing the latest developments on theories, research, and practices of heroism.  And YOU can attend, too!

The star speaker is Dr. Phil Zimbardo, the world famous social psychologist who currently heads up the Heroic Imagination Project.   Yours truly, Dr. Scott Allison of the University of Richmond, will also be speaking, having published two books on heroes and running a blog on real heroes and a blog on ‘reel’ heroes.

In the field of education, speakers will include Zoe Weil, the legendary humane educator, author, and speaker; Christian Long, an international education consultant with experience studying heroism in the classroom; Aaron Donaghy, who transformed the concepts of charity and heroism for students using the GO-effect; and Ann Medlock, who has spent decades discovering and promoting heroes through the Giraffe Heroes Program.

Speakers from the realm of business include George Brymer, author of “Vital Integrities” and “Franciscanomics” and the creator of The Leading from the Heart Workshop; Dr. David Rendall, who shares his freak factor with audiences around the world as a speaker and author; Whitney Johnson, author of Dare to Dream, who suggests tapping into the power of the female hero’s journey; and Doug Knight, a non-profiteer making the connections between heroic action and the non-profit business world.

Additional speakers include Mike Dilbeck, the conference’s keynote speaker, who lays out the steps to heroic action in his everyday heroes presentations to audiences around the country; Jocelyn Stevenson, a star of children’s television and one of the pioneers for educating through television shows; Jeremiah Anthony, who, frustrated with the efforts of professional anti-bullying speakers, changed his school by himself; Pat Solomon, who created the documentary Finding Joe to honor the work of Joseph Campbell; and Dr. Ari Kohen, who teaches heroism at the University of Nebraska and is the host of the podcast, The Hero Report.

Finally, the conference is privileged to have speakers such as Nolan Harrison, who played defense in the NFL for 10 years and now works to help former players as a senior director at the NFL players association; Drew Jacob, professional adventurer, currently making his way from the source of the Mississippi to the mouth of the Amazon River under his own power; and Ethan King, who is changing the world through his project, Charity Ball, which provides soccer balls to kids living in poverty.

There will also be dozens of breakout sessions, featuring Chad Ellsworth from Building Heroes, Andrew Jones from Philosopher’s Stone, Sean Furey from the Hero Support Network, Greg Smith, from Agile Writers and Reel Heroes, Jensen Kyle from Moral Heroes, Elaine Kinsella from the University of Limerick in Ireland.  Students will present posters on their work in the areas of altruism, the bystander effect, personality constructs, and pro-social behavior.

You can attend this great event by visiting the Hero Round Table website.  Please check out the promo video: