Do We Expect Too Much From Our Heroes?

By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

In a recent New York Magazine article, Frank Rich argues that no one should have been surprised at the downfall of highly decorated U.S. Army General and CIA Director David Petraeus.  After the reputational demise of so many heroes before him — Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong, and Joe Paterno, to name a few — why should we have expected anything different from Petraeus?

According to Rich, “What’s really shocking about the Petraeus affair is not Petraeus’s affair but the fact that once again, we were taken in by a secular plaster saint who turns out to bear only a faint resemblance to the image purveyed by the man himself and the mass media that abetted his self-glorification.”

Rich’s essay raises many interesting questions:  Why do people we admire tend to succumb to repeated moral failings? Do we expect moral perfection from those who show great competence in one sphere of life?  Why do we conveniently overlook the obvious fact that all human heroes are inevitably as human as they are heroic?  And then why do we seem to punish heroes more for their human foibles than we do non-heroes?

Prior to their downfall, we personally never imagined Woods, Armstrong, or Petraeus to be perfect individuals.  Perhaps people are too quick to assume that greatness in one realm implies (however naively) greatness in all realms, including — and perhaps especially — morality. Our thirst for heroes may be so urgent that we cannot help but harbor unrealistic impressions of their universal virtue.  In our first book on heroes, we discuss how the higher standards we hold for heroes make it easier to topple them from their pedestals.

Rich also reminds us of the often-heard speculation that ever since the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s, public figures’ misdeeds are sought out by the media rather than covered-up by them.  Untarnished heroes of yesteryear, such as George Washington, JFK, and FDR, were probably as riddled with flaws as were Paterno and Patraeus.  The media of their day simply placed a higher priority on building heroes than on tearing them down.  We recommend Susan Drucker’s book, American Heroes in a Media Age, for a cogent analysis of this topic.

Lost in all the media frenzy about the many recent fallen heroes is the observation that many, many extremely successful people (and heroes to many) continue to maintain almost impeccably clean moral reputations.  These individuals come from all walks of life and a partial list of them includes Coach K at Duke University, Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Barack Obama, Meryl Streep, Stephen Hawking, and Michael Jordan.  Frank Rich’s essay suggests that it may only be a matter of time before at least a few of these icons crumble.  We hope he’s wrong.

6 thoughts on “Do We Expect Too Much From Our Heroes?

  1. Great Article, Scott!

    What strikes me is the “Gold Standard” we hold our mortal heroes to compared to our fictional heroes. When we look at Batman, for example, we’re intrigued by his foibles and weaknesses. These faults bring the hero closer to us and allow us to imagine ourselves in the role of the hero.

    Real-world heroes are held to standards no one can rise to. Every gaffe and misdeed is amplified by the magnifying glass of the media. I think the reason for this is the benefit it gives the opponents of the hero. Barak Obama (through his campaign and supporting Super-PACs) successfully exploited the weaknesses of Mitt Romney making the man look buffoonish and out of touch with the average man. Romney is a fine man by most standards. But he couldn’t stand up to the “Gold Standard” of the ideal public hero.

    In the end I think there is a sort of purity we expect of our real-world heroes because we give them such a high position. It’s a bargain we make with them. We’ll idolize you if you reflect what we want to see in ourselves. But if you reflect the reality of us as people and a society, then you’re just one of us after all. And therefore, you’re no more special than we are and you have to come down from your pedestal and stand in the muck with the rest of us.

  2. Scott,

    I personally think that in today’s culture, not only are we making heros out of people who shouldn’t be made heros, but we are also holding them to impossible standards. No matter how heroic someone is, ultimately, they are human…which means they have human emotions, human impulses, human needs and human flaws. In my own opinion, the only perfect beings in existence are God and Jesus.

    Speaking from my own perspective and life experiences, making someone a hero is no different then people claiming someone has a great faith in their religion. It is VERY easy to be seen as a hero or as strong in your faith when you are in your element, when things are going well, when conditions are such that you are in an environment where you thrive and you are not challenged. The true test of someone’s character and faith comes when things are against them and they must make the difficult decisions. It’s easy to be strong in faith when you are surrounded by others who share your faith and life is going well. It’s easy to show the best in human ideals when all is going well and life isn’t throwing you any major curve balls. But what happens when things aren’t going well and you are being challenged? Just my thought, that is where heros are made. Living out our ideals and faith when we are pushed and pressured…and coming out stronger in the end.

    Today’s world makes athletes, movie stars and singers heros every day. When I was a child, my heros were firefighters, cops, soldiers, doctors and nurses. These people are still my heros today. Every day, these people face challenges that superstars never encounter. These heros are still flawed though, just like you and me, but they decide to continue going on and doing what they need to do.

    The media has certainly added to the modern day hero’s downfall. Media knows what sells…sex, corruption, shame. With publications willing to pay absurd amounts of money for the picture of someone famous having an affair but nothing for the story of the man or woman who has faced the worst life could throw at them and their comeback, are we really surprised by the downfall of so many? Throw in the pressures to be perfect because you know your life is constantly under a microscope…the added pressure only causes people to crumble faster.

    I believe the world needs to create a new definition of what a hero is before they go and chastise someone else for their flaws. To me, the greatest heros are those who overcome struggle and strife and come out better on the other side or those who make a personal decision to place the lives of others before their own. The soldier who goes rushing into combat because his brothers in arms need him, the firefighter who runs into the burning building while everyone else runs away. The man who always had a good heart and faced financial ruin and the demise of his family but yet kept his faith, dug in, fought back and found a new and happier life while maintaining his dignity. Those are the heros in this world.

    Just my $0.02…

  3. Society might also revel in the downfall of a hero out of feeling of intimidation. Like a fictional hero with human flaws, people might simply take some strange comfort in finding that the hero in question is as morally flawed as they are.

  4. Great article! However, my own opinion is that the term/accolade “hero” is bandied about far too much; to me it started right after 9/11/01. The police, firefighters and civilians who gave their lives trying to save others were Heros by any definition, especially those who ran in & out repeatedly helping folks get out. Shortly theafter, something came along in the NYC area called “everday heros”; some silly union (!!) ads celebrating their members for merely doing their jobs. Dedicated workers, perhaps but hero not so much. I expect nothing from Heros other then to be heroic; are football player heores, I think not; role models, pehaps, etc.

  5. So David Petraeus has lost his hero standing– regardless of whether or not he deserved it to begin with– because of an extramarital affair. I wonder how many of those who now consider him tarnished have done the same or worse. And I question the journalistic integrity of the cited essayist Frank Rich, whose phrase “secular plaster saint” would seem to betray his motives.

    Personally, I have no interest in Petraeus’s sex life. I have no idea what his marital arrangement is or what he and his wife were going through at that time. They may have an open marriage. He may have been responding to an affair of hers. Or not. I don’t care. If he has broken a promise without cause, then he did something wrong. If he regrets it and has made amends, then he did something right. In any case, it is between him and his wife. None of it was relevant to his job and did not merit his resignation.

    Why are people so eager to see a hero fail? I think there is truth in the intimidation theory, especially in the current social climate. In life, as in fiction, people look for characters who validate their basest instincts, not characters who represent a standard to live up to.

  6. I think we are making the mistake here of using the word “hero” when all we are really talking about is a “famous person.”

    Petraeus is the perfect example. In my mind, “hero” implies acts of bravery combined with selflessness. Petraeus may have done a great job in Iraq and Afghanistan, he may have spent the better part of his life as an honest, hardworking, good person. But he wasn’t a hero, just a famous person who was much-admired.

    Furthermore, not every person in military service is automatically a hero. Likewise, not every police officer and firefighter is a hero. Yes, I am grateful they serve our community, but I believe one has to actually perform a brave, selfless and sacrificial act to qualify as a hero.

    Look at Tiger Woods and Serena Williams (I’m a big Serena fan, actually.) They came from low circumstances, were blessed with amazing talent and worked incredibly hard to achieve greatness in their sports. But they aren’t heroes. Hard work is not the same as bravery. Giving abundantly to charity isn’t all that selfless when you are a zillionaire.

    There are many, many famous people out there to admire. People who entertain with their talent, like movie stars and athletes; people who are charismatic political and social-cause leaders; scientists who toil for decades working on cures for diseases or mapping the genome. But those are not heroes because they are largely self-serving — even if they accomplish great things, it is because that is what they desired to do.

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