All posts by Scott Allison

About Scott Allison

Scott Allison has authored numerous books, including 'Heroes' and 'Heroic Leadership'. He is Professor of Psychology at the University of Richmond where he has published extensively on heroism and leadership. His other books include Reel Heroes, Conceptions of Leadership, Frontiers in Spiritual Leadership, and the Handbook of Heroism. His work has appeared in USA Today, National Public Radio, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Slate Magazine, MSNBC, CBS, Psychology Today, and the Christian Science Monitor. He has received Richmond's Distinguished Educator Award and the Virginia Council of Higher Education's Outstanding Faculty Award.

The Queen’s Gambit Tells the Ultimate Underdog Hero Story

By Scott T. Allison

The Queen’s Gambit is one of those miniseries that shouldn’t work but somehow does. What could be less exciting than watching two people sit at a table silently playing a board game that most of us don’t really understand?

But here’s the secret to The Queen’s Gambit’s success:  It tells one hell of a hero’s story.

And as we’ve been saying for years, as long as a story captures the beauty and inspiration of the hero’s journey, and does so in a new and interesting way, it will find an audience.

Let’s start with our hero, Beth Harmon. We really shouldn’t like her. She’s cold, aloof, self-destructive.

Why are we drawn to this hero? Well, we all know that people love an underdog, and Beth is an underdog in five different ways. Maybe even six. It’s a bit sledgehammered, but it works.

First, Beth is a woman competing in a man’s world. Second, she’s not only an orphan, but a double-orphan. Third, she’s an addict. Fourth, because of the severity of her losses, she’s emotionally stunted. Fifth, she is poor.

We can also add that she is an American playing a game that is dominated by the Russians.

Like all good heroes, Beth has a superpower: She is a brilliant chess player, possessing more raw talent than anyone.

Beth also has a superpower within the superpower: She can mentally play out the winning moves of a chess game on the ceiling of any room she is in.

Like all good heroes, Beth has her kryptonite: She is hopelessly addicted to drugs and alcohol. Her pain cuts deep — hence her need to self-medicate with sedatives.

Beth thinks she can only win at chess when she’s drugged up. All good heroes are missing something important and must find these missing qualities to succeed. Beth lacks self-insight, self-regulation, and courage.

So the set-up of the story is clear. If only Beth can get out of her own way, she can rule the chess world. That’s a big “if”. Especially for a person who doesn’t attract friends easily.

The good news is that every hero receives help, even Beth. Her mentor is a janitor at the orphanage named Mr. Shaibel. Later Beth receives help from former competitors whom she has defeated: Townes, Harry, Benny, and the twins Matt and Mike.

On the eve of Beth’s match with the great Soviet champion Borgov, her childhood friend Jolene shows up. Beth benefited from Jolene’s stable, sensible influence years earlier and needs it now more than ever. Jolene offers to pay for Beth’s travel to Russia.

Returning to the orphanage to attend Mr. Shaibel’s funeral, Beth learns that her old mentor had followed her career closely and supported her from afar. This discovery reduces her to tears — her first show of emotion.

The ice has cracked. Beth is now fully human and ready to become her best self.

All good hero stories end with the hero returning home. The Queen’s Gambit portrays this return home in a wonderful and unique way. After defeating Borgov in Moscow, she mingles among a throng of Mr. Shaibel-like old men playing chess in a Russian park.

She has returned “home”, so to speak, only as poet T.S. Eliot once said, home is now completely different. The hero now sees home with a new set of eyes.

By playing chess with one of the Russian Mr. Shaibels, Beth is now giving back what was once given to her. Once transformed, the hero helps transform others. And as Joseph Campbell said, the hero is now in union with all the world.

Beth Harmon was a pawn who became a Queen. You rarely see a hero’s journey better than that.

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The Obligation to Greatness

By Scott T. Allison

Recently, sports journalist Tony Kornheiser, co-host of ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption, discussed Tiger Woods’ scoring a septuple bogey 10 on a par 3 in the final round of the 2020 Masters golf tournament.

Kornheiser didn’t talk at all about Tiger’s shotmaking gaffes. Instead he focused on what Tiger did after carding his disastrous score.

Tiger birdied 5 of the next 6 holes, a feat that Kornheiser called, “The Obligation to Greatness”.

I was struck by this line and immediately Googled it to see its origins and usage. To my surprise, “the obligation to greatness” appears most often in a religious context, referring to our call to transcend our earthly ambitions. From this perspective, the obligation to greatness is God’s wish for us to become our best selves.

My feelings about this phrase, “the obligation to greatness”, are a mix of inspiration and cautionary dread.

The inspiration is the more obvious emotion. All my work on heroism this past decade has focused on helping and encouraging people to reach their fullest, most heroic potential. Despite life’s challenges, and maybe even because of them, we can all be heroes. We can overcome our struggles, and our suffering, to offer hope to others, help others, and thus make a positive difference in the world.

The caution I feel about “the obligation to greatness” is that it may feel like a burden to those who are not yet ready to heed the call. For many of us right now, life is one slap in the face after another. There are economic challenges. There are the hurts of broken relationships. There are health challenges. Achieving “greatness” may be the last thing on our minds. Just getting through the day seems like challenge enough.

So where does that leave us? Wrapping our minds around “the obligation to greatness” may require a creative tension. We can trust that the obligation is there, but only when we are ready to fulfill it. Not before.

During our struggles, we can trust, even to a slight degree, that something bigger and better is waiting for us. Trusting the process is very hard when there are bills to pay, hurts to mend, and tears to shed. This is why so many good mentors encourage us to hold on.

So today, I am telling you:  Hold on.  I am here for you. I am telling you that even by holding onto life by a thread, you are fulfilling your obligation to greatness, whether you are aware of it or not.

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10 Life Lessons We Can Learn From Donald Trump

By Scott T. Allison

Years ago, my mother taught me that we can learn something important from every person that we encounter. Donald Trump, the 45th US President recently defeated in the 2020 election, was someone from whom we can learn many enduring lessons about how to live a healthy and happy life.

Here are ten such life lessons that Donald Trump taught us:

1. The importance of humility

Known as the mother of all virtues, humility is the antidote to pride and narcissism. While many public figures are narcissists, Donald Trump was an extreme one. He had a grandiose sense of self-importance, sought praise and admiration, bullied and intimidated others, and believed that many basic rules of life didn’t apply to him. As a result of his narcissism, Trump was in constant legal trouble and had a long track record of volatile and broken relationships. The lesson is clear: humility plays a pivotal role in living a happy, healthy life.

2. The importance of growing throughout the lifespan

Dozens of psychologists over the past century have proposed stages of human growth and development. These stages involve moral, emotional, spiritual, social, and other types of development. People are meant to evolve into caring, sociable, emotionally stable beings. Donald Trump’s volatility, egotism, friendlessness, and penchant for wrongdoing all suggest that he is stuck at very early, immature stages of development. The lesson is clear: we are designed to grow into our best selves, capable of cultivating healthy habits and healthy relationships.

3. The importance of unifying people

Heroic leaders succeed in unifying people. Consider Gandhi, Mandela, and Martin Luther King, Jr. They saw all people as valuable regardless of color, nationality, religion, and more. Heroes build unity, whereas villains foment discord and divide people. Donald Trump spent his four years in the White House disparaging people of Mexican, Arab, and Chinese descent. He also vilified Democrats and any media who disagreed with him. The lesson is clear: Good people and good leaders brings us together rather than divide us.

4. The importance of role modeling appropriate behavior

Good leaders are role models who set a good example and give cues about appropriate behavior. Psychologists know this from the famous Milgram obedience study. When the experimenter told research participants that it was okay to apply painful electric shocks to another person, they did so. Donald Trump made daily hostile attacks toward others on Twitter and at his rallies. Those attacks encouraged his followers to show intolerance and direct violence toward others. The lesson is clear: it is up to each of us, especially our leaders, to role model kind, loving behavior.

5. The importance of planning for future generations

During his term as president, Donald Trump rolled back nearly 100 environmental protection rules and laws designed to provide future generations of people with clean water and air, and to protect animal life. He did this during a time of mass extinctions and unprecedented climate change. For Trump, it was all about short term gain at the expense of long term well-being. The lesson is clear: It is up to each of us, especially our leaders, to think of the well-being of the next several generations.

6. The importance of science

While he was president, Trump repeatedly disregarded the recommendations of scientists and the medical community. He boasted that his instincts were more reliable than factual data. His disregard of science damaged our planet and caused thousands to die from COVID-19. The lesson is clear: if humanity is to survive, leaders need to listen to science and act on the recommendations of scientists.

7. The importance of truth-telling

Although almost all politicians take liberties with the truth, Trump took outright deception to a new level. His mountain of lies could always be verified by objective fact-checking organizations. Trump’s prevarications got so bad that Twitter would censor him and news organizations would cut away from his news conferences to set the record straight. The lesson is clear: Good leaders, and good people, tell the truth.

8. The importance of cultivating loving relationships

Like most narcissists, Trump had a long history of mistreating people and sabotaging relationships. He was belligerent and bullying in real life, and especially on Twitter. He routinely abused and bullied women, and was estranged from many of his friends and associates. The lesson is clear: healthy people enjoy stable, loving relationships with others.

9. The importance of good leadership and followership

This article has outlined several criteria for good leadership. But just as important is good followership. Followers should be wary of overly self-confident leaders. Even more importantly, followers need to question leaders who scapegoat others, who diminish others, and who stir up anger. The lesson is clear: good leaders bring out the best in us, and if they don’t, it’s up to followers to replace those leaders.

10. The importance of not being a cautionary tale

The most important reason for being a good human is that it’s the right thing to do. If that weren’t enough, consider the legacy issue: How do we want to be remembered? Trump’s legacy is one of dishonesty, corruption, abuse of power, and disregard for the planet. He got all the fame that he craved for, but at great cost to his name and to all of humanity. The lesson is clear: do not be a cautionary tale.

Donald Trump isn’t the only politician who has these ten lessons to teach. Many disastrous leaders in history have similarly tarnished legacies. No single American politician, however, has ever illustrated these ten life lessons with such clarity and urgency. Let’s all work at becoming our best selves, not our worst. And let’s be sure to elect our best leaders, who are always those who help bring out the best in all people.


Growth, Wholeness, and Intelligence are at the Core of the Universal Journey

By Scott T. Allison

A central part of Joseph Campbell’s (1949) genius resided in his ability to see a universal journey among all the great heroes of mythology across the globe and throughout all time periods in human history. Swimme and Tucker (2011) take this universality to its furthest extreme in suggesting that the hero’s journey and the human journey – which are arguably one and the same – represent a microcosm of the journey of the entire known physical universe.

They propose that “the universe is best understood not as discrete incidents of evolution, but as a whole unfolding dynamic and developmental process, which is like a story” (Mowe 2017, p. 48-50). Swimme and Tucker boldly set out to “create a new genre of a fusion of science and humanities”:

“We’re not looking at science as just facts or numbers or equations or graphs, but science in relation to the humanities – literature, history, art, music, philosophy, and religion and so on. These are the disciplines that have tried to understand how humans have lived in the past and how might we live more integrally in the future. So Journey of the Universe is a conscious fusion of fact, metaphor, and meaning.”

Swimme and Tucker (2011, p. 15) first examine the origins of the physical universe, including the Big Bang and the creation of galaxies and solar systems. Patterns among physical entities, both immensely small and infinitesimally small, show emergent qualities that are reminiscent of the hero’s journey — birth, expansion, calamity, contraction, and then repetition of the cycle. The authors argue that the universe’s “overall journey depends, in critical moments, upon the transformations taking place in the microcosm.” These transformations, moreover, show the same tendencies toward integrated wholeness that every hero shows on the classic journey: “To commune may be one of the deepest tendencies in the universe.” (p. 51).

The Universe is drawn toward learning, growing, and truth-seeking, with the ultimate truth pointing toward wholeness: “The ancient process of evolution can be understood as a higher-level form of ‘learning’” (p. 60). For example, the entire process of adaptation and memory in animal life is responsible for the ability to turn breath into energy and to transform food into flesh. “Life adapts. Life remembers. Life learns” (p. 61).

This inherent drive to learn is the key toward achieving wholeness and communion. According to Swimme and Tucker, “Humans have at their disposal vast storehouses of learning accumulated and refined over millennia in written and oral traditions. There is little validity to the idea that humans are isolated individuals, for each of us arises out of an ocean of experience and understanding acquired by our species as a whole.” (italics added, p. 90).

The pervasive rhythmic cycle of nature, especially that of expansion and contraction, ensures that death and life form an intelligent whole. Swimme and Tucker (2011) review many recurring patterns of growth and development in the physical universe that map onto patterns found in humanity. The authors pose a number of questions: Does deep geological and cosmological time offer us useful insights into human meaning and purpose? How can the rhythms of the physical world inform us of our own human destiny? “Can it be that our small self dies into the large self of the universe? Are our passions and dreams, as well as our anguish and loss, woven into the fabric of the universe itself?” (Swimme & Tucker 2011, p. 69).

These ideas are reminiscent of the ancient Greek notion of sympatheia, which refers to the phenomenon of all beings on earth and in the heavens as inextricably linked together to form parts of a whole. Sages over several millennia have sensed the centrality of sympatheia in the cosmos, and Swimme and Tucker (2011) invoke Zhang Zai’s Western Inscription from the 11th century as one telling example:

Heaven is my father and Earth is my mother and even such a small creature as I finds an intimate place in their midst. Therefore that which extends throughout the universe I regard as my body and that which directs the universe I consider as my nature. All people are my brothers and sisters, and all things are my companion.

Swimme and Tucker (2011, p. 109) suggest that the human journey is a product of deep time, originating with the Big Bang and marked for eternity. “We can begin to reflect on the way in which time, in a cosmological sense, is the creativity of the universe itself… We live not in any mechanical time but in this enveloping cosmological time. We live in that time when Earth itself begins its adventure of conscious self-awareness.”

Swimmer and Tucker (2011, p. 112) further suggest that our purpose may be “to drink so deeply of the powers of the universe that we become the human form of the universe.” Human beings may be answering a call to “become not just nation-state people, but universe people…. knowing how we belong and where we belong so that we enhance the flourishing of the Earth community” (p. 113). Swimme and Tucker then make the leap from the universality of the journey to human well-being. First, the authors emphasize the centrality of storytelling in mapping out the realities of the physical universe as well as the human world. “We have discovered the ongoing story of the universe, a story that we tell, but a story that is also telling us” (p. 114).

According to the Swimme and Tucker, the Earth has given rise “to the possibility of an empathetic being who could flow into and become one with the intimate feelings of any being. Our human destiny is to become the heart of the universe that embraces the whole of the Earth community… That is the direction of our becoming more fully human” (p. 115). From this perspective, the connection to well-being is a logical one: “Our human role is to deepen our consciousness in resonance with the dynamics of the fourteen-billion-year creative event in which we find ourselves…. Our role is to provide the hands and hearts that will enable the universe’s energies to come forth in a new order of well-being” (p. 117).

All heroes begin their journey missing an important inner quality that they must either recover or discover during their heroic quest (Allison & Smith 2015). Swimme and Tucker (2011) propose that creativity may be humanity’s missing inner quality. Their analysis implies that life on our planet has always been on a hero’s journey and that it has relied on extraordinary creativity for survival and well-being:

“We find ourselves inside an amazing drama filled with danger and risk but also stunning creativity. Two billion years ago, when the [Earth’s] atmosphere became so filled with oxygen, all of life was deteriorating. The only way for the life of that time to survive was to burrow deep into the mud at the bottom of the oceans. The future of Earth seemed bleak. And yet, in the midst of that crisis a new kind of cell emerged, one that was not destroyed by oxygen, but was in fact energized by it. Because of this miracle of creativity, life exploded with an exuberance never seen before…. It is the nature of the universe to more forward between great tensions, between dynamic opposing forces.”

The idea that creativity is essential for heroic transformation is consistent with the metaphor of heroic imagination put forth by Franco, Blau, and Zimbardo (2011). At the human level, heroic imagination “can be seen as mind-set, a collection of attitudes about helping others in need, beginning with caring for others in compassionate ways, but also moving toward a willingness to sacrifice or take risks on behalf of others or in defense of a moral cause” (p. 111). From this metaphorical perspective, unleashing the heroic imagination involves igniting people’s drive to create the best life for themselves and others.

Such heroic imagination implies creativity borne of non-dual thinking (Rohr 2009) and transdisciplinary thinking (Efthimiou 2017a, 2017b; Efthimiou & Allison 2017). Swimme and Tucker (2011) have extended this metaphor of imagination to include the idea that it is embedded in the universe. As products of the universe, the human race has a built-in predisposition toward fulfilling its heroic personal imperative to imagine and create heroic growth for each individual, for all of humanity, and for the planet and cosmos in which we live.

Leading scientists are coming to embrace this direction of the universe. Celebrated physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson once observed: “The more I examine the universe and study the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known that we were coming.”

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, moreover, has said: “We are part of this universe; we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts, is that the universe is in us.”  The journey we’re all on is the universal journey.


Allison, Scott T., and Greg Smith. 2015. Reel Heroes and Villains. Richmond: Agile Writer.

Campbell, Joseph. 1949. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Efthimiou, Olivia. 2017a. “Heroic ecologies: embodied heroic leadership and sustainable futures”. Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal, 4, 489-511.

Efthimiou, Olivia. 2017b. “The Hero Organism: Advancing the Embodiment of Heroism Thesis in the 21st Century”. In Handbook of Heroism and Heroic Leadership, edited by Scott T. Allison et al. New York: Routledge.

Efthimiou, O., & Allison, S. T. 2017. Heroism science: Frameworks for an emerging field. Journal of Humanistic Psychology.

Efthimiou, O., Allison, S. T., & Franco, Z. E. (Eds.) 2018. Heroism and wellbeing in the 21st Century: Applied and emerging perspectives. New York: Routledge.

Franco, Zeno E., Kathy Blau, and Philip G. Zimbardo, 2011. “Heroism: A Conceptual Analysis and Differentiation between Heroic Action and Altruism”. Review of General Psychology, 15, 99-113.

Rohr, Richard, 2009. The Naked Now: Learning to See What the Mystics See. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company.

Swimme, Brian T., & Tucker, Mary E. 2011. Journey of the Universe. New Haven: Yale.

Call for Papers: The Heroic Screen – Special Issue in Heroism Science



In 2020, our lives are lived on-screen now more than ever. Geographically restricted under lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we rely on computer and phone screens to connect with each other, to keep ourselves informed, and to divert ourselves from the constant barrage of bleakness pervading this year. But even before the coronavirus compounded our dependence on the screen, we’ve used it to game, to watch, to see and be seen.

Though it may not seem like it at this moment of history, the screen is replete with heroism. In addition to the dominant popularity of the superhero genre in film, television and video games, we witness real and fictional screen heroics on a regular basis: from the TV show detective finally catching the bad guy, to viral footage of indomitable Black Lives Matter protesters standing their ground against police violence, to Instagram images of children holding impromptu action-figure memorials to Chadwick Boseman through his inspiring turn as cinematic superhero Black Panther. Across political, cultural and social spectrums, the screen is a site for representing, understanding, demonstrating and transmitting heroism and heroic images.

This issue of Heroism Science invites contributors to widely consider how heroism coincides with the screen. The issue’s remit is purposefully broad in order to invite a range of perspectives and disciplines. As the issue arises during the COVID-19 pandemic, articles can, but are not required to, be COVID-19-centric in nature. Potential topics can include (but are not limited to):

  • Capturing heroic acts through smartphones
  • News broadcasts and the coverage of heroism and heroic acts
  • The heroism of fictional police as a contrast to the real police violence of 2020
  • Heroic and superheroic characters and narratives in screen fiction
  • Affordances of screen platforms and how they depict heroism (eg. Video games vs. television)
  • Medical heroes and the screen during COVID-19
  • Heroism, community and the unifying screen during COVID-19
  • Queer heroism on-screen
  • Whistleblowing and heroism
  • Psychological and cognitive processing of screen heroism
  • Heroic acts left out of or not captured on screen
  • Heroism and immersion in video gaming
  • Celebrity/persona heroics on social media
  • The screen as coordinator for heroism through organizing protests and civic action
  • The screen memorializing heroism

Interested contributors should submit an abstract of no more than 250 words and a short bio by 15 December 2020. Successful contributors will be informed in early January 2021, for submission of full papers in April 2021.

Please direct submissions and any questions to the editor, Dr. Chris Comerford, at

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Heroic Lag: The Time It Takes Society To Catch Up With Its Heroes

By Scott T. Allison

“Every society honors its live conformists and its dead troublemakers.” — Marshall McLuhan

In one of our recent books, we introduced the term heroic lag, referring to heroes being ahead of their time, and society resisting the hero – at first. There are many examples of a hero championing ideas that are so radical that the hero is initially seen as a villain but then later viewed as a hero.

During the 19th century, Susan B. Anthony was reviled for promoting women’s suffrage and is now a cultural icon. In the early 1960s, Martin Luther King, Jr., was despised by most of America for leading the civil rights movement, yet now we have a holiday honoring his accomplishments.

The Black Lives Matter movement, established in 2013 in response to police shootings of unarmed Black citizens, was unpopular among mainstream Americans for years. In May of 2020, the brutal murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis officer, captured on video, seemed to represent the tipping point in public opinion. By June of 2020, support for the Black Lives Matter movement had reached 76 percent of Americans. This number was a significant departure from 2013 when a majority of voters disagreed with Black Lives Matter.

We’re also witnessing a rise in public approval of Colin Kaepernick, who for years was widely condemned for kneeling during the playing of the American national anthem. Heroic lag seems to have run its course, as the NFL is now embracing Kaepernick. In a video released in June of 2020, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said: “We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest. We, the National Football League, believe black lives matter. I personally protest with you and want to be part of the much needed change in this country.”

Heroes are ahead of their time, and history has shown that almost all people ahead of their time are vilified, and often even assassinated. The dark period of heroic lag cost the lives of Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. It can take years, even generations, for the general public to catch up to the level of moral development of a heroic prophet.

In a perfect world, there would be no heroic lag. A new, good way of doing things would be proposed and people would accept it. But a sad truism in psychology is that people resist change, especially any change that threatens one’s ego or one’s tribe.

Heroic lag appears inevitable in any system in which there is some uncertainty about truth and objective reality. In 1954, social psychologist Leon Festinger was argued that in the absence of objective reality, social reality becomes paramount. Social reality, however, is vulnerable to distortions, biases, emotions, and motivations, making it slow to evolve.

But we can take heart in a great truth articulated by Martin Luther King, Jr., who once observed that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” We can be reassured that despite heroic lag, the moral truth of a heroic principle eventually becomes acknowledged and revered.

But there is a great cost to heroic lag. Good people die and society suffers great losses before a heroic ideal gains popular acceptance. Heroic lag is fed by psychological and structural barriers to progress. The American two-party system creates an ingroup versus outgroup mentality in which one’s party affiliation often determines one’s position on the issues. Tribal delineations are rarely a good route to resolve ambiguity. Such delineations only increase heroic lag and prolong cultural suffering.


Denver Post (2020). Colin Kaepernick has more support now, still a long way to go. Retrieved from

Goethals, G. R., & Allison, S. T. (2019). The romance of heroism and heroic leadership. West Yorkshire: Emerald.

New York Times (2020). How public opinion has moved on Black Lives Matter. Retrieved from