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.

Buffy Sainte-Marie: The Heroic Cree Musician

By Jesse Locke

Beverly “Buffy” Sainte-Marie is a Cree musician, visual artist, educator, and social activist. Beginning as a folk singer in the early 1960s with the politically-charged lyrics of songs such as her anti-war anthem “Universal Soldier,” Sainte-Marie released the groundbreaking electronic album Illuminations in 1969, and has continued to push creative boundaries throughout a career spanning seven decades. Her numerous accolades include winning the Polaris Music Prize for her 2015 album Power In The Blood, and becoming the first Indigenous person to win an Academy Award for her song “Up Where We Belong” from the 1982 film An Officer And A Gentleman.

Sainte-Marie was born on the Piapot First Nation reserve in the Qu’Apellle Valley of Saskatchewan, Canada. Her exact birth date is not recorded, but it is believed to be February 20th, 1941. At the age of two or three, Sainte-Marie was taken from her biological parents as part of the Canadian government policy of the ‘Sixties Scoop’ and adopted by Albert and Winifred Sainte-Marie, an American couple living in Wakefield, Massachusetts. Winifred identified as Mi’kmaq (Zoladz 2012) and encouraged her adopted daughter to reconnect with her own Indigenous ancestry. In 1964, Sainte-Marie returned to the Piapot reserve and was officially adopted by the man and woman believed to be her biological parents, Emile Piapot and Clara Starblanket. At that time, she was given the Cree name Medicine Bird Singing (Warner 2018a).

As a self-taught musician beginning at age three, Sainte-Marie’s early influences included international musicians such as French singer Édith Piaf and Spanish flamenco dancer Carmen Amaya (Warner 2018b), helping to establish the sound of her powerfully emotional vibrato singing style. Sainte-Marie studied Oriental Philosophy and Religion with a minor in Teaching at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, but interrupted her initial plans to work as an educator in India to pursue music full-time. Traveling to New York’s Greenwich Village folk music scene in the early 1960s, Sainte-Marie earned critical acclaim for her live performances and signed to Vanguard Records, launching her professional career as a musical artist.

Sainte-Marie has overcome countless challenges throughout her career, including being taken from her biological parents, suffering abuse from family members and romantic partners, and being blacklisted by radio stations under the direction of the U.S. government due to the political nature of her lyrics (Seymour 2018a). In a 1999 interview at Diné College, Sainte-Marie explained, “I found out ten years later, in the 1980s, that Lyndon Johnson had been writing letters on White House stationery praising radio stations for suppressing my music” (Norrell 1999). Despite these obstacles, by maintaining a message of hope in all aspects of her music, education, and activism, Sainte-Marie has persevered with a career that has earned her widespread acclaim. She has lived in Hawaii since the late 1960s.

Sainte-Marie has released 17 albums, beginning with her 1964 debut, It’s My Way! The album includes many of her best known songs such as “Universal Soldier,” “Cod’ine,” and “Now That The Buffalo’s Gone.” Her songs became known for their factual accuracy, with lyrics such as “he’s 5-foot-2 and he’s 6-foot-4” from “Universal Soldier” based on the height parameters for soldiers in the Vietnam War. (Seymour 2018b) Alongside setting herself apart from other folk artists of the 1960s with lyrical themes such as drug addiction, incest, and decolonization, the cover photo of It’s My Way! features Sainte-Marie performing with the mouthbow. Believed to be the oldest stringed instrument in the world (Sainte-Marie 1996), it features prominently on her first three albums.

Sainte-Marie continued to write and record prolifically throughout the 1960s, with her second album Many A Mile (1965) highlighted by the song “Until It’s Time For You To Go”, which has been frequently covered by other artists. On 1966’s Little Wheel Spin And Spin, Sainte-Marie released one of her most ambitious political protest songs, the nearly seven-minute “My Country ‘Tis Of Thy People You’re Dying,” which discusses Canadian residential schools and the genocidal violence perpetrated against Indigenous people. Fire & Fleet & Candlelight (1967) included her first experiments with electronic music, while 1968’s I’m Gonna Be A Country Girl Again, recorded in Nashville with country musician Chet Atkins, marked yet another stylistic departure.

On 1969’s Illuminations, the 28-year-old artist became even more experimental. Working with electronic musician Michael Czajkowski, the album’s songs were augmented with the Buchla Model 100 synthesizer, manipulating Sainte-Marie’s voice and guitar with a variety of effects that sound strikingly different from her folk singer origins. Illuminations begins by setting Leonard Cohen’s poem “God Is Alive, Magic Is Afoot” to music, before descending into a cycle of songs about the natural, spiritual, and metaphysical worlds. Though it failed to achieve commercial success at the time of its release, the album has become a critical favorite. The British experimental music magazine The Wire included Illuminations in their list 100 Albums That Set The World On Fire While No One Was Listening (Kopf 1998) and the album was celebrated with a 50th anniversary reissue in 2019.

By the end of the 1960s, Sainte-Marie’s music was well known thanks to cover versions of her songs, even if she was yet to become a household name herself. These include Donovan’s interpretation of “Universal Soldier”, and covers of “Co’dine” by Gram Parsons and Janis Joplin (adding her own modified lyrics), followed many years later by the alternative rock band Hole on their 2010 album, Nobody’s Daughter. “Until It’s Time for You to Go” is one of Sainte-Marie’s most covered songs, with 157 unique interpretations (Farber 2022a) from artists such as Elvis Presley, Barbara Streisand, Françoise Hardy, Cher, Neil Diamond, and The Monkees.

The 1970s were another busy decade for Sainte-Marie, beginning with her first collaboration with songwriter and producer Jack Nitsche on 1971’s She Used to Wanna Be a Ballerina. Its followup, 1972’s Moonshot, launched her working relationship with Nashville-based musician Norbert Putnam, who co-produced her next four albums. (Warner 2018c) Sainte-Marie concluded her contract with Vanguard Records with 1973’s Quiet Places, and signed to her new label MCA with 1974’s Buffy, featuring the glam-rock sound of “Sweet Little Vera” and the poetic, political lyrics of “Generation.” Sainte-Marie ended the decade with 1975’s Changing Woman and 1976’s Sweet America. The latter is highlighted by “Starwalker”, the first song in history to feature a sample of Indigenous powwow music. Sweet America also marked a 16-year hiatus from studio album releases while Sainte-Marie raised her son, Dakota “Cody” Starblanket Wolfchild.

Sainte-Marie has written songs for film soundtracks since her theme for 1970’s Soldier Blue, depicting the massacre of a Cheyenne village by Colorado State Militia. (Irwin 2009) Other soundtrack contributions include her songs “Dyed, Dead, Red” and “Hashishin” (the latter co-written with Ry Cooder) for 1970’s Performance, as well as scores for the 1984 short film Harold of Orange and the 1986 docudrama Stripper. Sainte-Marie is best known in this field for co-writing the song “Up Where We Belong” from the 1982 film An Officer And A Gentleman with her former husband Jack Nitzsche, becoming the first Indigenous person to win an Academy Award in 1983. Sainte-Marie has spoken openly about the abuse she suffered from Nitzsche during their seven-year relationship, including being injected with heroin in her sleep (Farber 2022b), before ending their marriage in 1989.

Sainte-Marie returned to music with her 1992 comeback album, Coincidences and Likely Stories, which made history as the first album made over the internet. Collaborating with UK-based co-producer Chris Birkett remotely from her home in Hawaii, Sainte-Marie sent electronic files with early Macintosh computers and the program CompuServe. (Frank 2022) Coincidences and Likely Stories also included a re-recorded version of “Starwalker”, using new electronic recording technology to improve the clarity of its powwow sample, and one of Sainte-Marie’s most acclaimed songs, “Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee”, which she spent 14 years to complete (Warner 2018d).

Sainte-Marie continued her collaboration with Birkett on 2008’s Running for the Drum, sampling traditional Indigenous music on the songs “No No Keshagesh”, “Cho Cho Fire”, and “Working for the Government.” The latter was reworked into a 2015 remix by electronic music group The Halluci Nation, featuring vocals from Sainte-Marie. Her 2015 album Power In The Blood looked even further backwards with a re-recorded version of the title track from Sainte-Marie’s 1964 debut, It’s My Way! Her most recent release is 2017’s Medicine Songs, a career-spanning compilation of Sainte-Marie’s activist songs, featuring a new collaboration with Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq on “You’ve Got To Run (Spirit of the Wind).”

Sainte-Marie established the Nihewan Foundation for Native American Education in 1969 to award Indigenous youth with scholarships to attend post-secondary schools. Two of her early scholarship recipients have become the presidents of tribal colleges. (Warner 2018e) She expanded this initiative in 1996 with the launch of the Cradleboard Teaching Project, an education curriculum providing an Indigenous-focused alternative to the typical Eurocentric lessons taught to children in North American classrooms. Tools included interactive CD-ROMs such as Science: Through Native American Eyes and innovative forms of online communication such as chat rooms and video conferencing. On the Cradleboard website, Sainte-Marie details the project’s accomplishments:

“In October of 1996, we received a two year grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation of Battle Creek, Michigan, and since that time have modeled the Cradleboard Teaching Project in Mohawk, Cree, Ojibwe, Menominee, Coeur d´Alene, Navajo, Quinnault, Hawaiian, and Apache communities in eleven states” (Sainte-Marie 2002).

In 1968, when she was cast on an episode of the television program The Virginian, Sainte-Marie took progressive action in the entertainment industry by successfully demanding that all other Indigenous roles in the show be cast with Indigenous people. (Humphrey 1968) Sainte-Marie appeared as a recurring character on Sesame Street from 1975 to 1981, where she continued to educate viewers on Cree culture and Indigenous representation. In 1977, she famously became the first person to breastfeed on television in a segment with her son Dakota “Cody” Starblanket Wolfchild (Sen 2018).

In more recent years, Sainte-Marie’s animated video series Paddling On Both Sides, a collaboration with visual artist Blake Angeconeb, was created for the Downie Wenjack Fund’s initiative Reconciliation Begins With You. Following in the footsteps of the Cradleboard Teaching Project, Paddling On Both Sides provides a positive alternative to the tragic narratives dominating media representation of Indigenous people by educating viewers on their many accomplishments and innovations. (Lawrence 2021) Sainte-Marie is also the author of several children’s books including 2020’s Hey Little Rockabye: A Lullaby for Pet Adoption, and 2022’s Tapwe and the Magic Hat.

Awards and Accolades

Sainte-Marie has earned countless awards and accolades throughout her career, beginning with Billboard Magazine naming her the Best New Artist of 1964. Three years later, Billboard writer Aaron Sternfield described Sainte-Marie as “the patron saint of non-hippy hipsters” after she received a 10-minute standing ovation during her performance at the Philharmonic (Warner 2016). Other honors include Sainte-Marie’s 1993 Charles De Gaulle Award for Best International Artist, the 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Aboriginal People’s Choice Music Awards, and the 2010 Governor General’s Performing Arts Award. She was inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame in 1999, the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame in 2009, and the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2019.

Sainte-Marie has received Honorary Doctorates from 15 post-secondary institutions, most recently recognized by the University of Toronto with a Doctor of Laws in 2019. She has also received numerous humanitarian honors, including her 1997 induction as an Officer into the Order of Canada, the 1998 Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Indian College Fund, and the 2019 PARO Centre for Women’s Enterprises Inaugural Women’s Voice Award. Sainte-Marie’s three most recent albums have received some of the highest honors from Canada’s creative arts awards, beginning with Running for the Drum winning the 2009 JUNO Award for Best Aboriginal Album. Her 2015 album Power in the Blood was awarded with the Polaris Music Prize, as well as JUNO Awards for Indigenous Music Album of the Year and Contemporary Root Album of the Year. Most recently, 2017’s Medicine Songs was also awarded with a JUNO Award for Indigenous Music Album of the Year. (Warner 2018e)

In 2021, Sainte-Marie was honored with a commemorative stamp from Canada Post, and became the subject of the feature-length documentary Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry It On, which premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. (Longmire 2022) Now in her early 80s, she continues to advocate for the rights of Indigenous people, while recording, touring, and performing to fans around the world.


Farber, J. (2022) Buffy Sainte-Marie: ‘I didn’t know I was ahead of the pack at the time’ Retrived 15 Dec 2022.

Frank, A. (2022) How Buffy Sainte-Marie innovated electronic music in the 1960s Retrieved 15 Dec 2022.

Irwin, C. (2009) Buffy Sainte-Marie on a rollercoaster career that even the FBI kept an eye on Retrieved 15 Dec 2022.

Kopf, B. (1998) 100 Albums That Set The World On Fire While No One Was Listening Retrieved 9 Dec 2022.

Lawrence, M. (2021) Artist from Lac Seul First Nation making waves with new video collaboration Retrieved 15 Dec 2022.

Longmire, B. (2022) ‘Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry It On’ To Premiere At TIFF 2022 Retrieved 16 Dec 2022.

Norrell, B. (1999) Uncensored: Buffy Sainte-Marie honored with lifetime achievement award Retrieved 16 Dec 2022.

Sainte-Marie, B. (1996) The Mouthbow: Making Music on a Weapon Retrieved 9 Dec 2022.

Sainte-Marie, B. (2002) Cradleboard History Retrieved 15 Dec 2022.

Sen, M. (2018) The short-lived normalization of breastfeeding on television Retrieved 16 Dec 2022.

Seymour, C. (2018) Iconic Protest Singer Buffy Sainte-Marie Has Been Blacklisted by Nixon, Sampled by Kanye, And Breastfed Her Baby on Sesame Street—for Starters Retrieved 15 Dec 2022.

Warner, A. (2016) Buffy Sainte-Marie: 75 things you need to know about the Canadian icon Retrieved 15 Dec 2022.

Warner, A. (2018) Buffy Sainte-Marie: The Authorized Biography. Canada: Greystone.

Zoladz, L. (2012) Illuminations: A Biography of Buffy Sainte-Marie
Retrieved 8 Dec 2022.

David Burhans’ 12 Ways to Live a Rich Spiritual Life

By Scott T. Allison

If you ask anyone acquainted with the Rev. Dr. David Burhans, they’ll smile and tell you that he was among the most beloved individuals they’ve ever known. Generations of Richmond alumni would surely consider Burhans to be a cherished iconic figure, the spiritual face of the University of Richmond. Even the briefest encounter with Burhans left people feeling valued and loved, and certainly moved, at the deepest level of their being.

I knew David Burhans for almost 40 years as a friend, colleague, and one of his parishioners. Thousands of Richmond students, alumni, staff, and faculty were fashioned into better people because of David’s influence. I don’t claim to have been among David’s closest friends. What I do know is that he left an indelible impact on my life and on the lives of countless people who had the pleasure of knowing him.

What was the key to David Burhans’ enduring and positive impact on the world? From my experiences with him and from his own writings, here are 12 principles that he lived by and cultivated in all of us:

  1. Look at the world with a sense of wonder and awe. David enjoyed quoting American poet Mary Oliver’s belief that we are all born to “to look, to listen.” The famed Rabbi Abraham Heschel used the term radical amazement to describe the practice of remaining present and aware of the small miracles that abound in every moment. David reminded us that Heschel didn’t ask God for success, but only for wonder. “Looking back over more than seven decades,” wrote David, “mindfulness and wonder capture the essence of my spiritual and professional journey.” David’s ministry was “an exercise in looking, listening and instruction.”
  2. We are called to answer three important spiritual questions. In reflecting on his career, David wrote: “This personal journey began with a profound sense of awe and wonder prompting a fresh consideration of three great spiritual questions I had contemplated through college and graduate school. Who am I? Why am I here? What difference can I make?” For David, “it was about the human search for meaning and purpose.” He made these three questions the major focus for the University Chaplaincy, and he believed that “every well-educated person is expected to consider” the meat and marrow of these questions.
  3. We find a safe and welcoming place to discuss life’s meaning and purpose. David’s vision of the Chaplaincy was that it “would contribute to an atmosphere of openness and acceptance in the community and become a place at the heart of the campus which would encourage a free exchange of ideas, become a safe place to ask questions, and help initiate faith in ‘seekers’ of purpose and meaning.” David’s goal was to create a sacred space for people “to discuss personal issues, share grief experiences, celebrate joys and achievements, and a place to examine and strengthen one’s own faith perspective.” Thanks to David, and his successors including current Chaplain Craig Kocher, the Office of the Chaplaincy provides opportunities for members of the Richmond community to enhance their spiritual, emotional, and social well-being within a welcoming inter-religious context.
  4. A loving Higher Power guides us on the journey toward becoming our best selves. David believed that the God of our understanding was always a “Living God” of love, compassion, and healing. He wrote: “I felt strongly that I was on an educational pilgrimage with the students, on a professional journey of personal growth with faculty, staff and administrators, on a daily, demanding sojourn with University families like my own who welcomed support and encouragement.” David’s own personal spiritual journey involved “a public declaration of faith and trust in the Living God [and] ultimately a compelling desire to proclaim the Love of God. And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.”
  5. We engage in practices that improve our conscious contact with God. David often shared personal “experiences of what I can only describe as divine encounters or intimations of the Holy — moments of profound gratitude, insight, guidance, wonder upon wonder.” David often expressed his amazement “at the strength that we humans have to live with heartache, disappointment, and loss and the courage that people have to keep on in the face of difficult odds and pain and suffering.” For David, “there is life beyond the tragedies that we experience.” David’s spiritual practices were prayer, wonder, gratitude, loving kindness, an unshakeable faith and enduring optimism that no matter what adversity we face, all is well.
  6. We remember that gratitude, compassion, and humility are the greatest of all virtues. “A profound spiritual truth I strongly embraced,” wrote David, is that “Life is a gift: handle this journey with gratitude, with compassion, with humility.” David quoted the ancient Roman philosopher Cicero: “Gratitude is not only the greatest of all virtues but the parent of all others.” Compassionate connection with fellow humans – “listening with awareness and creating a culture of caring” — give renewed hope and new meaning to our journey. For David, the gift of humility is critical. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr urged us to constantly examine our actions and never be too certain of our own virtue. David believed “it was important that the ministry have people who are not holier than thou types — just normal, regular people who love athletics, have hobbies and a real appreciation for the breadth of life and who are curious and always interested in learning new things.”
  7. We treat all people with congruence, empathy, and respect. A student of psychology, David admired the humanistic, positive psychological approach to understanding humanity. One of the founding humanists, Carl Rogers, embraced the idea that all human relationships are forged with congruence, empathy, and Rogers described congruence as being genuine and honest with others, reflecting a person’s sincerity, integrity, and authenticity. David believed that an individual’s life work should be “within a stone’s throw of his pronouncements and proclamations.” The second virtue, empathy, is the ability to feel what others feel. And respect refers to an unconditional positive regard for all other people. For David, “These qualities immediately identified spiritual leadership at its best,” and he developed these social skills better than any person I’ve ever known.
  8. Cultivating relationships with others is the key to a vibrant spiritual life. “All relationships are sacred,” David told me, more than once. David was skillful in the heartful art of human connection. What was his secret? He made developing and nurturing human relationships his top priority. As University Chaplain, he was gifted in ministering to “an intergenerational community of people (students, faculty, staff, administration) with diverse social, economic and religious or non-religious backgrounds and perspectives.” David sought to integrate the “body, mind and spirit so as to counter the fragmentation of knowledge, learning and human development.” His Chaplaincy accomplished this goal “by conjoining the love of God and the love of learning in the flesh, in the human flesh of persons—persons in the Chaplaincy, persons in the faculty and staff, and persons among the student body.”
  9. Keeping an open mind and an open heart will heal and unify us all. My own research on heroism has shown that our greatest heroes always direct their energies toward healing and unifying people. David Burhans “approached life, work and relationships in the academy with a more open mind and heart—not open without any fixed point, but open and receptive to new ideas and ways of engaging a diverse community of people.” He recognized that love, compassion, and embracing the multiplicity of humanity were essential qualities for the Chaplaincy.” David’s proudest moments resided in the Chaplaincy’s openness to interfaith dialogue and welcoming students of all demographies, including students of every faith commitment and sexual orientation. David wrote, “I was asked to be the Chaplain to all the students, faculty, and staff at the University of Richmond. Every one of these people is welcome at this University and in this Chaplaincy office, and I embrace them.” David made it a priority to “break down barriers that divide us, to broaden our world view, reaching beyond our own kind, our own country, our own religious creed.” As a Christian, David was open and humble in welcoming and acknowledging “that our brothers and sisters of other religious traditions surely have a word from God for us to hear.”
  10. The Higher Power of our understanding loves and affirms us at all times. David held the steadfast belief that “there has been and continues to be a presence of something far greater than I can comprehend which loves and affirms me.” He knew that this Living God was a central part of each person’s life, whether they knew it or not. When the Wilton Center was built, he arranged for “a signature piece of art to be placed on exhibit… symbolizing a person’s journey toward wholeness through education, personal faith, and service to others.” David’s father, Dr. Rollin S. Burhans, articulated the goal of the Jessie Ball duPont Chaplaincy and its objective of bringing “wholeness to fragmented, fragile lives by the integrating, life-changing power of Thy Love.”
  11. A sense of humor can enrich life and build bonds. David would often remark that “laughter is the shortest distance between two people.” As such, he brought humor and joy to the Chaplaincy at Richmond. He wrote, “I think humor is one of those key characteristics of a minister — that you not take yourself too seriously and be able to laugh at yourself and with others.” Research by psychologists Laura Kurtz and Sara Algoe confirms what David intuitively knew, namely, that humor brings people together and acts as a “social glue” that builds loving, trustful bonds.
  12. Wonder is in pursuit of us. This is one of David’s keenest insights: “I am bold to suggest that anyone who is attune to moral and spiritual values, who is seeing and listening and paying attention will likely understand that Wonder just might be another name for God.” For David, the allure of living a rich, spiritual life was not a one-sided affair: If human beings are seeking the transcendent, the transcendent is also seeking us. The “Ultimate Truth,” said David, is not just that we pursue Wonder but that “Wonder is in pursuit of us! This all-encompassing Spirit of awe and wonder, love and grace is loose upon the world, a force over which we humans have little if any control. We can, however, be used by it!”

Those of us who were fortunate enough to have known and loved David Burhans will never forget his spark of life, his wisdom, his tender and generous loving spirit. David knew that despite our fragmented world, “we are creatures of relatedness who grow, mature and fulfill our own destinies through nurturing and challenging relationships.” He called his own journey “a journey of thanksgiving, compassion, laughter, and community.” That David took a warm, deep interest in each person he met is proof that Wonder is pursuing us, and that we are called to pass on this wonderous spirit to others. There’s no better way to honor David Burhans than to live our lives the way he lived his – with his boundless, effervescent joy, wonder, and love.


Brockwell, P. (2015). David Burhans’ exit interview. Retrieved from

Burhans, R. (1986). Prayer of dedication. Worship celebration and dedication of The Jessie Ball duPont Chair of the Chaplaincy, Cannon Memorial Chapel, University of Richmond, October 19th.

Burhans, D. (2016). The pursuit of wonder. In S. T. Allison, C. T. Kocher, & G. R. Goethals (Eds), Frontiers in spiritual leadership: Discovering the better angels of our nature. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Heschel, A. J. (1983). I asked for wonder: A spiritual anthology. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Co.

Kurtz, L., & Algoe, S. (2015). Putting laughter in context. Personal Relationships, 22, 573-590.

Oliver, M. (2004). Mindful. Why I wake early. Boston: Beacon Press.


Heroism and Leadership in the Movie, 12 Angry Men

By Scott T. Allison

Heroism shows itself in many different ways. There are obvious heroes who stand up for what is right, but there are also less obvious heroes who play a crucial role in supporting the main hero. These background heroes are essential; they often show the same remarkable courage as the main hero.

The 1957 film, 12 Angry Men, is a fascinating portrayal of different types of heroism and leadership. Some of this heroic leadership is obvious and some not-so-obvious. Some is direct and some indirect.

Let’s start with the direct and obvious. Henry Fonda plays Juror Number 8, a man who at the outset of a jury’s deliberation is the only juror with the courage to stand alone in voting for acquittal. The other eleven jurors apply pressure on Number 8 to change his vote to guilty, and some of them do so in rude and hostile ways. But Juror 8 doesn’t budge.

Juror 8 does what true heroes do: He stands up for what he believes is right, even in the face of severe social pressure to do otherwise. Slowly but surely, Juror 8 is successful in poking holes in the prosecution’s case, and by the end of the film all the remaining jurors are convinced to render a “not guilty” verdict.

Juror 8 is clearly the “star” of the movie, the character who gets the most screentime and is identified by viewers and movie fans as the hero of the story. And rightly so.

But Juror 8’s heroism could never have happened without help from other jurors, especially Juror 9 sitting next to him. Juror 9’s heroism is less splashy than Juror 8’s, but the heroic actions of Juror 9 made Juror 8’s heroism possible.

The First Follower Makes Heroic Leadership Possible

We all know that heroes can’t do their heroic work alone. Sometimes a hero standing alone, expressing an unpopular message, is seen as a dangerous lunatic. This scenario describes what happened to Juror 8 at the beginning of 12 Angry Men.

Juror 8 needs at least one follower, or else he and his heroic ideals will be squashed. Sitting next to him, Juror 9 takes a chance and steps up joins Juror 8, not necessarily because Juror 9 agrees with Juror 8, but because he believes that with a life at stake all voices should be heard. Juror 9 is keeping an open mind to a possible truth.

As this short video demonstrates, “The first follower transforms a lone nut into a leader.”

Juror 8 endures some ridicule and pressure to change his vote to guilty, and when Juror 9 joins Juror 8, he is also at the receiving end of derision and anger. Juror 9’s courage and risk-taking is arguably as heroic as Juror 8’s.

By stepping up to support our lone hero, Juror 9 allows time for the jury to reconsider some of the evidence in the case. During the ensuing jury discussion, one piece of crucial evidence loses credibility, leading to another juror, Juror 5, to change his vote to not guilty.

At this point our hero, Juror 8, has a solid backing, a critical mass of followers. There are now two legitimate factions in the group rather than one lone nut against the world. Juror 9 made this possible and also opened the door to Juror 5 and others to be receptive to a different interpretation of the facts of the case.

Other Heroes in 12 Angry Men

I’m going out on a limb here to proclaim Juror Number 4 as a hero, too. Played by E. G. Marshall, Juror 4 opposes our hero throughout much of the story, insisting that the defendant is guilty despite all the holes in the evidence as pointed out by Juror 8 and his followers.

How in the world is this nemesis a hero?

Juror 4 is an independent thinker, a person of integrity who simply has different criteria for reasonable doubt. He opposes Juror 8 for all the right reasons. Juror 4 stands up for what he believes is a just cause. His opposition to Juror 8 is not based on personal prejudice or egoic stubbornness. It’s based on his interpretation of the facts of the case.

Toward the end of the film, Juror 4 finds himself in a small group of three who continue to vote guilty. Finally, after being presented with logical reasons to doubt the testimony of the main eyewitness, Juror 4 declares that he now has a reasonable doubt and joins the majority in voting for acquittal.

Juror 4 is heroic for withstanding pressure to do what he believes is right, much like Juror 8 at the beginning of the story. He is also heroic for being willing to admit he was wrong.

In contrast, Jurors 3 and 10 are far from heroic. They believe the defendant is guilty to the bitter end, for reasons based on personal and cultural prejudice. Number 10 is eventually shamed into conceding he is wrong, and Number 3 has an emotional breakdown and epiphany regarding his personal prejudice.

At the end, the jury has become unanimous in favor of acquittal, having swung 180 degrees from its original position, all thanks to Number 8’s heroic leadership, and Number 9’s heroic followership.

Two Additional Signs of Heroism in 12 Angry Men

  • Nine of the 12 jurors show heroic consciousness, defined as the ability to see the world broadly and clearly without the ego getting in the way. Heroically conscious people do not divide the world into “us” versus “them”; they seen nuance and complexity. The unconscious jurors were Numbers 3, 7, and 10. These jurors had personal issues that blinded them to the truth. Until the lenses of their eyes were cleared, they could not see the world with an open, honest, and broader perspective.
  • There were three underdog heroes, defined as heroes who must overcome adversity including negative stereotypes about them.
    • Juror 5 grew up in poverty and was accused of being “trash” by Juror 10. In reality, Juror 5 sees the world with clarity and sensitivity.
    • Juror 9 is an elderly man who is mocked for being an old useless man by Jurors 7 and 10. In reality, Juror 9 shows great wisdom in his ability to read people and “see” far beyond the facts of the case.
    • Juror 11 is a recent immigrant from eastern Europe. He speaks with a heavy accent and is derided for being “foolish” by Jurors 7 and 10. In reality, Juror 11 sees the world with compassion, clarity, and objectivity.

In conclusion, 12 Angry Men is a compelling story of heroism at several levels. It showcases the courage needed to be the only dissenter in a group, and the equal courage to be the first follower of that dissenter.

Heroism is not the monopoly of great leaders; it is also a central characteristic of great followers.

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The Monomyth of the Madman

By Scott T. Allison

Shortly after Vladimir Putin’s Russian army invaded the Ukraine, a noted journalist and historian, Kristina Sviderskytė, wrote this provocative line:

“The dreams of madmen are the nightmares of ordinary people.”

Human history has been defiled by the recurring tragic pattern of madmen rising to power and doing their murderous work. Besides Putin, there has been Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot, Jozef Stalin, and Leopold II of Belgium, among many others. Their fictional counterparts are Darth Vader, Lord Voldemort, The Joker, and more.

None of these villains starts out “bad”. They are ordinary people at first and evolve into their villainous identity. Their development follows a common pattern, a common set of stages that transform them from an ordinary person into villain.

Borrowing from Sviderskytė’s quote, and from Joseph Campbell’s iconic hero monomyth, I call this pattern the monomyth of the madman. 

This monomyth of the madman describes the common blueprint of development that is characteristic of villains in real life and in storytelling. I use the term madman because psychologists have associated villainy with the dark triad of mental illness – narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism.

It’s important to emphasize that the vast majority of mental illnesses are not associated with violence at all. But research shows that people with dark triad traits – narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism – can have more aggressive impulses. Research also shows that people with serious illnesses such as major depressive disorder, schizophrenia, and schizoaffective disorder are also somewhat more prone to violence. Left untreated, these illnesses, when they affect world leaders, can have deadly consequences for millions of innocents.

The Fine Line Between Heroism and Villainy

We tend to believe, and want to believe, that a huge chasm exists between heroes who represent the best of human nature and villains who represent the worst. But studies show that heroes and villains share many traits in common. They can both be intelligent, strong, brave, resilient, inspiring, and charismatic. As such, it can be difficult for the average person to distinguish a heroic leader from a villainous leader.

The blurry line between heroism and villainy is demonstrated in the phrase, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”. Plenty of good Russian people currently support Vladimir Putin in the same way that plenty of decent Germans supported Hitler in the 1930s and 40s.

Why? Because villains share some of the same traits as heroes, and because villains can be effective in persuading followers that they are heroes.

“Every villain is a hero of his or her own story”, wrote famed Hollywood screenwriter Christopher Vogler. Self-confident and charismatic villains attract followers by appealing to people’s desires to protect or promote a collective identity, often a national or religious identity. Scapegoating one or more groups is the villain’s favorite tactic to entice followers who seek esteem, validation, and economic or political gain. Villainy can easily sound heroic to people who confuse charisma for heroism, and who lack awareness of true heroism, which is never divisive and always inclusive.

Another reason I use the term “madman” is because these villains are almost always men, not women. And these men are mad — that is, they have a deep anger, often stemming from a deep wound and a profound sadness that has no apparent solution.

Similarity Between the Hero Monomyth and the Villain Monomyth

Campbell’s “monomyth of the hero” refers to the observation that all hero stories can be distilled into one single hero story. All great heroes, in real life and in fiction, pass through a series of stages:

  • The hero lives in an “ordinary world” that is safe and familiar.
  • Something happens that hurls the hero into the “special world” that is dangerous and unfamiliar.
  • In this new second world, the hero takes on a mission or a quest of some sort – to survive, to acquire something, to achieve a goal, or simply to get back home.
  • The hero is always missing an important inner quality that thwarts their growth needed to accomplish their goal.
  • The hero’s missing quality can be humility, confidence, courage, empathy, resilience, resourcefulness, or some fundamental truth about themselves or the world.
  • The hero encounters villains, obstacles, and setbacks.
  • The hero undergoes terrible suffering.
  • The hero receives help and guidance from wise allies and mentors.
  • During a crucial moment, the hero is tested to their limits, discovers the quality they are missing, and uses it to accomplish their mission.
  • The hero is now “the master of both worlds” – the original familiar world and the new world.
  • Transformed into their best self, the hero returns home and shares what they have learned with others.

Villains, it turns out, undergo several of these same stages. They, too, must leave the comforts of home to venture out into dangerous worlds, often testing them and helping them build confidence and courage. Here are some basic commonalities:

  • Both heroes and villains believe they are on a mission to accomplish something of vital importance for themselves and for their larger communities.
  • Both heroes and villains encounter adversity in life and experience great suffering.
  • Both heroes and villains are missing an important inner quality that prevents them from accomplishing their goals.
  • Both heroes and villains receive help from allies and mentors
  • Both heroes and villains attract followers using their charisma and “motional” intelligence – the ability to use their body and voice to move people.
  • Both heroes and villains, at the end of their journey, leave a lasting imprint on society.

Thus the monomyth of the hero – and of the villain – share a number of characteristics. But there are very important differences in the two monomyths, which we turn to next.

Differences Between the Hero Monomyth and the Villain Monomyth

Here are some of the striking differences between the hero and villain monomyths:

  • Whereas heroes become aware that they are missing an important inner quality — humility, confidence, courage, empathy, resilience, resourcefulness, or an important truth — villains seem unable or unwilling to recognize that they have any major personal deficiency.
  • Whereas heroes are influenced by good, wise mentors, villains are swayed by dark, immoral mentors.
  • Whereas heroes resist the hero label and are humbled by their journey, villains lack humility and view themselves as heroes on a noble mission.
  • Whereas heroes discover their missing inner quality and undergo personal transformation, villains resist change and remain “stuck” at a low, immature stage of development.
  • Whereas the hero’s deficiencies are corrected by humbling experiences, the villain’s mental and emotional deficiencies remain entrenched and actually become magnified over time.
  • Whereas the goals of heroic leaders involve unifying and uniting people, the goals of villainous leaders involve scapegoating and dividing people.
  • Whereas heroes emerge victorious and enjoy long-term success with their goals, villains at best only achieve short-term success and are ultimately defeated.
  • Whereas heroes become “the master of both worlds”, villains never master the second world. In fact, they probably never mastered the first world, either.
  • Whereas heroes leave a large, enduring, and positive imprint on society, villains leave a small, dark, residual mark on the world.

Stages of the Villain Monomyth

Given the above observations, the stages of the villain monomyth look something like this:

  • The pre-villain is an ordinary person living in an ordinary world that is safe and familiar.
  • Something happens that hurls this ordinary person into the “special world” that is dangerous and unfamiliar.
  • Often this new dangerous world is the world of abuse, with the ordinary person at the receiving end of emotional or physical abuse.
  • Typically, the abuser is a parent, but sometimes another authority figure, peers, or harsh social conditions damage this ordinary person.
  • The ordinary person suffers psychological harm that can assume the form of narcissism, psychopathy, depression, or schizoaffective disorders.
  • This mental illness distorts the ordinary person’s views of themselves and the world, often producing an extreme self-narcissism and/or collective narcissism of their community or nation.
  • The ordinary person remains unaware of their skewed perception of reality and is never able to acknowledge their damaged state nor their need for psychological and/or spiritual help.
  • As a result of their untreated trauma, the villain undergoes terrible suffering, often in private, but is unable to learn or grow from it. Their deep fears and sadness transforms into anger.
  • The ordinary person receives help and guidance from troubled or sycophantic allies and dark mentors.
  • The ordinary person takes on missions or quests to survive, to acquire power, and to elevate the power and status of their community or nation at the expense of other groups of people.
  • The ordinary person attracts followers who share similar deficits and tribal goals of elevating the greatness of their community or nation.
  • The ordinary person views themselves as a hero on a heroic mission. Their imaginary villains must be vanquished.
  • In the service of their mission, the ordinary person performs one or more acts of violence that are irredeemable and that propel the person to the status of villain.
  • The villain uses violence to accomplish many of their personal and social goals, reinforcing their confidence and belief in the virtuousness of their mission.
  • Over time, the villain’s use of scapegoating tactics increases and their violence escalates.
  • The villain encounters heroic individuals and groups who attempt to thwart the villain’s aims, and the villain declares these heroes to be villains.
  • In the end the villain is defeated, but their evil deeds leave residual scars for society to cope with for many generations.

Just as it is true that not all heroes pass through all stages of the hero monomyth, it is also true that not all villains pass through every stage of this villain monomyth. Still, three common threads apply to almost all villains, from school shooters to genocidal leaders:

  1. They are damaged people unable to grow or learn from their pain, and they project this pain onto others. As hurt people, they hurt people.
  2. They have a severe narcissism that prevents them from seeing themselves and their behavior with any moral objectivity or clarity.
  3. They are entrenched at a low level of maturity and development, unable to grow and evolve into healthy adults.

While villains should be held responsible and accountable for their actions, it is clear that their lifelong pain and inability to overcome their damaged psyches are the driving mechanisms for their violent actions. They are victims themselves, driven to create more victims. As a society it is incumbent on us to end childhood abuse and school bullying –- the seeds of villainy. We must identify damaged people and find ways to treat them as early as possible, before they damage others.

Take a look at Vladimir Putin’s background. And that of Hitler, Stalin, and many school shooters. They are tragic exemplars of the monomyth of the madman.

I am not the first to outline the stages of the villain’s journey. Others have also done so, with less of a psychological emphasis than I present here. No doubt I have oversimplified the process by which ordinary people transform into villains. The most important final cautionary thought I can leave you with is this:

We must avoid installing individuals with the background potential for villainy and violence into positions of power and leadership.


Allison, S. T. & Goethals, G. R. (2020). The heroic leadership imperative: How leaders inspire and mobilize change. West Yorkshire: Emerald.

Allison, S. T., Goethals, G. R., Marrinan, A. R., Parker, O. M., Spyrou, S. P., Stein, M. (2019). The metamorphosis of the hero: Principles, processes, and purpose. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 606

Allison, S. T. & Smith, G. (2015). Reel heroes and villains. Richmond: Agile Writer Press.

Campbell, J. (1949). The hero with a thousand faces. New York: New World Library.

Murphy, B. A., Lilienfeld, S. O., & Watts, A. L. (2017). Psychopathy and heroism: Unresolved questions and future directions. In S. T. Allison, G. R. Goethals, & R. M. Kramer (Eds.), Handbook of heroism and heroic leadership (pp. 525–546). New York: Routledge.

Worthington, E. L, & Allison, S. T. (2018). Heroic humility: What the science of humility can say to people raised on self-focus. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

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The Problem of Heroism

By Olivia Efthimiou

When we think about heroism we tend to immediately think about the fanfare – noble knights raising their swords in the fight for freedom and justice, defeating evil sorcerers, Batman and Superman, courageous defenders fighting crime and saving the day, individuals performing extraordinary acts.

What’s so wrong about that? Nothing – and everything. Much attention is now being paid to the heights humans can achieve and the best of human nature. This is indeed a welcome and much-needed change, and heroism is in many ways leading the fold in this new wave of thinking.

I have to make clear from the outset that I am a staunch supporter and believer of the value of heroism for humanity – it is my conviction, in fact, that heroism is the evolutionary and genetic basis of all life on this planet, and the universe itself. I have no doubt that one day (and long after I am gone in all likelihood) scientists will discover this heroic basis of life.

But this does not mean that I do not recognise the challenges that come with it. This may be an unusual and bold statement but – I believe that approaching the study of heroism with what German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno called “negative dialectics”, or beginning to understand the costs of the pursuit of a heroic life, and indeed the costs of not taking up this pursuit, is the only true pathway to realise the spread of heroism widely. It is in our darkest times that we truly need heroism – and it is in those times that its reality seems most impossible.

The Heroism Problem

So what is the ‘problem’ with heroism? It is most commonly a romanticised or idealised notion. The hero is overwhelmingly seen as a symbol of triumph, overcoming the odds against him or her for some victorious end result. They defeat evil and order is restored in the world. A ‘superhero’ quality.

But reality is not as clear-cut. The burden and scars the hero can be left with as a result of what they have learnt and the trials they have undergone may leave them dispirited, calling for even greater amounts of courage to deal with the outcome of the journey. At other times there is no clear triumph as the journey might mean having to live with pain, as in the case of post-traumatic stress disorder, injuries or brain damage.

In the case of self-sacrifice and altruism, yes, a noble act was done, but to the cost of the life of the heroic individual, and perhaps for those left behind. Will the fact that a mother or a father gave up their life for a ‘greater good’ make it any easier on a child that is left parentless, while the surviving partner struggles to fend for their family?

Psychologists Zeno Franco and Philip Zimbardo (2006, p. 31) speak of the “subtleties” of heroism that have been lost. The common conception of heroism, which is more of an exaggerated, overemphasised ideal, is juxtaposed against ‘ordinary’ reality. An ordinary wo/man who as a result of a single noble act or acts of bravery (usually in sequence) rises to the status of hero or superhuman, sealed into this realm therein.

But if we speak of the “banality of heroism” as Franco and Zimbardo (2006) do, and if as I propose heroism is innate and in-built into human and non-human organisms as an evolutionary imperative, both realities are in fact merged. They are not separate but live in tandem with each other everyday, constantly ‘speaking’ to each other.

Every organism’s life is arguably a composition/equation of intermittent acts of heroism to varying degrees, most often seamlessly blurring into reality, even though it might be the case that some (overwhelmingly the minority) become defined by what is culturally perceived as a great act of heroism. This is particularly applicable to the case of the anti-hero in popular texts, i.e. somebody deemed unlikely to be noble or brave, or perceived as ‘evil’ or ‘immoral’, redeemed by a single noble act (perhaps of self-sacrifice at the end of their life).

Again, this produces a ‘black and white’ view of reality, not accounting for its complexity. As Franco and Zimbardo (2006) suggest we are all, under the right conditions, capable of both evil (as demonstrated in the Stanford Prison experiment) and heroism. It is most accurate to describe the life of a human as a combination of both, whether they are conscious of it or not.

Daily acts of reaching outside our comfort zone can be regarded as heroic – we are creatures of habit and comfort. But we are also curious creatures, with an innate thirst for imagining the impossible. An act of doing something that feels uncomfortable, however small, taps into this inborn adventurous spirit, bringing us closer to our innate heroic nature. It is these small subtleties that are indeed becoming lost in all the celebratory fanfare of ‘superheroes’ and celebrity culture.

Heroism in the Ordinary

True heroism is likely to be a quiet, subtle thing, like a whisper in the dark that you can barely sense. But it is there. So let us begin to celebrate the small, the subtle, the unseen. For it is there that our true treasure lies. Like the Holy Grail or cup of Christ in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) – it is not an obvious flamboyant choice, it is old and worn, and you would just as easily pass it by. But it is real.

And then there is the assumption of this model that once hero status is achieved, that defines one as a ‘moral’ ‘noble’ character for the rest of their lifespan – that the journey is somehow a self-complete and enclosed process. This renders a hero frozen in time, a narrow account of their larger life story leading to the idealisation of the individual and their ascent to god-like status, as per the definition of ‘hero’ – is this realistic? If the lifespan of an organism is a series of hero journeys comprised of sequences of suffering, whether complete or incomplete, hero status is not a fixed state but rather fluid and indeed retractable – there is a fine line between courage and frailty.

This view of the banality of both unheroic and heroic acts in everyday life makes for a much more complex view of the role of heroism, always part of a dynamic complex interrelationship between a variety of determinants, making the opportunities for both evolution and regression endless. A significant point to make is that regression, contrary to traditional thought, is in fact conducive to and a determinant of evolution, if we take varying degrees of suffering as indispensable to heroism, and heroism as instrumental to evolution.

Introducing the concept of banality by no means denigrates the centrality of heroism in day to day life. If anything it escalates it, paving the way for a system where everyone is a hero. We need to go way deeper in an analysis of heroism – and we will be forever limited in such an attempt if we are to not look outside of the assumed boundaries of its concept, which has been limited to the humanities for far too long.

Acknowledging the value of heroism means acknowledging the value of journey and story, both our own and of others. We must begin to respect story as science, as episteme (from its Ancient Greek derivation), or as deep knowing – and knowledge as a journey itself – and dispel one-dimensional views of individuals, groups and the cosmos, recognising them for the rich tapestries that they are.

I believe that this type of science can provide answers to the enduring presence of heroism, which is arguably one of the few constants of not only the history of humans but the universe itself. I believe we will also constantly fail to fully comprehend heroism’s functions if we continue to look at it as a ‘higher’ ‘superior’ state of humanity (and indeed by not looking outside humanity), but rather as something innate and firmly embedded within life and physiology itself.

I believe that rather than thinking of heroism as something ‘out there’, a magical quality associated with a ‘mythical’ past that left us, it has always been there. We just need to open our eyes to it in new ways. In describing this work as merely an initial attempt, Franco and Zimbardo (2006, p. 33) themselves emphasise that “at best, it allows us to propose a few speculations that warrant further investigation [emphasis added]”.


Behind every crisis, there is a hero. Behind every life that shatters, there is the opportunity to put it back together. Behind every problem, lies its solution. The ‘problem’ of heroism, is not a problem per se. Nor is the heroic state untenable. It is a gift bestowed to all of us, which, if left unrealised, becomes a curse and the root of our Pandora’s box. Sometimes the cost is simply too high – so why be heroic? Because as the fictional character of Peter Parker says in the end of Spider-Man 3, “Whatever comes our way, whatever battle we have raging inside us, we always have a choice.

My friend Harry taught me that. He chose to be the best of himself. It’s the choices that make us who we are, and we could always choose to do what’s right.” And most of the time it is not about good or bad choices, but choices that were simply not good enough. Those are the ones that make the most impact in a world where heroism is banal.

A fellow heroism science researcher mentioned to me recently that we might need a new word in place of ‘hero’ given its problematic nature. Maybe we do – and that would be an easier path to take, that would appease those who still smirk at what they see as the unrealistic thought of creating everyday heroes.

It is the very ‘problem’ of heroism that makes it all the more worthwhile – it is the road less travelled, and that is always a noble effort. Maybe what we need is to follow the hard path of changing those opinions and pre-conceptions of the term ‘hero’. Radically altering those simplistic immediate associations and thought patterns into something deeply complex, innate and intimately interwoven with our bodies, hearts and minds is the hard road ahead.

But it will be worth it – more so than we can appreciate with our limited minds. Perhaps the real question is not whether there is validity in a new path and approach to the age-old question of heroism, but rather: how far does the rabbit hole go?


Adorno, T. W. (1973). Negative dialectics (Vol. 1). A&C Black.

Franco, Z. E., & Zimbardo, P. G. (2006). The banality of heroism. Greater Good, 3(2), 30-35.

Ernest Becker’s Approach to Why Heroism Exists

By Scott T. Allison

People often ask me why we have heroes. In an earlier essay, I describe the 12 functions of heroism – that’s one way to answer the question.

Another way is to go deeper. In psychology, to go deeper often means to get at issues that we may not be consciously aware of. Of all the scholars who have ever investigated heroism, the person with the deepest understanding of the causes of heroism was a cultural anthropologist named Ernest Becker.

Becker took a psychoanalytic approach toward understanding heroism, meaning that he focused on unconscious fears and wishes that drive our behavior. His 1973 award-winning book, The Denial of Death, is pure genius in describing the unconscious human need for heroism.

The “Ache of Cosmic Specialness”

Becker’s analysis begins with the observation that children’s narcissism can take the form of conventional self-esteem, but more often than not it morphs into a powerful drive to achieve “cosmic significance”. He defined cosmic significance as “the desire to stand out, to be the one in creation” (p. 3).

Becker also calls this need “man’s tragic destiny”, and we’ll get to the tragic part of it in a moment. This central calling for greatness refers to each person’s transcendent need to “desperately justify himself as an object of primary value in the universe; he must stand out, be a hero, make the biggest possible contribution to world life, show that he counts more than anything or anyone else” (p. 4).

And here we get to my favorite phrase that Becker uses. We may spend our lives looking for a better job, a better car, and a better roof over our heads, but “underneath throbs the ache of cosmic specialness” (p. 4, italics added). People literally “ache” to become something big and meaningful. They ache for heroism, in other words.

Becker believed that we look to accomplish heroic tasks because we are all too aware of the shortness of life and our inevitable death. According to Becker, “the hope and belief is that the things that man creates in society are of lasting worth and meaning, that they outlive or outshine death and decay, that man and his products count” (p. 5).

Self-Delusions of Heroism

Becker argued that most of this heroic drive is buried in our unconscious, as it would be an “ache” or “a devastating release of truth” to be made aware of how much our mundane lives fall short of achieving cosmic specialness. In other words, it’s pretty painful for most of us to admit that we’ll never become famous or achieve the heroic status of a Gandhi or a Malala or a Martin Luther King, Jr.

Our societies – not to mention the laws of mathematics — are simply not designed to allow average people to become well above average. Thus, this unfulfilled “universal urge to heroism”, deeply imbedded in all of us, contributes to our anxiety and malaise. Joseph Campbell (1991) labeled the 20th century as The Age of Anxiety, referring to the negative emotional consequences of our inability to know how to live a heroic life.

Becker noted that a few select individuals are capable of achieving something that will live on after they die. The heroism of many superstar individuals, plastered daily over social media, cultivates a misleading sense that long-lasting heroism is attainable to us all. Most of us, however, cannot achieve a heroic level of accomplishment and fame. Our best efforts are destined for failure. Becker argued that we share the same chance of success in crafting a heroically memorable life as do insects and lower animals.

Because our efforts to become heroic are likely to fail, we concoct a mental illusion that what we do has some vast significance. Striving after an illusion puts us in an existential dilemma. What is the best illusion under which to live? The illusion must give us dignity and hope. Historically, religion has fulfilled this function, endowing humans with eternal meaning and a sense of cosmic purpose. But as Becker and others have pointed out, in modern times religious dogma has become increasingly more difficult for the majority of us to accept.

Becker makes the compelling case that as we grow older, we realize that the most we can do to obtain the feeling of significance is to become part of “a cog in a heroic machine” (p. 12). We can serve our country, volunteer at our church, or advance the political party of our choice. We can become part of some worthy mass movement, become activists, or support a social cause of the utmost importance.

In short, people in search of heroism are driven to attach themselves to something big, something they deem to be of supreme importance. We ride the coattails of a cause bigger than ourselves and, most importantly, we desperately want the cause to be successful and to outlive us. To further satisfy our call to heroism, we can mentally exaggerate the size of the small part we play in this larger heroic machine. In this way we delude ourselves into believing that we are participating in life meaningfully, even heroically.

Charismatic Leadership as the Ticket to Heroism — or Villainy

Thus Becker believed that for most people, the path of personal heroism was doomed to failure because “no person is strong enough to support the meaning of his life unaided by something outside him” (1969, p. 43, italics added). That outside force is often a conspicuous and charismatic leader promising to lead followers on a great cause.

Charismatic heroic leaders provide a mechanism for average people to become part of something beyond them that is big, packed with significance, and destined to outlive them. Unable to achieve personal heroism on their own, most people are vulnerable to what we might call the perfect storm of susceptibility to influence from powerful leaders. Feeling utterly unheroic on their own, the average person will soak up a charismatic leader’s message of collective heroism like a dry sponge. The more self-confident the leader in promising an association with a great heroic cause, the faster and higher people will jump at the chance to join this large social bandwagon that appears earmarked for greatness.

Few of us, according to Becker, are consciously aware that we have this “ache of cosmic specialness” and that our lives are driven by this “universal call to heroism”. But it’s good to know so that we aren’t easily duped by charismatic leaders promising us either greatness or a return to greatness. The wrong leaders can use our drive for heroism to achieve their villainous aims.


Allison, S. T. & Goethals, G. R. (2020). The heroic leadership imperative: How leaders inspire and mobilize change. West Yorkshire: Emerald.

Becker, E. (1973). The denial of death. New York: Free Press

Campbell, J. (1988). The power of myth. New York: Anchor Books.

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