Category Archives: Commentary and Analysis

Our Definition of "Hero"

who-is-your-hero1By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

If you haven’t read our first heroes book, our definition of a hero is based on our work as social scientists. We’ve asked many hundreds of people to tell us who their heroes are, and from our data it’s pretty clear that heroism is in the eye of the beholder. Preferences for heroes are as varied as people’s taste in music, movies, and paintings. Defining a hero is like defining a good meal at a restaurant. It depends on your values, your personal experiences, and maybe even the stage of life in which you find yourself.

Cancer victims name cancer survivors as their heroes. Soccer players list soccer stars as their heroes. In short, your needs and motives determine whom you choose as heroes. Maturity and development play a role in hero selection, with younger people tending to choose heroes known for their talents, physical skills, and celebrity status. Older people tend to favor moral heroes. As we get older and wiser, our tastes in heroes evolve. Some have suggested that with age and wisdom, our choice of heroes improves — perhaps as we get older we become more discriminating and more respectful of the term “hero”.

The point we wish to make is that every person we have profiled in this blog is someone’s hero. We didn’t choose the heroes whom we profile on this blog — you did. Each hero may not be your personal hero, but he or she is somebody’s hero, and the reasons are valid and meaningful to the person holding them.

Even Joseph Campbell, the great mythologist and founder of the study of heroes, acknowledged that heroism is in the eye of the beholder. Campbell said, “You could be a local god, but for the people whom that local god conquered, you could be the enemy. Whether you call someone a hero or a monster is all relative….” (The Power of Myth, p. 156).

The World War II German soldier who died, said Campbell, “is as much a hero as the American soldier who was sent over there to kill him.” Campbell believed that the moral objective of heroism “is that of saving a people, saving a person, or supporting an idea.”

Although we agree with Campbell, and others, that heroism is in the eye of the beholder, we will never profile people such as Adolf Hitler in our blog, even if Hitler is considered heroic to small segment of society. There are some people whose values are so repugnant to us, and to the reasonable majority, that we will never profile them here.

We’ve found that people’s beliefs about heroes tend to follow a systematic pattern. After polling a number of people, we discovered that heroes are perceived to be highly moral, highly competent, or both. More specifically, heroes are believed to possess eight traits, which we call The Great Eight. These traits are smart, strong, resilient, selfless, caring, charismatic, reliable, and inspiring. It’s unusual for a hero to possess all eight of these characteristics, but most heroes have a majority of them.

As authors of this blog, we do have our own personal heroes. Our heroes combine great selflessness with great ability. In our second heroes book we call heroes of this type Traditional Heroes. One of us  (Scott Allison) identifies Roberto Clemente his greatest hero.  Clemente was a great baseball player who died helping earthquake victims. The other of us (George Goethals) calls Abraham Lincoln his greatest hero. Lincoln showed remarkable heroic leadership while healing a divided nation and freeing slaves.

When we were younger, a person didn’t have to be particularly moral or selfless to be a hero to us. The person just had to be a star athlete or great rock star.  We’ve outgrown this type of hero, which we call a Transitional Hero. Now our heroes have to accomplish far more than show great ability. They must also perform some exemplary action in the service of others.

We will certainly continue to welcome any debates about the validity of our inclusions in this blog. Critiques about the hero-worthiness of a particular individual may sharpen our thinking about who are the special men and women among us who deserve the term “hero” associated with their names. In the mean time, let’s honor the diversity of opinion out there about who our heroes are. We’re all in a different place in life, and our heroes shift and evolve as we ourselves shift and evolve.

And please, keep sending us your suggestions for heroes to profile.  We love receiving your emails and welcome your input.


Campbell, J. (1988). The Power of Myth. (with Bill Moyers).

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

Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2013). Heroic Leadership: An Influence Taxonomy of 100 Exceptional Individuals. New York: Routledge.

To Be a Hero, or Not To Be? On the Pursuit of the Heroic Life

Heroes blog OE 3By Olivia Efthimiou

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. 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.

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 lifelong pain, as in the case of post-traumatic stress disorder, injuries or brain damage.

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. 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. Arguably 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 fan fare of ‘superheroes’ and celebrity culture. True heroism is likely Heroes blog OE 1to 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.

Introducing the concept of the “banality of heroism” proposed by Franco and Zimbardo (2006) almost a decade ago, 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. 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 function 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”.

Behind every crisis, there is a hero. Behind every life that shatters, there is the opportunity to put it back together. Heroism 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. … 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.

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Note: This is a short version of the essay “The problem of heroism” appearing in the online commentary forum Heroism Today.


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

Olivia Efthimiou is a transdisciplinary researcher at Murdoch University, Perth and Associate Researcher at the Australian National Academy of Screen and Sound Research Centre. She is the website creator and administrator of Heroism Science – Promoting the Transdisciplinary Study of Heroism in the 21st Century and lead Editor of International Advances in Heroism Science.

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The Launching of ‘Heroism Science’: Blog, Journal, and Online Resource

Super siloBy Scott T. Allison

A new website devoted entirely to promoting heroism and heroism science has been launched by Olivia Efthimiou, a transdisciplinary researcher at Murdoch University, Perth and Associate Researcher at the Australian National Academy of Screen and Sound Research Centre.

The site is called Heroism Science: Promoting the transdisciplinary study of heroism in the 21st century.

The introductory page of the site explains:

“The 21st century has marked a shift in research trends across a number of disciplines, especially due to the increasing relevance of technologies in our daily lives and the demand for more complex and creative ways of thinking about our world. In particular, the focus in the sciences, psychology and the social sciences which have traditionally concentrated on the study of disease, evil, maladaptive and irrational behaviours, is now moving towards understanding positive behaviours and promoting personal and collective well-being.

“This has signaled an unprecedented rise in the study of such fields as resilience, flow, spirituality, sustainability, leadership, faith and many more. Heroism and heroic individuals represent the pinnacle of humanity – iahs-3what we can become, do and experience. But, as we are discovering, decoding the heroic process, its antecedents and impacts, is far from simple. Heroism science seeks to uncover the many complex layers of this state of human consciousness which has fascinated us since the dawn of humankind, as we look to the future in both awe and fear of what we might achieve.”

The site includes:

Matt Langdon of the Hero Construction Company has already published a blog commentary at Heroism Today called Every Hero Needs a Team.

Scott Allison has published the first article in International Advances in Heroism Science (IAHS) called The Initiation of Heroism Science.

Olivia Efthimiou has published the second article in IAHS entitled The Search For The Hero Gene: Fact or Fiction?

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So there you have it – a website that provides all the information about heroism that you’d ever want to know. Everyone is encouraged to contribute to this site — please consider submitting an essay to the blog or an article to the journal, or contributing new resources and readings about heroes and heroism.

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Heroism as an Emergent Property

© 2013 Rick Hutchins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Leverage Your Fortune: Respecting Someone Costs Nothing

3611908731_95e2dd639a_zBy Steve Hutchins

Once upon a time, I was a young man. And I had some vanity. Don’t we all . . . .

I had every hair color and style under the rainbow. I knew I was a faggot, even then, and I was trying to craft myself into an image that I was attracted to. So stupid. But I was a kid.

One day, I followed my favorite hair stylist into Quincy, Massachusetts. That was cool for me; my comic book shop was in Quincy. I could get my hair done, get my monthly “stash”. It all worked. I boarded the bus and made my way. Those were the days. I was wearing my favorite long coat. It was like a trench coat, but made of wool. I wore that coat for years. Wore it out, in fact.

I ended up beside a man who was, I guess, what would be called “troubled”. I’m sure you’ve met people like this before: it’s clear something isn’t quite right, but it’s difficult to define exactly what. He started talking to me. Just talking. My Mum would kill me, but me, I’ve always had a good handle on whether I’m in danger or not. At sixteen, yes, she would have killed me.

He said to me: “You must be a businessman.”

I said, “What? Me? No!”

“Well, I saw that coat and I thought you must be a businessman.”

I replied, “Not me. It’s a nice coat, but I’m just a kid.”

american-horror-story-season-3-kathy-bates-ryan-murphy-jessica-langeAs impressed as he may have been with my coat, that wasn’t really his agenda. He wanted to talk. And he just kept talking. And I kept listening.

He was fixated on his childhood. He mentioned he was spending time in an institution in Quincy. Yes, a psychological institution. He spoke much about marijuana. Even then, it didn’t mean a thing. Ryan Murphy provided my latest cliché’ in American Horror Story: Asylum: “I don’t judge, Jude. I never judge.”

At one point in this man’s conversation, I happened to look across the bus at the other passengers. They were looking at me the same way they were looking at him. Time delivers some perspective. I was a child. These adults judged me, words unspoken, upon my casual association. It was, as if, well, you must be crazy, too, to be talking to him. I never forgot that feeling nor how unfair that was.

Was I that guy’s hero? And will I ever know? It was a time and a place in space and a circumstance and a mood and. . . well, clearly no one else on that bus was willing to talk to that man. Why not? It costs you. . . what? Respecting someone costs nothing.

I’m not sure why I’m telling this story. It was one of few defining moments in my life, but I haven’t told it in a very long time. I suppose my point is that I had been picked on, as every kid has, but that was kid stuff and I’ve always handled bullies well.

But, when those passengers on that bus looked at me, I realized that poor man was looked down upon like that every day of his life. It wasn’t a moment for him. It wasn’t a cute little story he could tell years later. He was harmless. All he wanted was an ear to bend, that’s all.

I suppose my point isn’t that my ears easily bend, but, rather, why is what I did such a difficult thing for most people? Who is the hero here? That stupid kid, sparing scant minutes of his life to listen, or that troubled guy fighting every day to live a better life? I never forgot that moment. It’s been thirty years now.

We have to try to help others where we can. Life wouldn’t make much sense otherwise.

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Steve Hutchins supports heroism in all its forms and resides in Whitman, Massachusetts.

The Greatest Power

By Rick Hutchins

If you had the choice of any super power, which would you choose?

This question is asked frequently at dinner parties, in coffee houses, on Internet community forums and on personality tests. It’s always interesting and revealing to hear how each person would take advantage of one chance to make an exception to the laws of reality, to find out which power they think is the greatest. But it’s usually answered as a lark, with whimsy — time travel to go back and invest in Microsoft or invisibility to hang out in the high school locker room — or with a darker undercurrent of wish fullfilment — super strength or mind control to take revenge on those who have done us wrong. Only a small number seem to respond thoughtfully on what power would bring the greatest good to the greatest number.

Only a small number seem to fantasize about being a hero.

Because that’s the problem with super powers. Power corrupts. And absolute power corrupts absolutely.

The original super-hero was Superman; he provided the template for all who were to follow and he was gifted with multiple powers. He was super strong, he could fly and see through walls, and move faster than the speed of sound. He could melt lead just by looking at it and his very breath could surpass the strength of a hurricane. Bullets and lasers bounced harmlessly off his skin. He could pass through the heart of a star unharmed. If ever there was a man with absolute power, Superman was he.

But consider how this man lived. The most powerful man in the world worked as an anonymous reporter, disguised as a mild-mannered everyman, bullied by his boss and rebuffed by the women at the office. His downtime was spent in his Fortress of Solitude, in quiet contemplation among the souvenirs and mementos of his extraordinary life. He could have had any woman he wanted, by force or charisma; he could have had any riches that he desired; he could have ruled the world, for no one would have dared deny him anything. Instead, he used his power to protect the planet, to defend the defenseless and to help down cats who were stuck up in trees.

From the day we are born, we are told that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. But Superman, the iconic figure of our subconscious desire for greatness, puts the lie to that. He tells us that you can have all the power in the world and still live a life of humility and generosity. He shows us that the greatest power is incorruptibility.

None of us will ever leap a tall building in a single bound, change the course of a mighty river or bend steel in our bare hands. Seldom is any one person put in a position to save the world or to alter the destiny of Humanity. But we can always return that lost wallet with the contents intact, tell the truth when it matters, stand our ground when it’s easier to walk away or do unto others as we want them to do unto us.

Everyone has the potential to be a hero because everyone has the power to be incorruptible.

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Rick Hutchins was born in Boston, MA, and has been an avid admirer of heroism since the groovy 60s. In his quest to live up to the heroic ideal of helping people, he has worked in the health care field for the past twenty-five years, in various capacities. He is also the author of Large In Time, a collection of poetry, The RH Factor, a collection of short stories, and is the creator of Trunkards. Links to galleries of his art, photography and animation can be found on

This is Hutchins’ fourth guest blog post here.  His first two, on astronaut and scientist Mae Jemison and the Fantastic Four’s Reed Richards, can be found in our book Heroic Leadership.