Category Archives: Commentary and Analysis

Constructing Heroic Associations: Making a Good Line Better

By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

There are many iconic quotes or lines from books, movies and television that crystallize an image of a hero, or a heroic moment. Earlier we discussed Nathan Hale, and his unforgettable last words, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” In Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry movies, the image of Clint saying “Go ahead, make my day,” is unforgettable. Such quotes create a clear, sharp and unforgettable image. But some memorable moments are made more so by readers and audiences making a good phrase even better, thus making the words even more heroic and more memorable.

Several examples are notable. We have written before about the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, and the related importance of sidekicks for many such heroes. For Holmes, that person is his friend and colleague Dr. John Watson. If people know only one specific Holmes quote, it is likely to be this comment to his partner, “Elementary, my dear Watson.” That’s all well and good, but in the four Conan Doyle novels, and his dozens of stories, Holmes never utters that phrase. He says “elementary” often enough, and he frequently says “my dear Watson,” but he never links the two. But the two go so naturally together, that they create a better image of Holmes and his relation to Watson than the many phrases that only come close to the memorable combination.

Speaking of Clint Eastwood, people easily recall one of the last scenes in Dirty Harry where the villain is deciding whether to reach for his pistol. He’s uncertain whether Harry has any more bullets in his .44 magnum handgun. Harry snarls, “Do you feel lucky?” It’s a popular culture phrase. But there’s one problem. Eastwood never says it. Rather, he says, “You’ve got to ask yourself a question. €˜Do I feel lucky?'” But the phrase as remembered is more natural and quotable, and can be used conversationally more easily. And in fact, Dirty Harry follows up his statement above with “Well, do you punk?”

Another example from film: In the well-loved movie Field of Dreams the character played by Kevin Costner hears a voice in his cornfield, “If you build it, they will come.” That memorable phrase is often used in conversation. It makes a point about how activity of various kinds can attract others, and it is nicely associated with the characters in the film. Except again, that’s not what Costner says. The voice he hears refers to a single individual, perhaps Shoeless Joe Jackson, or perhaps Costner’s father. It says: “If you build it, he will come.”

One of television’s most iconic series, subsequently made into a number of films and several sequel series, was Star Trek. And fans love Captain Kirk’s line, “Beam me up, Scotty.” This classic phrase underscores the role of one of Kirk’s sidekicks, Scotty, who frequently is called upon to transport Kirk safely from danger. But once again, this exact phrase is never uttered.

One final example:  Watch the movie Casablanca again, and listen carefully. Do Ingrid Bergman or Humphrey Bogart, playing Ilsa Lund and Rick Blaine, ever smile at Dooley Wilson, the piano player, and demand, “Play it again, Sam”? The answer is no. They say variations of the line, but never that exact line.

Why does this happen? Human beings have a need to organize experience in coherent ways. We create meaning, and construct memories that make the flow of events we encounter even more meaningful. Vivid images, such as the Iwo Jima statue in Washington, and pithy quotes, such as “Make my day,” stay with us. If we can make them even easier to remember than they are already, our constructive memories will do that for us.

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References

Goethals, G. R., Messick, D. M., & Allison, S. T.  (1991).  The uniqueness bias:  Studies of constructive social comparison.  In J. Suls & B. Wills (Eds.), Social Comparison: Contemporary theory and research (pp. 149-176).  New York:  Lawrence Erlbaum.

ReelHeroes.net — Our Analysis of Heroes in the Movies

By Scott T. Allison

My good friend Greg Smith and I have two things in common:  We love heroes and we love movies.  Greg is an expert in fictional writing and character development in storytelling.  I’ve been studying heroes for more than a decade and have published many books on the subject.  And so by establishing ReelHeroes.net back in 2013, Greg and I found a way to combine our interests and our expertise.

What is the mission of ReelHeroes.net?  Our goal is to critique the heroic characters in recent and classic movies.  Typically, movie reviewers focus on the quality of the movie.  We do that, too.  But we’ve found in our research that people need heroes.  Hero stories are psychologically important to us.  These tales educate, they inspire, and they entertain.  And the typical hero journey follows a classic pattern and a series of stages that are characteristic of all hero stories throughout the ages.

When movie-makers acknowledge these patterns, we usually get a satisfying movie-going experience. But when they ignore these ancient, time-honored paradigms, the story usually falls flat.  So at ReelHeroes.net, we’re not only be able to tell you if a movie was good or bad, but we can also pinpoint where the hero-storytelling was good or not so good.

We base much of our hero analysis on the work of Joseph Campbell, a comparative mythologist who detected the following pattern in all hero stories:

(1) The hero starts out in a safe, familiar world.

(2) The hero is summoned, either willingly or unwillingly, into a new, dangerous, unfamiliar world.

(3) The hero is charged with some goal or mission.

(4) The hero encounters other people who fill important social roles — mentors, lovers, villains, sidekicks, & father figures are common.

(5) The hero then overcomes some missing internal quality to attain the goal.

(6) The hero is transformed significantly and returns to the familiar world.

(7) The hero then delivers the meaning of the journey.

Greg has used this pattern extensively in Agile Writers to help his students compose effective and entertaining novels.  In the past few years, he’s helped people compose over a dozen first drafts and several self-published books.  They’ve all relied on these tried-and-true stages of the hero journey.  Two members of the Agile Workshop have been nominated for the coveted James River Writer Best Unpublished Novel Contest.

At ReelHeroes.net, we  sometimes refer to other models of heroism in our reviews.  Paul Moxnes has a model based on family structure, arguing that heroes emerge within a family hierarchy (e.g., Fathers, Mothers, Sons, Daughters, Servants, etc).  In our own research on heroes, we’ve found that heroes tend to possess The Great Eight characteristics.  Heroes are smart, strong, selfless, caring, resilient, charismatic, reliable, and inspiring.

It’s our goal to review mainstream movies that people who appreciate a hero analysis will want to see. We even occasionally review old classic movies with an especially strong hero story. We’ll avoid genres such as horror or slapstick comedy (although we confess to being avid Three Stooges fans). We love to review bad films as much as good films because it gives us a chance to see where the artist deviated from the acknowledged structures — and wonder how in the world did this film get made!

So join us as we explore the hero journey in action on the big screen.  We use the word “action” deliberately, as the work of any good hero involves acts of good deeds.  As Robert Downey, Jr., once observed, “Hero is not a noun, it’s a verb.”

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The Deal We Strike With Our Heroes

By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

The price of greatness is responsibility.” – Winston Churchill

A few weeks ago we posted a blog entry that posed the question of whether we expect too much from our heroes.  With so many heroes falling from grace in the past few years, we suggested the possibility that we hold them to too high a standard.  We also offered some reasons why we might expect more virtuous behavior from heroes than we do from the average non-hero.

Our good friend Greg Smith, who is the founder of Agile Writers, read our blog post and contributed a thoughtful comment that really got our attention.  Greg raised the possibility that we enter into an implicit exchange relationship with our heroes.  The exchange relationship carries with it an unspoken agreement that we make with heroes, and it goes something like this:  We agree to give heroes our adulation and support, but in return they must maintain an idealized image of human greatness.

Greg describes the bargain in the following way:  “You [the hero] reflect what we want to see in ourselves.  But if you reflect the reality of us as people and a society, then you’re just one of us after all.  And therefore, you’re no more special than we are and you have to come down from your pedestal and stand in the muck with the rest of us.”

If a hero misbehaves, we consider it a breech of contract and we withdraw our admiration and support.  We may also show considerable anger about the contract violation — witness the outrage directed toward Tiger Woods that still lingers to this day.  A broken agreement can turn a hero into a villain rather quickly and easily. Prominent examples, besides Tiger, include David Petraeus, LeBron James, Lance Armstrong, and Joe Paterno.

The idea that we enter into implicit agreements with the successful and powerful is not a new one.  In 2005, psychologist David Messick published an article in which he proposed that an implicit contract exists between leaders and followers.  The contract states that we’ll let leaders lead us if they provide us with a vision, a sense of pride in the group, and group security and protection.  In return, we’ll give leaders our loyalty, effort, and support.

We may have a similar implied agreement with celebrities and the rich.  The terms of the unspoken agreement may be that we’ll let famous celebrities have their fame and wealth, and we may even become their fans, but only as long as they earn their affluence honestly, pay a higher percentage of taxes, behave well, and don’t abuse their privileged status.

What’s most interesting about these implicit agreements is that highly successful people are either not aware of them, or they find it extremely difficult to honor them.  Those of us among the lowly masses seem to be much more sensitized to these informal contracts with heroes.  Maybe this is because we’d much rather be a hero than a hero would want to be us.  If we’re going to put them up on an enviable pedestal, the least they can do is follow basic rules of common decency.

Sometimes, after they’ve fallen, former heroes know they violated the contract.  Tiger Woods admitted as much.  “I knew my actions were wrong but I convinced myself that normal rules did not apply,” he said.  “I ran straight through the boundaries that a married couple should live by – I thought I could get away with everything I wanted to.  I felt that I had worked hard my entire life and deserved to enjoy all the temptations around me.  I felt I was entitled.”

Tiger’s confession is consistent with the results of several psychological studies showing that the more power and success that people enjoy, the more they believe they don’t need to play by the same rules as the rest of us.  And yet it is when someone becomes a hero that we most expect them to play by those rules.  For this reason, maintaining one’s heroic status may be just as challenging as becoming a hero in the first place.  Ironically, one of the most common ways to become a villain is to become a hero first.

All because of the deal we strike with our heroes.

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Hero Stories Give Us Wisdom

By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

In Part 1 of this series, we introduced the concept of the Heroic Leadership Dynamic, which we define as a system of psychological forces that can explain how humans are drawn to hero stories, how they benefit from these stories, and how the stories help people become heroes themselves.

We suspect that early humans first told hero stories at the end of the day, in the darkness, huddled around fires. These narratives supplied meaning, hope, and a welcome escape from the miseries of life. The earliest known hero tales, such as Gilgamesh, Etana, Odysseus, and Hesiod, taught important values, offered role models, provided inspiration, and healed psychic wounds.

We propose that people benefit from hero stories in at least two essential ways. These stories serve epistemic and energizing functions. The epistemic function refers to the wisdom that hero stories impart to us. The energizing function refers to the ways that hero stories heal us, inspire us, and promote personal growth. Let’s look at these two functions in greater detail.

THE EPISTEMIC OR WISDOM FUNCTION

Theologian Richard Rohr argues that hero stories encourage people to think transrationally about ideas that seem to defy rational analysis. The word transrational means going beyond or surpassing human reason. Hero stories reveal truths and life patterns that our limited minds have trouble understanding using our best logic or rational thought. Transrational phenomena that commonly appear in hero stories include suffering, sacrifice, meaning, love, paradox, mystery, God, and eternity. These phenomena beg to be understood but cannot be fully known using conventional human reason.

Hero stories unlock the secrets of the transrational.

How do hero tales help us think transrationally? We believe that there at least three ways: Hero stories (a) reveal deep truths, (b) illuminate paradox, (c) develop emotional intelligence. Let’s examine each of these:

A. Hero Stories Reveal Deep Truths. According to Joseph Campbell, hero stories reveal life’s deepest psychological truths. They do this by sending us into deep time, meaning that they enjoy a timelessness that connects us with the past, the present, and the future. Richard Rohr notes that deep time is evident when stories contain phrases such as, “Once upon a time”, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”, and “they lived happily ever after.” By grounding people in deep time, hero stories reinforce ageless truths about human existence.

Hero stories also reveal deep roles in our human social fabric. Norwegian psychologist Paul Moxnes believes that the deepest roles are archetypal family roles such as mother, child, maiden, and wise old man.  Family role archetypes abound in classic hero tales and myths, where there are an abundance of kings and queens, parents, stepparents, princesses, children, and stepchildren. Interestingly, Moxnes’ research shows that even if hero stories do not explicitly feature these deep role characters, we will project these roles onto the characters. His conclusion is that the family unit is an ancient device for understanding our social world.

B. Hero Stories Illuminate Paradox. Hero stories shed light on meaningful life paradoxes. As author G. K. Chesterton once observed, paradox is truth standing on her head to attract attention. Most people have trouble unpacking the value of paradoxes unless the contradictions contained within them are illustrated inside a good story. It turns out that hero stories are saturated with paradoxical truths, such as those mentioned by Joseph Campbell in the quote that began Part 1 of this series. Let’s look at each of them:

* Where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god. Carl Jung is famous for saying, “what you resist persists.” Every human being encounters difficult people and challenging issues in life. Hero stories teach us that avoiding these people and issues is not the answer. Once we confront our dragons, they can become the seeds of our redemption.

* Where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves. What Campbell means here is that when heroes face their greatest fears, they are entering the dragon’s lair. And when heroes slay the dragon, they are slaying their false selves or former selves, thereby allowing their true heroic selves to emerge.

* Where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence. In the opening act of every hero story, the hero leaves her safe, familiar world and enters a dangerous, unfamiliar world. Going on a pilgrimage of some type is a necessary component of the hero journey. Hero stories teach us that we have to leave home in order to find ourselves.

* Where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world. The hero’s journey is far from over once the dragon has been slain. Campbell observes that the now-transformed hero in myth and legend will now return to his original familiar world and transform it in significant ways. The hero, once alone on his journey, becomes united and in communion with the world.

C. Hero Stories Develop Emotional Intelligence. Psychologist Bruno Bettelheim believed that children’s fairy tales were useful in helping people, especially children, understand emotional experience. With their many dark, foreboding symbols and themes, such as witches, abandonment, neglect, abuse, and death, these heroic fairy tales allow people to experience and resolve their fears.

Bettelheim believed that even the darkest of fairy tales, such as those by the Brothers Grimm, add clarity to confusing emotions. The hero of the story emerges as a role model by demonstrating how one’s fears can be overcome. The darkness of fairy tales allows children to face their anxieties and grow emotionally, thus better preparing them for the challenges of adulthood.

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This series is based on a chapter in our book, Conceptions of Leadership, published by Palgrave Macmillan. The citation for this chapter:

Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2014). “Now he belongs to the ages”: The heroic leadership dynamic and deep narratives of greatness. In Goethals, G. R., et al. (Eds.), Conceptions of leadership: Enduring ideas and emerging insights. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. doi: 10.1057/9781137472038.0011

 

Did The Advent Of Fire Inspire Hero Stories?

By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

“We have only to follow the thread of the hero-path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; and where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.”

Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces

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We begin with a day in the life of early humans.

Life is hard. Lifespans are short. An early death is the norm, either from disease or from danger. At night, tribes huddle around fires for warmth, food, safety, and security. But they also gather around community fires for something else that is nearly as important.

They come to hear stories.

The elders of the tribe know that because life is nasty, brutish, and short (to borrow a phrase from Thomas Hobbes), the members of the tribe are afraid. Those members – many of them sick, hungry, injured, or tired — seek some understanding of their misery, some sense of meaning to buoy their spirits.

As the elders begin reciting their stories, the huddled masses seated around the fires, in desperate need of comforting, lean forward in eager anticipation. They may not be consciously aware of what they need from these stories, but their need is strong nevertheless.

The stories told by the elders are hero stories. They tell of ordinary men who are called to go on great journeys or who face formidable life challenges. The protagonists in these stories are described as small, weak underdogs who must transform themselves in important ways to overcome long odds to succeed. These heroes receive assistance from enchanted and unlikely sources. Remarkable cunning and courage are required for these men to triumph. Once successful, these heroes return to their original tribe to bestow a boon to the entire community.

As tribe members soak in these inspiring hero stories, they themselves are affected in profoundly positive ways. Thanks to these stories, fears are allayed. Hopes are nourished. Important values of strength and resilience have been underscored. Life now has greater purpose and meaning.

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Today’s humans are no different from early humans in their thirst for heroes and heroic leadership. The attraction to greatness in other human beings is as strong as ever. Our goal here is to outline a set of psychological events responsible for the powerful and inescapable allure of strong heroic figures.

We propose that a complex web of phenomena exist that capture the human drive to create heroes in our minds and hearts, in storytelling, in our behavior, and in virtually every crevice of every human culture. We call this web of phenomena the Heroic Leadership Dynamic.

We use the term dynamic, and its multiple meanings, intentionally. In its noun form, dynamic refers to an interactive system or process. Used as an adjective, dynamic describes this system or process as energizing and always in motion, a system that drives people toward heroes and toward hero storytelling.

We argue that the human desire to generate heroes implicates a complex system of psychological forces all geared toward developing heroes, retaining them as long as they prove psychologically useful and, yes, even discarding heroes when they’ve outlived their usefulness.

The Heroic Leadership Dynamic can almost be described as a story in itself, with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

At the beginning sits our craving for heroes, borne out of a longing for an understanding of the vicissitudes of life. Our early ancestors gathered around fires at night for reasons that went far beyond the physical benefits produced by fire. We propose that for these early humans, the drive to create heroism in their minds, in their stories, and in their culture was as necessary for their mental and emotional well-being as the fire was for their physical well-being.

And we suggest that humans today are no different at all.

Our human craving for heroes, our need for the psychological benefits that heroes offer, and our desires over time either to retain our heroes or to repudiate them, all comprise the constellation of phenomena that are implicated in the Heroic Leadership Dynamic.

And yes, an important part of the dynamic — maybe the most important  — is that it offers a framework for understanding the drive that all of us have to become heroes ourselves, given the right circumstances.

This series is based on a chapter in our book, Conceptions of Leadership, published by Palgrave Macmillan. The citation for this chapter:

Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2014). “Now he belongs to the ages”: The heroic leadership dynamic and deep narratives of greatness. In Goethals, G. R., et al. (Eds.), Conceptions of leadership: Enduring ideas and emerging insights. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. doi: 10.1057/9781137472038.0011

 

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Death and Heroism

By Scott T. Allison

“Death throws life out of balance, and it’s up to us, the living, to try to bring that balance back.” – Rick Hutchins

Recently, I’ve been mulling over the link between heroism and death. In 2014, several events in Richmond, the city I love and call home, had me reeling. Years have passed and my heart and my head have still not yet recovered.

On May 10, 2014, two of my colleagues at the University of Richmond died tragically in a hot air balloon accident. I knew one of the women, Ginny Doyle, the Associate Head Coach of the women’s basketball team. She is described by everyone who knew her as the shining light of the university. She was a stellar athlete and even better person.

The same praise is being heaped upon Natalie Lewis, who also perished. Natalie was a natural leader, a young woman with so much promise she was named Director of Basketball Operations in her early twenties. She exuded kindness and had a smile that lit up every room she entered. These two individuals are gone but not before leaving an indelible imprint on our small but loving campus community.

I think about Ginny and Natalie the same way I think about my sister Sheree, who succumbed to cancer only a few months earlier. In a flash, our short lives can be rendered shorter than we could ever imagine. We had best be mindful about how we use what precious time we have.

I wrote about my sister and called her, “the quiet hero.” The same can be said about Ginny and Natalie. They quietly touched the lives of many people in ways that will have a ripple effect throughout eternity. Kindness begets kindness, I am sure of it.

Death has a way of humbling all of us. Before they died, it’s quite possible that few would use the ‘hero’ label to describe Ginny, Natalie, or Sheree. Part of this may be due to death heightening our evaluations of those who pass. But I also believe that death amplifies our sensitivity and appreciation of the inherent goodness in people. Death directs our attention to what really matters in life – love.

In the end, our loving actions define us.

If love is paramount, then it is especially heart-gutting when someone dies while performing an act of love. This is precisely what happened here in Richmond in late April of 2014. Eight-year-old Marty Cobb was playing outside when he saw his older sister being attacked by a 16-year-old boy. Marty rushed to help her and died at the hands of the older boy while trying to protect her. Marty’s sister recovered from her injuries. But Marty is forever gone.

It is unthinkable for a precious young boy to die from any cause, but when the boy dies while saving his sister’s life, the pain is — to paraphrase Rudy Giuliani — more than any of us can bear. Marty didn’t just live a life of a hero, as did Ginny, Natalie, and Sheree. He died a hero. There is no nobler way to go.

Marty’s selfless act of ultimate sacrifice has only compounded the outpouring of grief, love, and heartache that Richmond’s citizens are now feeling. Summing up Marty perfectly, a makeshift sign placed outside Marty’s home reads, “Pound for pound, year for year, few greater heroes if any.”

The multi-layered connection between death and heroism exists for a reason. We all are called to pause and reflect about the loving lives of those who have been suddenly wrenched from us. Their lives inspire us all because they call us all.

Three beloved Richmonders are no longer with us. Drawing attention to their immense love deepens our sadness but also instills a joyous recognition that their heroism, quiet and otherwise, is an extraordinary gift fated to reverberate throughout eternity.

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