Category Archives: Political Heroes

Pedro Albizu Campos: Hero of the Puerto Rican People

By Miguel Rosario, Caitlin Selinger, and Kylie Steadman

Pedro Albizu Campos was the consummate hero. In 1921 he became the first Puerto Rican to graduate from Harvard Law School while mastering many different languages — English, Spanish, French, German, Portuguese, Italian, Latin, and Greek. After earning his Harvard law degree, he returned to Puerto Rico and opened a one-man law office where he accepted food, water, and clothing as payment for his legal services from people who could not afford a lawyer.

Pedro Albizu Campos was a man who was more concerned with the progress of the Puerto Rican people than with his own personal gain. As president of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party (PNP), he was determined to lead Puerto Rico in its political battle against the United States for the island’s independence. It was during his time as president of the PNP that Puerto Rico would rally the most support it had ever seen towards its fight for political autonomy.

As befitting a hero, Albizu Campos was able to overcome considerable adversity. During his time in the United States, like many other people of color, he had to overcome blatant racism. After World War I broke out, Campos volunteered for the U.S. military and was commissioned Second Lieutenant in the army reserves. Upon completing his training Campos was assigned to the 375th Regiment, the unit reserved strictly for blacks—an act that was in accordance with the US military policies of the time due to racial segregation. Pedro Albizu Campos would eventually be honorably discharged in 1919 with the rank of First Lieutenant.

Campos graduated from Harvard Law School with the highest grade-point average in his entire law class, earning him the right to give the valedictorian speech at his graduation ceremony. Many people at Harvard did not appreciate having a mulatto Puerto Rican as valedictorian, so one of his professors delayed two of his final exams, thus keeping Campos from graduating on time. He would eventually receive his degree a year later after taking both exams and passing them while in Puerto Rico.

The conflicts that Pedro Albizu Campos experienced with the U.S. were his motivation for leading the PNP in its fight for Puerto Rico’s independence. During his time as president, members of the PNP met U.S. repression with armed resistance. In 1950 Campos was arrested as a political prisoner and was subjected to human radiation experiments leading to his death in 1965. Ironically enough this abuse occurred decades after Campos accused Dr. Cornelius Rhoads (a leading cancer specialists with the Rockefeller Institute) of injecting live cancer cells into Puerto Ricans to see if the cancer could spread. The accusations came from a manuscript Rhoads had written which Campos had published after getting his hands on it.

It was not until 1994 that the U.S. Department of Energy admitted to conducting these human radiation experiments on Campos and other individuals. Campos thus became the focal point of tension between the U.S. and Puerto Rico, putting his life on the line in the process. The lasting legacy of Pedro Albizu Campos and his fight for his people’s freedom has been compared to that of Patrick Henry, Nat Turner, Chief Crazy Horse, Frederick Douglass, and Nelson Mandela. Albizu’s political and military actions forever transformed Puerto Rico, its people, and its culture.

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Miguel Rosario, Caitlin Selinger, and Kylie Steadman are undergraduate students at the University of Richmond.  They are enrolled in Scott Allison’s Social Psychology course and composed this essay as part of their course requirement

John F. Kennedy: The Peace President?

By George R. Goethals

A great deal has been written and spoken about the 35th President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated over 50 years ago in November of 1963.  While nobody who was sentient at the time is likely to misremember Kennedy’s assassination – or the funeral that followed it, or the killing of his assassin on national television – recollections of Kennedy’s presidency are not so pure.  Human memory is imperfect in many ways.  At best, it is selective.  Much worse, memory is prey to numerous biases, errors and distortions.

In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Mark Antony said at Caesar’s funeral, “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”  One wonders whether the opposite is true in Kennedy’s case.  People are generally aware of both good and bad aspects of the Kennedy years, but memory of the good seems to win out.  On the positive side are his charismatic persona, inspirational rhetoric and ambitious agendas.  The negatives include philandering, passivity on some crucial issues and deception about his health.  All of these and numerous other aspects of his administration are debated endlessly.

But there is one aspect of JFK’s presidency that has received too little attention.  Kennedy felt that the Limited Test Ban Treaty with the Soviet Union, signed in August and ratified in September of 1963 outlawing nuclear tests in the atmosphere, was one of the most far-reaching accomplishments of his administration.  In a commencement address at American University in June of that summer, sometimes called the “Strategy of Peace” speech, Kennedy outlined the possibility of a completely new relationship with Russians, moving beyond the Cold War and its tensions and standoffs.

That speech and the test ban treaty were part of his evolving reexamination of super power relations.  As a result, the word “détente” entered the American political vocabulary during the last weeks of the Kennedy administration, although it did not become widely used until the Nixon and Ford eras in the 1970s.  Kennedy’s initiatives suggested what was possible for other willing presidents to achieve by way of reducing tensions with our Communist adversaries.

Kennedy had seen war himself and had seen men under his command die.  He also had seen the United States and the Soviet Union come far too close to nuclear annihilation.  He wanted very much to find ways to move beyond the Cold War and nuclear confrontation.  His hard-line National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy once quipped to an aide that there were only two pacifists in the White House, “You and Kennedy.”

But Kennedy was no pacifist.  He would have fully endorsed the Ronald Reagan/George H. W. Bush mantra that “peace through strength works.” But he was committed to building what would later be called a “new world order.”  In his last months he consulted with Russian diplomats about joint ventures in space.  He also came to believe that further American involvement in Viet Nam would never sustain the South Vietnamese regime.  He announced the redeployment of 1,000 military advisers from that country.

Although the question is one of those persistent unknowns, it seems most probable that the full-scale American war in Viet Nam would not have happened in a second Kennedy term.  More generally, it seems safe to imagine that the world would have been very different had Kennedy not been assassinated.  His intelligence and what psychologists call “openness,” that is, curiosity and broad interest in ideas and feelings, enabled him to grow and become ever more realistically flexible.  These are personal qualities that almost always serve leaders well.

In the decade after Kennedy’s assassination, some held that within a generation JFK largely would be forgotten, remembered, if at all, as a young and promising president who served for a short time with mixed results.  It was foreseen by few then that he would capture the country’s attention with unprecedented focus in the year 2013.  But memory, both individual and collective, works in unpredictable ways.

Images of Kennedy are pervasive and forever forged in our memories. We hear his voice, see him smile, listen to his banter with reporters and his speeches and comments on matters both large and small.  After five decades, it may be time to organize our own recollections and what we have learned as we grasp an unforgettable American original.

We might start with remembering what he said at American University:  “For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet.  We all breathe the same air.  We all cherish our children’s future.”

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Dr. George R. Goethals holds the Robins Professorship in Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond’s Jepson School of Leadership Studies

Andrew Jackson: Hero by Popular Opinion

By Jesse Schultz

On the surface the 7th President of the United States seems ready made for the mantle of hero. He was born into poverty from Irish immigrant parents in 1767, fought briefly in the American Revolution, studied law and became the prosecuting attorney for western North Carolina, elected to the House of Representatives in 1796, and later the Senate the very next year in 1797. He even served in the state supreme court.

He rose to fame during the War of 1812 when he soundly defeated the British at the Battle of New Orleans using a remarkably egalitarian force of slaves, Haitians, Choctaw, French pirates, Canary Islanders, and frontiersmen. The press declared him a hero and dubbed him “Old Hickory”. He went on to serve as Governor of the newly acquired Territory of Florida. He ran for President in 1824, winning the popular vote but losing the Electoral College. He ran again in 1828 and won and 4 years later won reelection. Andrew Jackson seemed to live a life that, had it been the product of some work of fiction, would seem almost too much to believe. Certainly a hero.


There was another side to Andrew Jackson. He was a man who engaged in duels, killing Charles Dickinson in 1806. During in the First Seminole War he inflicted harsh discipline on his troops, including executions for mutiny. The necessity of some were questioned. Later he would capture two British subjects, Robert Ambrister and Alexander Arbuthnot, and believing them to be agents sent to supply the Seminoles Jackson had them tried and executed. The questionable aspects of the Arbuthnot-Ambrister Incident, which included the invasion of Spanish Territory, would see Jackson investigated by Congress. While Congress would find “fault” with Jackson’s handling of the trial and execution, they would not take any action against Jackson.

And as President Jackson would oversee one of the more shameful moments in American history. In 1830 he signed the Indian Removal Act which called for the forcible removal of Native Americans from their lands. The Cherokee Nation would actually take their fight to the Federal Court in an attempt keep their lands and in Worcester v Georgia The Supreme Court ruled against the relocation. Of the ruling Jackson would reputedly say “John Marshall (the chief justice at the time) has made his decision; now let him enforce it!”. There’s been dispute on whether Jackson in fact uttered those words, but unfortunately they did seem to sum up his attitude. While the Cherokee would not be removed till the Van Buren Administration, the Choctaw, Seminoles, and Creek would see removal under Jackson’s watch.

But none of this seems to have affected Jackson’s popularity, which only increased. After his death his image would appear on no less than 13 postage stamps, have numerous memorials, counties, and cities named after him, his image is on the $20 bill and has been on numerous other denominations over the years. In a 2009 C-SPAN Survey of Presidential Leadership, historians placed him at 13th.

So was Andrew Jackson a hero for his leadership during his Presidency? A villain for his actions? Both? Neither? This is why the notion of what is a “hero” is so nebulous. Public and historic consensus focused on his actions in the War of 1812, or his handling of the Nullification Crisis, or simply his stellar political career. The darker aspects of his persona are ignored or excused. Jackson certainly wouldn’t be a hero to Native Americans, or the British, or the Spanish. To this day we face these questions when declaring heroes. Do the person’s admirable qualities outweigh the frailty of the human condition? Who decides?

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The author, Jesse Schultz, routinely has a few $20 bills in his back pocket which he happily sits on.

Nelson Mandela: The Ultimate Underdog Hero

Oops!  We had to remove the hero profile you’re looking for because it appears in our book Heroic Leadership: An Influence Taxonomy of 100 Exceptional Individuals, published by Routledge in 2013.

Our contract at Routledge required us to remove many of our profiles on our blog.  But we do have other hero profiles and information about heroes on the menu bar located on the right side of this page.  Check it out!

In the mean time, please accept our apologies.


— Scott Allison and George Goethals

Two Iron Ladies: Margaret Thatcher and Meryl Streep

By Scott T. Allison and George R. Goethals

In the introductory chapter of our book Heroes, we discuss American actress Meryl Streep and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on consecutive pages.  We make the point that both women well illustrate the point that heroism is in the eye of the beholder.  Streep is not a hero to Americans as a whole, but she is to most people in the film business.  Hardly anyone would regard her as a villain.  On the other hand, most of the British public, and many Americans, have opinions about Thatcher, with different people regarding her as either a hero or a villain.

The two were recently paired in a movie that few will ever forget.  In the movie The Iron Lady, Streep portrays Thatcher in what we consider one of the best acting performances in years.   Streep has been nominated for almost two-dozen Oscars as either Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress.  Before this year, she had won twice, for Sophie’s Choice in 1983 and Kramer vs. Kramer in 1980.  And in The Iron Lady, Streep hoisted the hardware again in her role as Margaret Thatcher.   Streep’s performance is doubly impressive compared to the usual biopic.  She plays Thatcher both in her current semi-demented state, and in her prime as the longest serving British Prime Minister of the 20th century.

Thatcher herself was a highly divisive figure as Prime Minister.  The daughter of a grocer in Lincolnshire, England, she rose through the ranks of the Conservative Party by articulating and embodying middle class values and virtues that seem now almost anachronistic.  She stood more firmly on her fundamental principles than almost any other politician in a democratic state.  University of Richmond leadership scholar Gary McDowell wrote “principle, she never failed to believe, is everything, and leadership is, at least in part, a matter of great, principled truths being simply told.”  Among the principles that were central to Thatcher, McDowell added were, “individual liberty, small government and low taxes” as well as “a sense of personal responsibility.”

Thatcher was not loved by all.  Her most dramatic leadership came twenty years ago during the brief war over the Falklands Islands in the South Atlantic Ocean.  The islands are just off the coast of Argentina, and that country had long held that they, called Malvinas by the Argentines, rightfully belonged to Argentina and only British imperialism made them English.  In 1982 Argentina invaded and captured the lightly defended islands.  Under Thatcher’s leadership, Great Britain launched a major – and very expensive – military counterattack thousands of miles away from the home country.  British forces made short work of it, quickly regaining the Falklands.  In doing so, they sank an Argentine destroyer killing hundreds of sailors.

Many people, in and out of England, questioned the value of the Falklands and severely criticized Thatcher for spending so much money and wasting so many lives in order to recapture the sparsely populated islands.  For Thatcher, the principles of national sovereignty and self-defense unequivocally dictated the islands’ retaking.  She became both a hero and a villain, depending on whose eyes were beholding.

Meryl Streep acts wonderfully throughout The Iron Lady, and shows Thatcher’s steely determination best of all, perhaps, in the Falklands scenes.  The film is fascinating, and presents two possible heroes for our consideration.  It is well-worth watching.

Below Meryl Streep talks about her portrayal of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the film The Iron Lady.

Mahatma Gandhi: The Hero of Truth and Peace

Oops!  We had to remove the hero profile you’re looking for because it has just appeared in our new book Heroic Leadership: An Influence Taxonomy of 100 Exceptional Individuals, published by Routledge in 2013.

Our contract at Routledge required us to remove many of our profiles on our blog.  But we do have other hero profiles and information about heroes on the menu bar located on the right side of this page.  Check it out!

In the mean time, please accept our apologies.  Here is more information about our two HEROES books.

You can click here to return to our HERO home page.  And thanks for visiting!


— Scott Allison and George Goethals