Making heroes out of leaders

Reading Neil Oliver’s “Amazing tales for making men out of boys“, published in 2008, has set me off on a reflective trail of current leadership wisdom. Corporate and political leadership, especially, have come under the cosh a great deal lately, largely around the ethical dimension, and I think Oliver’s book offers some good material to explore what has gone wrong and and what needs to go right.

Unfolding the story of Scott’s death in the Antarctic with a remarkable collection of heroic tales ranging from the Ancient Spartans to Apollo 13, Oliver explores what it takes to be a leader and a hero. Depending on your definition, not all heroes are leaders, but (often unknowingly) all leaders are someone’s hero.

These days, whether out of political correctness, fear of the outcome, simple illiteracy, or ignorance, we don’t tell tales of heroes. Whenever someone does something out of the ordinary, it seems the ‘gutter press’ are out to discover the dirt in the story or the skeleton(s) in their closet and soon the hero is undermined.

In the past, it was by knowing the stuff of legends, whether lived in their lifetime or not, that new heroes were groomed, so that they too could take a place in history. Oliver’s heroes are adventurers, conquerors, the conquered, the wealthy and the poor, the privileged and the underdog, the politically astute and the poor souls who found themselves in the wrong place, at what was arguably the wrong time. Yet, they all showed heroism by doing the right thing when the situation called for it.

Do we need heroes these days and, if we do, under what circumstances?

Oliver draws some tentative conclusions about what makes a hero which certainly make a useful starting point. Heroes, it seems, have fathers who they would like to prove themselves to. Their mothers have played other than normal roles in their lives; perhaps being responsible for the care of their mother earlier than you would expect, perhaps being too close for comfort, perhaps dying in their childhood. Heroes have often grown ‘apart’ from their family and other children – not always being comfortable in their company and, as adults, often socially ill-at-ease, especially with the other sex.

Heroes have a strong sense of duty to a body greater than themselves and their family. Whether to their regiment, society, the nation, clan, or humanity as a whole. This is not simply a question of putting others needs above their own; it is about being prepared – indeed even expecting – to sacrifice their own life for the sake of others. Heroes place little emphasis on the act of dying itself. While, no doubt, there are some humanist heroes most, it appears, see death as a transition rather than a final act, and therefore, they usually have some Faith that embraces such a continuum.

There are some fascinating examples of individuals who were driven by their own needs and aspirations and for whom ‘success’ proved elusive until they put these aside and acted self-lessly for a higher good. For those who were also leaders a consistent quality is a deep and detailed concern for the day-to-day welfare of their ‘followers’. Frequently, this is not simply a question of showing an interest, but of a passionate concern – giving more than might be expected of a leader in a position of power. In return, they are not simply respected but loved, and the degree of commitment shown to them is not merely that of an employee but a devotion that could be beyond that shown to their family – and could too include the ultimate sacrifice.

While a few of Oliver’s examples are individuals for whom their behaviour, in an instant, defined them as heroic, most were serial heroes. One event perhaps stands out. Often, though not always, this was their final act, but for many it was an early step in a long life of heroism.

So, a few questions for the leaders among us to ponder…

  • What precisely is our personal ‘higher aspiration’? We might struggle to define it, and our life may not currently reflect it, but to achieve our fullest potential as a leader we should have some inkling and be working towards it on a day-to-day basis.
  • What is our attitude to death? Especially our own. Or another way of looking at this would be to ask what is our attitude to our own life? To what extent do we deny its possibility? Without hastening it, what do we do to simply delay the inevitable? And, what do we put off doing today on the assumption that there will be time later?
  • Few of us work in isolation. These days fewer still have direct ‘reports’, as corporate hierarchies would have them, but most of us have a number of people who are dependent on us or for whom we have some responsibility. How many would say we cared about them? How many would say our care went beyond what they might reasonably expect? What could we do, on a day-to-day basis, and from tomorrow (no later), to achieve this degree of concern?
  • We often get drawn into a career path that is about perpetuating the status quo. It may involve material growth but nonetheless it is about perpetuation of a system of hierarchy and seniority. I often hear leaders say, once they have retired, “this is how I wish others would do things – it isn’t how I did them, but with the benefit of hindsight, it is how I wish I had.” So, how about changing the time-scale? Don’t wait until you retire and apologetically advise the new generation. Instead, why not take a stand? Be a hero. Regardless of the personal consequences, make a change for the better in your work. What could/should you, your business, your industry, do differently and what could you do to make this happen?
  • Best wishes

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