What is a Hero?

By Warren Shiver on Feb 18, 2013

I've been thinking about this over the past couple of months. There's been plenty reported in the press - both new heroes emerging and former heroes falling from grace. The definition of a hero came from the Greek word “heros” which referred to characters who, in the face of danger and adversity or from a position of weakness, display courage and the will for self-sacrifice—that is, heroism—for some greater good of all humanity” (from Wikipedia).

One of the challenges is that the label is thrown around in our society - athletes, business professionals, etc. Are pro athletes heroes? Certainly they are role-models, but heroes? One challenge with labeling someone a “hero” (especially while they are still living) is that one action can undermine all the goodwill built up over a lifetime. Some recent examples:

  • Joe Paterno - statue taken down in State College, PA after his firing by the board amid the cover-up of the issues with a former assistant coach.
  • Lance Armstrong - Can you go on Oprah and ask for forgiveness? On YouTube, one can view his Nike TV commercial from 2005 where he asks us "What are you on?” Last month, he told the staff of the Livestrong Foundation that he's "sorry". Is all the equity in Livestrong wiped out? All of the good work that the foundation continues to pursue to fight cancer is still a heroic action, but Lance has fallen hard off the hero pedestal
  • Baseball Players - Several never convicted of using steroids, but it doesn't take a test...Bonds, Clemens, McGuire, Sosa, and on...as a middle aged person who exercises frequently, it’s not natural to put on that amount of muscle mass in your 30’s.
  • Oscar Pistorius – the latest tragic example of an inspirational person, who changed the conversation of what is means to be disabled at the summer 2012 Olympics in London is no under indictment for murdering is girlfriend.

What’s needed is to switch the discussion and emphasis in our culture from heroes (as people) to heroic actions. Some examples include the teachers at the Newtown elementary school in Conneticut. One of them, Victoria Soto, a 27-year-old died trying to shield her students from the gunman inside Sandy Hook Elementary School. The shooter killed 20 children and six women at the school on Dec. 14 before committing suicide. Our schools and children can't be protected by armed guards, there need to be hero's in waiting.

I recently heard the story of Ping Fu, who just wrote an autobiography. She knows what it’s like to be a child soldier, a factory worker, and a political prisoner. To be beaten and raped for the crime of being born into a well-educated family. To be deported with barely enough money for a plane ticket to a bewildering new land. To start all over, without family or friends, as a maid, waitress, and student. 

“Born on the eve of China’s Cultural Revolution, Ping was separated from her family at the age of eight. She grew up fighting hunger and humiliation and shielding her younger sister from the teenagers in Mao’s Red Guard. At twenty-five, she found her way to the United States; her only resources were $80 in traveler’s checks and three phrases of English: thank you, hello, and help.

Yet Ping persevered, and the hard-won lessons of her childhood guided her to success in her new home-land. Aided by her well-honed survival instincts, a few good friends, and the kindness of strangers, she grew into someone she never thought she’d be—a strong, independent, entrepreneurial leader. A love of problem solving led her to computer science, and Ping became part of the team that created NCSA Mosaic, which became Netscape, the Web browser that forever changed how we access information. She then started a company, Geomagic, which has literally reshaped the world, from personalizing prosthetic limbs to repair¬ing NASA spaceships.” (from Amazon.com) 

Bend, Not Break is the name of her book, which seems an apt description for the times we live in and the demands for resiliency placed on our culture and institutions. Frankly, we need more heroic acts and actors.

Warren Shiver

Written by Warren Shiver

Warren Shiver is the founder and managing partner of Symmetrics Group, a management consultancy focused on end to end improvement in sales force effectiveness. Through Warren’s leadership, Symmetrics Group has helped numerous organizations build high-performing sales teams focused on the right go-to-market strategy, disciplined sales process and well-designed enabling tools. Clients and consultants appreciate Warren’s uncompromising focus on quality and measureable impact and how he embodies the firm’s core values.

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