The Hero's Journey

“It is not in everyone’s power to secure wealth, office, or honors; but everyone may be good, generous, and wise.”
Luc De Clapiers, essayist, (1715-1747)

Our organizations are full of problems. And our families are full of problems. And I think there is a very good reason for many of those problems.

As author T.S. Eliot said so well, “Most of the trouble in this world is caused by people wanting to be important.'” Or as I often say in my “Journey to the Extraordinary” program, “Everybody wants to be a somebody. Nobody wants to be nobody. We all want to be ”heroes’ rather than ‘zeroes.'”

And that’s fine … just as long as you don’t fall victim to the media’s or the pop culture’s definition of a “hero.” As economist Ben Stein puts it, “I no longer think Hollywood stars are terribly important … A man or woman who makes a huge wage for memorizing lines and reciting them in front of a camera is no longer my idea of a shining star we should all look up to.”

Good point. And yet, with all the problems we face on and off the job, we are certainly in need of some “heroes” who make things better or lead us all to a better place. So what is a true “hero” in today’s world? I think they are marked by a few characteristics.

1. True heroes are internally motivated.

In other words, they don’t need the big bucks or the big headlines to get off their butts and do something that has lasting value. They simply do the right thing because they have the right values coupled with the right amount of passion.

Sir Edmund Hillary, the first person to climb Mt. Everest, knew that. Even though he was regarded as a hero, Hillary said, “You don’t have to be a fantastic hero to do certain things — to compete. You can just be an ordinary chap, sufficiently motivated to reach challenging goals.”

In my opinion, you’ll find more heroes … real heroes … on the battlefields than on the front cover of “People” magazine. A real hero is the U.S. soldier in Baghdad who saw a little girl playing with a piece of unexploded ordnance on a street he was guarding. He pushed her aside and threw himself on it just as it exploded. He left a family desolate in California and a little girl alive in Baghdad.

2. True heroes manage their fears.

Of course, it would be nice to live a life without any fear, and a few do. As the novelist Norman Mailer wrote, “There are two kinds of brave men. Those who are brave by the grace of nature, and those who are brave by an act of will.” If you fall into the first category, you’re fortunate.

But the fact is … you can be a hero if you simply manage your fears. As historian Michael Ingatieff observed, “Living fearlessly is not the same thing as never being afraid. It’s good to be afraid occasionally. Fear is a great teacher. What’s not good is living in fear, allowing fear to define who you are. Living fearlessly means standing up to fear, taking its measure, refusing to let it shape and define your life.”

So it’s NOT the absence of fear that makes you a hero; it’s the MANAGEMENT of fear that gives you a chance to be a hero. Even things as simple as being willing to take risks and possibly fail. As Joe Torre, the major league baseball manager, told his teams, “I believe anybody who is not afraid to fail is a winner.”

3. True heroes live their lives to help others.

Unfortunately, our pop culture tends to idolize those who make vast amounts of money and grab huge amounts of attention … rather than those who make a difference. So it’s no wonder we have so few visible role models.

True heroes are to be found in the policemen and policewomen who are fighting the drug cartels in Central and South America … and may not return home alive. True heroes are to be found among the orderlies and paramedics who bring in people who have been in terrible accidents and prepare them for surgery.

True heroes are to be found among the teachers who dedicate their lives to igniting a spark of enthusiasm in kids who could care less about learning. And true heroes are to be found among the men and women who sit by their parents’ bedsides as they pass from this life into another one.

If you want to be a hero, or if you’re not sure if you are a hero, just ask yourself one question: “What are you doing to help others? And in particular, what are you doing to help others for which you may never get paid, praised, rewarded, or recognized?” The more things you can list, the bigger hero you are.

4. True heroes are open to learning from each and every person they encounter.

All too often, the media pays attention to those folks who have oversized egos or those folks who think it’s all about me, me, me. And the media mistakenly identifies those people as heroes … when the exact opposite is the truth.

I remember Charles Saufley talk about that, once he realized he had his definition of a hero all mixed up. Saufley was flying to Cleveland for a business meeting, and as he entered the plane, he was hoping the seat next to him would be empty. After all, he was tired, and the last thing he wanted to do was make small talk with a stranger.

Unfortunately, there was an elderly priest occupying the seat next to his. Saufley tried to ignore him, but the priest kept glancing in his direction, as though he wanted to talk. So Saufley eventually made some small talk that turned into a conversation that lasted the entire flight. The priest was very curious about Saufley’s work as a course facilitator and asked several questions.

As they were leaving the plane, the priest asked if he could use some of what they discussed in one of his sermons. Of course, Saufley was flattered and quickly agreed.

Later, Saufley said it felt good knowing that he hadn’t been selfish with his time. And he was proud of the fact that the priest was going to use some of his thoughts in his sermons. As Saufley noted, “I thought how smart I was that I could teach someone of his age and experience something new!”

Two days later, the realization hit him. He was a naive young man in his early 30’s, and the priest was a learned wise man in his late 80’s. The priest had an experience base that was at least 50 years more extensive than Saufley’s. And yet, the priest had the humility to be totally open to learning from each and every person he came in contact with.

That’s what true heroes do. They reject all forms of arrogance and the pretense of “knowing it all.” They open themselves to learning whatever they can from whomever they can … whether that other person be a Republican or a Democrat, a conservative or a liberal, a Christian or an atheist, a man or a woman, or any other distinction that might come up.

5. True heroes motivate others by their character.

They may not be motivational speakers. And they may not be famous sports figures. But their very character motivates others to be their very best … and that makes them a true hero.

Personally, I like the way poet Nancye Sims summarizes the character of a winner or a true hero. See how many of these characteristics apply to you. She writes:

“Winners take chances. Like everyone else they fear failing but refuse to let fear control them. Winners are flexible. They realize there is more than one way and are willing to try others. Winners know they are not perfect. They respect their weaknesses while making the most of their strengths. Winners fall but they don’t stay down. They stubbornly refuse to let a fall keep them from climbing. Winners don’t blame fate for their failures, nor luck for their success.”

Winners accept responsibility for their lives. Winners are patient. They know a goal is only as worthy as the effort required to achieve it. Winners don’t give up. When life gets rough they hang in until the going gets better. Winners don’t underestimate the ability of God to straighten out a situation, even when they can’t. And they give God a little time.”

Heroes are not to be found in comic books or in the tabloids. They’re to be found in every organization and in every family where you find people practicing the five behaviors we’ve just discussed. And all five behaviors are yours for the taking.

Action:  Who has served as a “hero” in your life? Which of the five behaviors listed above characterized your hero? And which of the five behaviors do you consistently apply in your daily life and daily work?