The concepts “bravery” and “glory” seem outdated, appropriate to a different time. Perhaps that’s why the word “hero” can cause a tinge of embarrassment. When we think of bravery, we envision soldiers storming the beaches of Normandy in World War II, or explorers trying to find the source of the Nile. Heroism, traditionally defined, seems to require war, disaster, emergency, or uncharted territories.
Given that the traditional opportunities to display bravery have diminished in the modern world, we settle for poor proxies. Actors, such as the late John Wayne, engage in heroism from the safety of a movie set; athletes’ on-the-field bravery is limited to a couple of hours every week, scheduled around network advertising.
The idea of heroism needs to be redefined to fit the realities of modern life. The natural human desire to distinguish oneself through noble action is as strong as ever, but perhaps our criteria for defining what constitutes heroism has always been flawed. Heroism is really the quest to live according to one’s internal standards of right and wrong, regardless of whether the world is watching.
Rather than using the dramatic standards of the past, which recognized loud, public and often violent action, the following are criteria for heroism more appropriate to the realities of modern life:
• Heroic action should have some noble and grand intention, but such intention does not need to be altruistic. To build a great and worthwhile business can be a heroic endeavor.
• Heroic deeds and actions must be based on the principle of consent, especially in terms of financing. Many people strive for the rewards of engaging in great ventures, but finance those ventures with money obtained by force. Politicians are especially guilty in this regard, financing grandiose projects with money extorted from unwilling taxpayers. To meet the highest standards of heroism, every part of an action or project must follow consistent ethical standards, one of which is the principle of consent. Many people talk of the great things they could do if only they had the money, but part of doing a great thing is finding an honorable way to pay for it.
• The action brings out the best in people: both the best in the hero, and the best in others. Heroic action appeals to people’s highest, most noble feelings. This is especially true in business; it’s a much more worthy — and difficult — endeavor to build a business that caters to customers’ noble aspirations than to a lowest common denominator.
• The more private the action, perhaps the more heroic. Private action is motivated by the desire to do the right thing, rather than the desire for public acclaim.
• The longer something takes to accomplish, the more heroic the accomplishment. Modern drama is often cast in the form of a sporting event lasting several hours, or a dramatic rescue. But the real test is how long a man or woman can maintain their values in the face of adversity. To believe in something long enough to act, even to risk life and limb, for several hours is one thing, but to have the steadiness and profound belief required to maintain a course of action over years is an entirely different matter.
• As has always been the case, the greater the odds against success, the more heroic the endeavor.
Two other important points:
• Heroism does not always require success; there are many examples of heroic failures. Heroism is more about means than ends, more about process than results.
• Heroes don’t need to be perfect: many grand things are done by very flawed persons, and the flaws of the hero don’t diminish the grandness of the heroic action. Imperfections in the hero may inspire ordinary people to reach for extraordinary goals.
On the private and quiet, but nonetheless heroic, drama of creating value.