Heroes have been held out as the best of us throughout recorded history. All cultures commit to profiling and proclaiming them. Their stories are our past, present, and future, told through the protagonist’s lens. We research, record, and relate them for a reason.

From undergraduates to senior executives, heroes are used to illustrate leadership. Who they were, where they were, why they were, what they did. But like any entrenched practice, the teaching of leadership deserves frequent revisiting. What makes the principles, qualities, and behaviors from the sum of leaders that went before or since so worthy of edifying? Why these burnished exemplars and not others?

Before beginning, some givens.

Leadership is leading people. It’s harnessing human energy, talent, hope, and imagination. One can be a leader of ideas or art or technology, but in our operational definition, that’s doesn’t qualify. Leaders lead people. Period.

Let’s also agree that heroes are flawed. Often their personal conduct was deplorable. They had skeletons in their closet. They labored for self-interested gain and sometimes nefarious nations or corporations. Leadership doesn’t mean leading to peace or prosperity or public good. It would be nice if it did. But for good or for ill, for greed or virtue, leaders refract the imprint of humanity. That they were twisted or pernicious doesn’t distract from the fact that they left enduring footprints. You don’t do that unless you can lead people. Let’s put that aside and focus on why we can’t, or shouldn’t, shake them from our collective memory.

There are three reasons heroes are so useful.

First, they’re recognizable. To be effective, any teacher must connect with as many students as possible. Minimum tuned in means maximum tuned out. The stories and deeds of heroes are cross-culturally valid and accessible, and as such, capture attention. You can’t teach without attention. This illustrative footing is the basis for discussing and debating, determining and doubting. Does everybody love them? Absolutely not. Does everyone know them? Absolutely. The platform needs to reach as many as possible. Heroes do that.

Recognition for recognition’s sake is not enough. Heroes are recognized because they had impact. They amassed powerful followership and changed the world. Durable recognition is an echo from the past to the present. It means that they and their deeds have survived the test of time. They’ve been written into history books. They’ve been taught in schools. They’ve been the subject of dissertations. They have legs. To have legs, you must have done something worth remembering.

Second, heroes had impact because, with unshakable clarity, they saw the end they pursed. It was ever present. They woke, walked, and wepted with it in their frontal lobes. Captain Ahab’s monomaniacal pursuit is depicted as selfishly fatal obsession. Maybe there was little virtue in pursing Moby Dick. But heroes were undeniably obsessive in quest and defense of their hoped for future. Everything they did was in service of it, consciously or not. It fed, and fed off of, their intellectual, emotional, and behavior forces.

To be obsessed is to think of a thing unceasingly and persistently. Its etiology is psychological—to haunt—and military—to besiege. Can you think of a real leader who wasn’t passionate, and, in the end, wanted most of all, to conquer something, be that a nation, and ideology, or an idea?

Clarity is a singularity of mind that leverages force to energy and energy to motion. It provides vision. At its core, a vision does not yet exist; it’s conjured from the future. By itself, it’s frightening, as it represents the unknown, which is something we instinctually shrink from. Fear of the unknown provides the raw emotional fuel to mobilize humans.

Third, heroes weren’t for their followers, they were their followers. They didn’t stand beside the river as we gasped for air; they were rushing along with us. This explains why they were so powerful, but more importantly, why they were beloved. They didn’t have to understand the people because they were the people.

Leaders don’t have to be of the same socio-economic status or ethnic background as their followers. Churchill was upper crust, while most of Britain wasn’t. Eamon de Valera was as much Spanish as Irish. That’s not important. The connection’s deeper than that. Heroes felt what, and acted as, those around them. Their emotional response was perfectly consistent with their supporters. Their action plan was what those around them would have chosen to do. They had, and were, the pulse. Heroes didn’t have to think about it. They didn’t need polls. They were indistinguishable and inseparable from their followers; a powerful explanation for their appeal.

These three qualities—recognizability, singularity of purpose, and harmony with followership—provide the foundation of leadership education. They’re the key to reaching those curious about what it means to lead. If these are rooted, the learning conversation that ensues is sparkling and meaningful.

Heroes capture who leaders are and what they do. In so doing they embody what we want to—and sometimes do—see in ourselves. We tell their stories because they are projections of who we want to be; remembered, rapt, and reflected. They are our greatest stories because they reinforce the notion that one person can change the world. Believing that ennobles us to do just that. For all these reasons, heroes are the vehicle by which we do, and should, grasp and erect our own leadership. Living by example was never truer.

James Bailey

James Bailey

Dr. James R. Bailey is Professor and Hochberg Fellow of Leadership Development at the George Washington University, as well as Fellow at the Centre of Management Development at London Business School. A key-note speaker, best-selling author, and award winning educator, Dr. Bailey designs and delivers executive programs for some of the world's most prestigious firms.
James Bailey