From Apple CEO Steve Jobs and Microsoft CEO Bill Gates to US Air Pilot Sully Sullenberger and Walmart founder Sam Walton, we often ascribe heroic qualities to our leaders. They are courageous in the face of great risk. They persevered when few would. They take action when most sit by. Heroes are exceptional people who display exceptional behavior.
But some social psychologists question this conventional wisdom. They note that heroism can be found in many spheres of life, including in the behavior of whistleblowers, explorers, religious leaders, scientists, Good Samaritans, and those who beat the odds. At some time in our lives, we all show acts of heroism when the situation allows us to do so. If we want to see more heroic behavior, we need to create more situations that produce it.
Stanford psychologist Phil Zimbardo goes even further to argue that our romantic, inborn, trait-based view of heroic behavior is misplaced:
“The banality of evil is matched by the banality of heroism. Neither is the consequence of dispositional tendencies. . . . Both emerge in particular situations at particular times, when situational forces play a compelling role in moving individuals across the line from inaction to action.”
People exhibit brave behavior every day. The workers who risked their lives to contain Japan’s earthquake-ravaged nuclear reactors are a great example. Thus, we err when we think leaders are uniquely positioned to behave heroically. We all can be heroes in the right situation.
Of course heroes are not like everyone else. That’s what makes them heroes.
A generation of evidence from behavioral genetics reveals that “everything is genetic,” meaning we have yet to discover an important human behavior that does not have genetic origins. Though we’re not aware of any such study with respect to heroism, it would be surprising if courageous behavior were not at least partly genetic.
It’s foolish to think courageous people aren’t exceptional because of who they are. Just as we know there is an entrepreneurial personality and a leader personality, there is a heroic personality. Research suggests, for example, that people who score high on conscientiousness are more likely to engage in courageous behavior.
Not all leaders are heroes, but many have exhibited courageous behavior. When Richard Branson launches his latest attempt to set the world record for an around-the-world balloon flight or sloop sailing, he is the same leader who also exhibits courageous behavior as CEO of Virgin Group. Virgin Group now includes more than 400 companies, including Virgin Galactic, a space tourism company, and Virgin Fuels, whose goal is to revolutionize the industry by providing sustainable fuels for automobiles and aircraft. Same leader, same heroic behavior—in work and in life.
Are we really to believe that Richard Branson and other courageous leaders are just like everyone else?
Sources: Z. E. Franco, K. Blau, and P. G. Zimbardo, “Heroism: A Conceptual Analysis and Differentiation Between Heroic Action and Altruism,” Review of General Psychology 15, no. 2 (2011), pp. 99–113; O. Dorell, “At Nuke Plant, Heroes Emerge,” USA Today (March 25, 2011), pp. 1A, 2A; L. J. Walker, J. A. Frimer, and W. L. Dunlop, “Varieties of Moral Personality: Beyond the Banality of Heroism,” Journal of Personality 78, no. 3 (2010), pp. 907–942; and J. Lehrer, “Are Heroes Born, or Can They Be Made?” Wall Street Journal (December 11, 2010), p. C12.