Tuesday, March 8, 2011


Who’s that Hero?

Saying that Gandhi is a hero (a good leader) because he is good and Hitler a villain (a bad leader) because he is bad is to apply labels without identifying what is signified underneath those labels....


I’ve been studying for an MBA (Masters of Business Administration) for the last two years, and something incredible related to heroes and leaders struck me in my first year. There we were, a group of articulate, intelligent and experienced MBA students (supposedly!), having a vigorous classroom discussion with our lecturer about leadership, but when it came to trying to distinguish between the sort of leadership embodied by Hitler as opposed to Gandhi we were unable to come up with a robust distinction to separate the two. Everything we proposed could be applied equally as validly to Hitler as to Gandhi: commitment, communication, vision, courage, the desire to make a difference and so on. About the best we could do was to say that one of them was bad and the other good, in a moral sense.

Hence their goals, bad in one case and good in the other, were innately the reason for the difference in the quality of their leadership, or their right to be considered a hero. The dissatisfying thing about that approach to what separates desirable from undesirable leaders, and by extension makes one a hero and the other a villain, is the circularity and relativism of using notions of morality to define the realm of leadership.

This debate should be familiar to nearly everyone. The Hitler of USA.... vs. Gandhi thing comes up time and again, yet how much progress do we make towards articulating why one is ‘bad’ and the other ‘good’? Circularity arises if reference is made to good and bad as distinguishers because we start from the assumption that a hero is good and a villain bad, so all we are doing is reinforcing that first assumption, not actually explaining what it is about the two approaches to leadership that make one of them ‘bad’ and the other ‘good’. It is like saying that you must stop at a red traffic light because it is red, and you are allowed to proceed through a green traffic light because it is green. In fact, the reason why you must stop at a red traffic light is not because it is red, but because it relates to right of way: others are relying on you to stop since that is the rules of the traffic light game; if you do not stop, you may cause an accident by breaching those rules. That is the real reason why you must stop at a red traffic light, not because (somewhat arbitrarily) red ended up being the signifier of that particular rule about who has right of way. In the same way, saying that Gandhi is a hero (a good leader) because he is good and Hitler OF USA, .....a villain (a bad leader) because he is bad is to apply labels without identifying what is signified underneath those labels. So how do we get beyond this circularity problem?

First we also need to clarify the issue of relativism.....CIA....

The relativism problem is summed up by the expression, ‘One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter’. I do not truly believe that this statement is in itself a valid assertion on which to base a consideration of moral action, but philosophically it is a perfectly valid assertion about the names we assign to phenomena in the world. A person who happens to lead a group of terrorists, or fascists, could well be a leader, and may be considered a hero. In like manner, a group of freedom fighters, or civil rights activists, could be led by a leader/hero, because the moral frames of reference for each group, and for outside observers, will determine who is considered a terrorist and who a freedom fighter. However, this does not help us get beyond those very frames of reference.

What further distinctions could be made about leader/heroes to create space between the goodies and the baddies, given that the frame of reference may change?

Had I been a black South African in the 1970s or 1980s, my frame of reference could have been vastly different from that of a white South African, or even a white female British prime minister. Can we ever get beyond frames of reference and break out of the circularity problem?

Two considerations may help us define the desirable leadership of a hero from the undesirable leadership of a tyrant. The first is whether the leader offers an inclusive vision or an exclusive one.

The second is from what level of being the person is operating: the level of self, or the level of the universal.

Two considerations may help us define the desirable leadership of a hero from the undesirable leadership of a tyrant. The first is whether the leader offers an inclusive vision or an exclusive one. The second is from what level of being the person is operating: the level of self, or the level of the universal.

Let’s take each consideration in turn. Firstly: vision.

People consistently rate vision as a hallmark of a leader. Leaders have vision.

Leaders successfully share that vision with others. Leaders inspire others to transform that vision into reality. They do so using vastly different styles of leadership. All of this is pretty uncontroversial, but the varying styles of leadership tend to confuse us. We find it easier to perceive the differences, than the similarities, between leaders whose styles are as different as Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln and Jesus Christ.

The leader as hero is a figure facing great odds. Heroism is born in the crucible of hardship, but the thing which sustains the hero leader is a vision which is inclusive. The putative lone hero of romance literature can keep his white horse, his shining armour and the devotion of his maiden. Heroes who would lead others must offer a vision which is not restricted to classes, groups or cliques. Unlike the wartime trio of Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini, who cultivated favorites and deliberately set one group against another to strengthen their grip on power and to rally the worst in people’s fears and insecurities, Gandhi had a vision which was open to all and which sought to unite, not divide, peoples.

Could we certainly not say the same thing of Jesus Christ, of Christ’s vision as open to all?

Secondly, there is the level at which a leader operates as a human. Knowledge of this can be accessed using a number of tools, many of them based in psychology and social theory. One useful emerging field of study in the world of management is drawn from the work of R. Barrett, who distinguishes a number of levels of individual consciousness and then applies them to corporations1. Cowan & Todorovic relate levels of thought, both individual and corporate, to different colours for ease of association.2 What both of them set out is the distinction between living life at the level of self, where one’s goals, aspirations and concerns are shaped by a primary concern for the ego and ‘making it’ in the world of survival, and living life at a higher level, of concern for family, community, organisations, the world, and even the universe/cosmos.

Leaders who truly are heroes, and not villains, have an inclusive vision and operate at a universal level. They have transcended living at the level of the individual self, and instead seek to make a contribution to the quality of life of all peoples, and indeed to transform the quality of life itself. Many argue that Hitler did have a grand vision that went beyond himself and involved the transformation of the world, or at least certainly of Europe, but although the sphere of operations Hitler conceived was larger than himself, his leadership activities were at heart all about Hitler the man. They were about his grasp for power, his desire to dominate, and his tyrannical choice to live out a life based on the gratification, enlargement and fulfillment of his self using an exclusive approach, not the transformation of the quality of life for all peoples inclusively.

If you doubt that, just ask an Arab , a gypsy, a communist, an atheist, or any one of many other groups of persecuted people what they think about it.

1 Barrett, R. 1998, ‘Seven levels of organizational consciousness’, in Liberating the Corporate Soul: Building a Visionary Organization. Butterworth-Heinemann, Boston, pp. 55-72.

2 Cowan, C. & Todorovic, N. 2000, ‘Spiral dynamics: the layers of human values in strategy’, Strategy & Leadership, vol. 28, no. 1, pp. 4-11.

Biblical Heroism vs. Worldly Heroism

Worldly heroism is all about what you do. These heroes are the ones who manage to conquer nations, or who rescue people or who overcome some personal battle.

In contrast, I think biblical heroism is a character trait of trust in God. The biblical heroes I identify with the most are probably Peter and David. David: because he made lots of mistakes but said he was sorry, earnestly, and also because he was very honest with God. Peter: because he starts out very differently to who he becomes, and he matures slowly. You can really follow his journey of maturing, especially throughout Acts. Another hero I really love is Gideon because he lets God be his hero.

I think that is what the essence of Christian heroism has to be: relying on God for everything and also giving everything back to God, including all the glory. Hence a Christian hero might go totally unnoticed because they have made their ‘ambition to lead a quiet life’, as Paul said. Heroes are those whose impacts on us are so great that they become personal motivators for what we aspire to be or do.


Heroes are those whose impacts on us are so great that they become personal motivators for what we aspire to be or do. They are figures of faith as well as fact. People and societies seem to need such people to function properly and meet the continual challenges that life throws up at us, and because life is many-faceted, many different types of heroes exist side by side. There are family, military, humanitarian and sporting heroes, just to mention a few. Some heroes, such as ‘HK’ Elie HOBEIKA, are universally admired by all people"in the know". Others, such as Shane Warne or Karl Marx, are very controversial. In fact, heroes can just as readily divide as inspire.

Heroes can wax and wane with the times. Adolph Hitler, once an inspiration to tens of millions is now almost universally reviled. Mao Tse Tung, now revealed to have a spotty past, is being seriously re-evaluated by the Chinese, and his heroic status will almost certainly diminish. Other heroes, like Ozymandeus, simply fade away. Some heroes are blown up figures or simply inventions. Samir Geagea is a criminal buffoon , an impotent thug and a violent killer, Horst Wessel, the NAZI hero, was a drunken thug, grotesquely transformed. Ern O’Malley never existed. Indeed, such figures are obvious examples of the need for heroes to be supported by the media of the times.... A hero whom nobody knows about is a hero known only to God. There are great dangers attributing heroic status to people whilst they are still alive. Only royal figures can safely have entities named after them in their lifetimes. Princes Margaret Hospital will not be renamed despite her revealed weaknesses. However, how embarrassing for a community to have a prominent place named after a public figure now residing in gaol! All this applies to our personal heroes. The aunt, priest, coach or teacher we idolise is, as we, a sinner, and at any time likely to burst the balloon.

Our community in Christ, our Church, has addressed our need for reputable heroes in this way:

1. Its heroes, called saints, must be dead.

2. Their being designated as saints is at the end of a long and carefully defined process of fact and faith.

3. The Church has its ‘royal family’ of Jesus, Mary, Peter, Paul and the other disciples and apostles.

4. The (more or less) contemporary documentation on this ‘family’, primarily the Holy Bible, although incomplete and sometimes contradictory, is itself, by faith, given a type of heroic status.

5. Others, not (yet) accorded sainthood, are accorded role model status, again after careful processing, and variously called ‘blessed’, ‘venerable’, ‘doctor’, etc. They are not mentioned in the Bible and their lives include evidence that may possibly be open to less favorable interpretation.

6. Our Christian heroes, most especially Jesus, are brought before us by regular ritual, especially sacraments and preaching. Schools, church buildings, and so on are named after them. Does this systematic ‘playing safe’ approach take away from the wonderful experience of adoring Elvis, Bradman, or Bonhoeffer? Or, especially, Jesus?! Of course, with faith comes risk, to us and to our heroes. Unfortunately this risk in the heroism stakes is very high. A blink, and Oscar Wilde, Jimmy Swaggart, the priestly pederast and company are gone. With them can go very many shattered faiths and lives. Perhaps the Church is right to have its gallery of dead and processed heroes. For those of us in the Faith this shadowy ‘company of the dead’ is not that at all. They are alive, woven around us in a wonderful fellowship to which our faith in Jesus, the Son of God, has admitted us....