This blog is posted in conjunction with our recently released Podcast #124 – Heroes & Heroines
People go through three phases with their heroes, or “role models” as we prefer to call them in business-speak.
Stage One is a childish infatuation. People need to believe in the possibility of perfection. So they project every possible virtue on to a hero – perhaps someone they know, perhaps a “celebrity”, perhaps an historical figure. They see the hero as an idealised version of themselves. Any attack on the hero is therefore an attack on their own inner being. They defend the hero against all criticism, even when the criticism clearly has some merit and the defence becomes irrational. Hero worship takes on some of the psychology of the early stages of a love affair.
Stage Two is disillusion. You can no longer deny that the hero has faults, that the hero made mistakes, and that the hero may have had more failures than successes. There may be a violent reaction against the hero, as you feel personally let down, even betrayed.
Stage Three is true appreciation. Experience teaches us that we are not capable of perfection in this life. We are all fallible, all of us, no exceptions. We begin to look at others with a bit more tolerance and ourselves with a bit more humility. We look at our heroes again, but now less judgmentally. We find new reasons to admire them. We see that we should respect them not because they are perfect – they never were – but, on the contrary, because they struggled so courageously against their own imperfections. Indeed, the greater the imperfections, the more courageous the struggle.
We see the true merit in the hero is not in having no faults but in overcoming them and not in making no mistakes but in moving on from them.
Failure itself may prove more heroic than success. It is certainly a better test of character. Success may be due to no more than favourable circumstances, but it may still give one an exaggerated sense of one’s own abilities.
Failure, on the other hand, is where we cannot hide from ourselves any more. It is where we find out who we are. Do we have the moral courage to pick ourselves up, to dust ourselves off, and to start all over again after total defeat? If we do, it is more heroic than winning an actual victory.
Failure may be due to circumstances or to our own errors or both. If it is due to circumstances, it gives us the opportunity to show heroism in the way we stand up against those circumstances, to defy them, and to overcome them. If, on the other hand, our failure is due to our own bad choices, it gives us the opportunity to show an even greater form of courage – the heroism that admits its own mistakes and is able to learn from them, so that one is less likely to repeat them in future.
In both cases, failure can leave us stronger than before. It is how we respond to failure that matters. It is the breaking of most but the making of some.
Winston Churchill is considered a great hero because of his courageous war leadership in the 1940s, but perhaps his greatest heroism was his perseverance in the face of repeated humiliation in his “wilderness years” in the1930s.
This is why heroes are useful after all, not because they show us how to win but because they show us how to rise above defeat. If they had not known despair for themselves, they could teach us nothing. As it is, they may have failed more than most because they tried more than most – and because they tried more than most they succeeded more than most. Thus their successes have the same root cause as their failures. Indeed, their successes may be rooted in their failures. The greater the scale and number of their failures, the greater the heroism they displayed in overcoming them, and so the greater their eventual success as a result.