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The Hero is Dead! Long Live the Hero!

Going Beyond What We Conventionally Think A “Hero” Means

In researching Vertical Development over the past decade, I’ve realized how Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey is a perfect metaphor for it because it embodies the psychological journey necessary for the individual to “heroically” level up and transform the way they look at themselves and their world. 

Yet at the same time, I’ve increasingly seen more and more people using the word “hero” with disdain, with some authors like Richard Wilson of OSCA even entitling his amazing book on leadership Anti Hero. Why was this I thought? Why do I see a “hero” as something to be strived for and embodied, while others see it as something to be avoided? Clueing in, I finally realized it was because the word “hero” means different things to different people. 

As I noted above, a “hero” to me, based upon Joseph Campbell’s work, is someone who undergoes a transformation that changes the way they look at the world and themselves. In other words, the person experiences a paradigm shift in their life and does a complete U-turn in the way they think and act (mirroring the arc of the Hero’s Journey), broadening their perception in the process.

Yet in looking at people who dislike the word “hero”, it’s almost as though their meaning is the exact opposite of what I just described. For example, Richard Wilson describes “heroic leaders” as problematic because of their “inflexible” single-minded nature, as noted below. 

Anti Hero argues that the modern challenges we face have fundamentally changed what we need from our leaders, requiring a shift from Heroic to Antiheroic leadership. The Heroic leaders who dominate our institutions today have four fatal flaws. First, they tend to be over-confident in their opinions. Secondly, they tend to lack empathy towards others. Thirdly, they tend to be inflexible. And finally, they tend to deny the existence of uncertainty. These are the four pillars of the Heroic leader. This isn’t, though, the fault of the leaders themselves; most of our leaders are the victims of outdated systems of leadership that were built for simpler times. Indeed, our leaders are very often doing their best in very difficult circumstances.

Richard Wilson, Anti Hero

When reflecting upon these words, what immediately came to mind was “heroic” images of John Wayne in the movies of the sixties and the accompanying expression of “stick to your guns“. In effect, a “hero” back then was was cultivated as someone who was steadfast and resolute. They stuck to their beliefs and in doing so, persevered and overcame their problems. So no wonder people hate the word “hero” today, especially if that’s what they think it means, because we need people who can be flexible and adaptable, not rigid and unchanging.

“Never apologize Mister. It’s a sign of weakness.” — John Wayne

All that said though, people need to realize that their conventional definition of a “hero” isn’t truly what a hero is from a mythological standpoint, as per Joseph Campbell’s work. A true hero is someone who is flexible and adaptable, who is continually broadening their perception of their world and themselves, which is what makes them heroic in the first place, because that requires a monumental psychological leap to be able to do so.

Finally, we are in an age where the meaning of everything is being redefined. Words like management and leadership have been stigmatized as well, associated with an elite few who seem to only care about themselves. But these words are being redefined, applied to every individual, as they gain the opportunity and potential to take management and leadership of their own lives in a completely new way (which requires a heroic leap in itself). So if we can redefine these words, why can’t we redefine the word hero as well and bring it back to its rightful meaning.

In closing, below is The Hero Path described by Joseph Campbell. Note the second paragraph where it describes “we shall slay ourselves”. This embodies the metaphorical death and resurrection the hero undertakes which is a letting go of one’s existing limited sense of self, so that a broader one can emerge. This often requires slaying one’s “dragons” which represents your older beliefs which are standing in your way and preventing you from unfolding into who you truly are.

The Hero Path

We have not even to risk the adventure alone
for the heroes of all time have gone before us.
The labyrinth is thoroughly known …
we have only to follow the thread of the hero path.
And where we had thought to find an abomination
we shall find a God.

And where we had thought to slay another
we shall slay ourselves.
Where we had thought to travel outwards
we shall come to the center of our own existence.
And where we had thought to be alone
we shall be with all the world.

Joseph Campbell

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