Leadership: Where Have All the Heroes Gone?

December 1, 2005
Sander A. Flaum

,
Jonathon Flaum

Pharmaceutical Executive

Pharmaceutical Executive, Pharmaceutical Executive-12-01-2005, Volume 0, Issue 0

In an article for the New York Times, reporter Damien Cave pointed out how few heroes have been publicly recognized by the Administration in the current war. Despite the fact that there have been incredible acts of heroism and gutsy leadership on the ground of this Iraq war, the powers that be, for the most part, are calling no attention to it-at least no prime-time attention. Damien's most damning example came from Major Bruce Norton, a military historian and author of Encyclopedia of American Military Heroes, who recounted how a Marine recently received his Navy Cross, the second-highest military honor-not with ceremony and honor, but in the mail.

FATHER Where Credit Is Due

In an article for the New York Times, reporter Damien Cave pointed out how few heroes have been publicly recognized by the Administration in the current war. Despite the fact that there have been incredible acts of heroism and gutsy leadership on the ground of this Iraq war, the powers that be, for the most part, are calling no attention to it—at least no prime-time attention. Damien's most damning example came from Major Bruce Norton, a military historian and author of Encyclopedia of American Military Heroes, who recounted how a Marine recently received his Navy Cross, the second-highest military honor—not with ceremony and honor, but in the mail.

Sander A. Flaum

Whether I am for or against the war is irrelevant. We are in it, and the least we can do is recognize and credit the ones putting their lives on the line. As a society we owe it to ourselves to recognize the heroes among us. Without that recognition, how do we know who to look up to? How do we know that acts of courage are possible for us too?

The same is true in business. We have heard too many heartbreaking stories of executives cooking the books and lying to their shareholders. Too many celebrity CEOs have graced the cover of Business Week as the latest saviors of their companies, only to make return appearancess in the role of greedy wheeler-dealers desperately trying to cut a deal to save their own hides. The CEO villain has become a cultural commonplace.

In many ways that is not fair. The corporate villains are still far outnumbered by leaders who act heroically every day—performing selflessly for their employees, shareholders, and customers. But we in the public have grown skeptical. We hesitate to hold them up for admiration for fear that their performance will be vetted and seen as flawed; we no longer trust in an individual's character. If things are going well, we'd just as soon keep it quiet and hope nothing negative ever comes to the surface. We are in the midst of a period when no news is good news.

Jonathon Flaum

But in protecting ourselves from being labeled villains, we have also cut off the possibility of being known as true heroes. And in doing so, we undercut the ground where leaders are encouraged to take a risk, step up, and do something great.

We sure can use some inspired leaders to follow right about now.

SON Skip the Press Release

The telling line from the article my Dad is referring to comes from a military historian who said, "The cult of celebrity has cheapened fame, what's a war hero to do? Go on 'Oprah'?" In a disposable culture that trashes people quicker than it does automobiles, you become acknowledged as a hero at your own peril. Do a publicly recognized good deed this week and next week you risk being exposed for smoking pot under the bleachers in 11th grade. Why put a hero through the press junket? Why poke and prod at someone's authentic experience? Our 500-channel culture where celebrity is king has made true heroes go underground—they have no interest in getting mixed up with the Trumps and reality-TV freaks—people who use their reputations to hawk Visa Cards and pizzas. True heroes do their jobs above and beyond. But when the battle or workday is over, most of them would prefer to have a normal life with family and friends. Do they want parades and coverage? I suspect the soldier would say, "Keep the medal and make sure I have decent veteran's benefits," and the corporate manager would add, "Skip the press release, but protect my pension."

In a culture of celebrity we have to protect our heroes' privacy and reward them in ways that don't involve wedging them between a piece on Britney Spears and the latest makeover show. I agree with Dad that it's a shame that we don't have more heroes to look up to, but a popular culture bent on entertaining us to death rather has ruined it for us. If we want heroes, we're going to find them the old-fashioned way—by turning off the TV and looking around the community, our family, the job, and school.

The culture may have lost its ability to distinguish the genuine from the fake, but heroes are still out there. My advice is to think twice of a publicly recognized "hero," and look for the unsung one—they are the ones you want near you when the chips are down. And these folks are everywhere. And when it comes to picking our leaders this leaves us with a simple maxim: Don't pick your leaders based on what is said about them, picked them based on what you see them do.

Sander and Jonathon Flaum's book, The 100 Mile Walk: A Father and Son on a Quest to Find the Essence of Leadership, will be published in January by AMACOM.

Sander A. Flaum is managing partner of Flaum Partners. He can be reached at sflaum@flaumpartners.com

Jonathon Flaum is president of WriteMind Communications. He can be reached at jonathon@writemindcommunications.com

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