What Is a Hero?

Quandary and Claim

Recently, the discussion as to whether the football players who took a knee during the national anthem were heroes has been zooming across my social media feeds. Often those who do not believe they were heroes show a side-by-side of a sportsman next to a soldier and proclaim that the soldier is the real hero. The first time I saw the comparison it irked me because it is an-apples-to-oranges argument. Further, I think the logic is founded on false pretenses because it says that what title you have determines your hero status. History has shown us many times that title and profession have little to do with heroism. Think of any recent disaster you’d like, you’ll find a story of some common human stepping up to be a hero. Further, being a hero is not exclusive, which is to say that just because one human is a hero does not mean another cannot also be a hero.

Being anything, even a soldier, does not automatically make you a hero. Many soldiers grow to become heroes, their line of work can be a selfless one, but not all. It is unwise to overlook the crimes specific, individual soldiers have committed—the pain they caused soundly rules them out as hero candidates. It would also be foolish to say that any highly-paid athlete is a hero—providing entertainment and winning games does not a hero make.

Some Incomplete Definitions

Google defines hero as, “a person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.”

My Merriam-Webster dictionary ap defines hero as, “a person who is admired for great or brave acts or fine qualities.”

These definitions leave a bit to be desired because they do not define what exactly an “outstanding achievement” or “brave act” is nor do they define what “noble” or “fine” qualities are. So, let’s explore those concepts.

Outstanding Achievements and Brave Acts

I do not believe that just any outstanding achievement or brave act makes you a hero.

For example…

Getting into medical school is an outstanding achievement, but all medical students are not heroes. It is brave to ride a motorcycle down a curvy, highly-trafficked highway (if you worked in the emergency room you’d think that too), but not all folks who ride motorcycles in dangerous places are heroes.

Selfless acts make heroes.

The acts and achievements that bring “hero” into the dialogue are those where an individual does something that will help another person or group (family, peers, race, gender, nationality…etc.) even though the cost of that act for the individual outweighs any potential personal gain.

For example…

The firefighter who rescues a kid from a burning building. A bystander who helps an old lady cross the street even though he is then late for work. MLK who scarified his freedom and life to fight for equality. The soldier who threw himself on a grenade to protect his comrades. The teacher who stayed after school every day to help a struggling student grasp the material. Malala Yousafzai who spoke up for women’s rights even though it put her in harm’s way. The list goes on…and on…

Noble and Fine Qualities

Similarly, not all qualities that are noble and fine are heroic qualities. Being kind is a noble quality. But kindness alone doesn’t make you a hero, it just makes you a decent human.

Qualities that heroes often embody are selflessness and a fierce definition of right and wrong. I would argue, however, that a hero need not exhibit these qualities every moment of their life.

So, what is a hero?

A hero is someone who changed the course of another’s life (or many others) in such a way as to reduce their suffering, increase their happiness, or protect their individual freedom to reach their full potential (I’ll leave you to define “full potential”) without directly benefiting themselves. Heroes can be local, national, or global. The scale does not detract from the heroism, it simply describes how widely known the hero’s story is. I believe a child who stands up and stops other students from bullying a classmate on her playground is as much a hero as Nelson Mandela, even if the impact is smaller. It is not easy to act selflessly. It is true, however, that some professions and circumstances provide more opportunities to be a hero. I would also argue that “hero” is not inherently a permanent title. It is fleeting and describes a specific act during a specific time. However, some people are so often heroic that they earn the description again and again.

Conclusion

It is not productive to nitpick whether Colin Kaepernick is more of a hero than a soldier. It is worth acknowledging that Kaepernick did something that many football players have not. He brought race discussions to the forefront of entertainment. He forced us to examine if our country is living up to what we claim our guiding principles are in a time when public figures have attacked just about every minority and women. In making us question if our country is truly fighting to give ALL its citizens the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness Kaepernick made me wonder if we are giving our soldiers the chance to be national heroes or if we are putting them in impossible situations where they can only be heroes within their unit because their country is sending them into battles that cause more harm than good. I think it is important to remember that even if not every soldier is a hero their profession is asking them to put country before their own life. That is a big request; it would be worth reminding our leaders that such a request should weigh heavily on every decision they make.

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Leader vs Boss

The many teams I work on (of varying sizes) throughout my shift in the emergency department have provided ample opportunity to experience different team leads. And, in recent weeks, I’ve been reminded of a lesson I once taught my Paraguayan students (I taught life skills classes to grades 7-12 as a Peace Corps volunteer in Paraguay for 2 years). The lesson was during our leadership unit and it was on the difference between a leader and a boss.

Lesson

I started my class with the following image:

I defined the differing titles as follows:

Leader

A leader is someone who leads by example. They are skilled, trustworthy, and levelheaded. A leader is confidant with their abilities, but they are willing to change their tactic if any team member has a better idea. A leader gets their hands dirty. A leader reminds you of your strengths and approaches weaknesses as learning opportunities not permanent shortcomings. A leader is willing to have that hard conversation or make the decision no one else wants to make. A leader makes every team member feel like the project belongs to them, not just the leader.

Boss

A boss is someone who leads by giving orders. They think their way is the only way and expect others to follow them. A boss is an expert, but they are not someone you go to when you’re having a problem. A boss is the first to address a shortcoming or mistake and says little when a job is well done. A boss stands above the work, but tells you how you should complete each task. A boss makes all the decisions, but when something goes wrong blames it on the team. A boss expects you to pledge allegiance to their project.

Reflection

It’s not the breadth of knowledge or the level of skill that distinguishes a leader from a boss. They are differentiated by how they approach their colleagues. When I was a teacher, I asked my students to reflect on which type of team lead they’d rather follow and they always picked the leader. I asked them, then, how they were going to be leaders rather than bosses.

“Listen and be kind,” they said.

We could all remember my students’ advice. For some it comes easily while others have to remind themselves to listen and be kind. However, as long as the end is reached, it’s okay if being a leader doesn’t come naturally at first.

When work is slow, the opportunities to dish out compliments are obvious and abundant. Amid the chaos of a high census (lots of tasks all at once) or when faced with a critical patient, it can be harder. Leaders always find a way to lift us. That’s why we follow them. When the going gets tough, leaders bring us together while bosses push us apart.

Choose to be a leader. Your team needs you.