When legendary South African President Nelson Mandela passed away last December, the world responded with heartache mixed with reverence. President Barack Obama observed that Mandela “no longer belongs to us. He belongs to the ages.” With this statement, Obama illustrated what humans have always done to their greatest heroes—people forge them in eternity.
Why do we idolize great heroic leaders? Obviously, heroes provide us with hope and inspiration. But my research on heroes reveals a surprising finding—they make us smarter, too. Heroes improve our intelligence about the world and teach us lessons about the trajectory of our own lives.
Our research has uncovered four ways that heroes impart wisdom to us.
1. Heroes teach us how to respond in crisis situations
In 2007, Wesley Autrey, a construction worker living in Harlem, received international acclaim when he rescued a complete stranger from an oncoming New York subway train. Autrey witnessed the man fall on the subway tracks just as a train was approaching. Realizing he had no time to move the man from the tracks, Autrey made the remarkable decision to lie down on top of him in-between the rails as the train passed over them both. Only one-half inch separated Autrey from severe injury or death.
After performing this heroic act, Autrey received hundreds of letters from people thanking him for showing them how to live their lives and how to respond in emergency situations. Autrey and other selfless heroes like him teach us what to do, and the right thing to do, in challenging situations. Heroes like Autrey provide a script for heroic action to a world hungry for such a script.
2. Hero stories illuminate paradoxical life truths
Spiritual guru Richard Rohr argues that hero stories are saturated with complex life truths that are nearly impossible for humans to grasp unless they are illustrated inside a good hero story. Many of these truths are paradoxical secrets of human growth and development. For example, in a typical hero story, the hero cannot grow as a person until after he or she has experienced a significant falling or failing. “Where you stumble,” wrote comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell, “there lies your treasure.”
Other paradoxical truths in hero stories include the wisdom that (a) we must leave home to find home; (b) we must lose ourselves in order to find ourselves; (c) we must surrender to win; and (d) we must give up something important to gain something important.
3. Heroes teach us that their journey is the human journey
Joseph Campbell believed that the hero journey parallels human developmental stages. All young adults are driven out of their safe, familiar worlds and into the fearful real world. Psychologist Eric Erikson’s stages of human lifespan development suggest a hero trajectory during our lives, with young adults driven to establish competencies and carve out an identity for themselves.
Older adults reach a stage of generativity, which Erikson defines as people’s desire to create things that will outlast them and to give back to the society that has given them so much. Hero stories teach us that we are all developmentally equipped to pursue a lifelong hero-like journey.
4. Heroes help us develop emotional intelligence
Psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim believed that children’s fairy tales are useful in helping people, especially children, understand emotional experience. The heroes of these fairly tales are usually subjected to dark, foreboding experiences, such as encounters with witches, evil spells, abandonment, neglect, abuse, and death. Listeners to these tales develop strategies for resolving their fears and distress.
Bettelheim believed that even the most distressing fairy tales, such as those by the Brothers Grimm, add clarity to confusing emotions and give people a greater sense of life’s meaning and purpose. The darkness of fairy tales allows children to grow emotionally, thus developing their emotional intelligence and preparing them for the challenges of adulthood.
Heroes give us far more than inspiration—they are our greatest teachers. Heroes show us the secrets to unlocking our fullest potential as human beings. They do so by role-modeling virtue, by clarifying complex and paradoxical life truths, by equipping us with emotional intelligence, and by revealing how their journey can be our journey, too. No wonder Obama said that Nelson Mandela “belongs to the ages.” The wisdom we get from our heroes has a timeless quality that helps us thrive as human beings.
Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2011). Heroes: What they do and why we need them. New York: Oxford University Press.
Allison, S. T., & Goethals, G. R. (2013). Heroic leadership: An influence taxonomy of 100 exceptional individuals. New York: Routledge.
Bettelheim, B. (1976). The uses of enchantment: The meaning and importance of fairy tales. New York: Knopf.
Campbell, J. (1949). The hero with a thousand faces. New York: New World Library.
Franco, Z. E., Blau, K., & Zimbardo, P. G. (2011). Heroism: A conceptual analysis and differentiation between heroic action and altruism. Review of General Psychology, 15, 99-113.
Rohr, R. (2011). Falling upward. New York: Jossey-Bass.
Smith, G., & Allison, S. T. (2014). Reel heroes, Volume 1. Agile Writers Press.