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How to Be Great!

Describes a hero's character traits. Includes courage and strength; Honesty; Kindness and generosity; Risk-taking; Importance of hero image.

What does it take to be a hero? Start with six basic character traits.

John F. Kennedy had it, Bill Clinton doesn't. John Wayne personified it, but Sylvester Stallone comes up short. Martin Luther King Jr.? Certainly. But Colin Powell remains a question mark.

We're talking about heroism. Greatness. That special something that wins you admiration, adoration, and maybe even your face on a postage stamp.

Heroes may seem passe in a cynical era where we seem to relish tearing down icons more than we do creating new ones or cherishing the ones we already have. Some folks, moreover, find the very idea of heroes objectionable, arguing that there's something elitist about exalting individuals who, after all, are nothing more than flesh and blood, just like the rest of us.

But we sorely need heroes--to teach us, to captivate us through their words and deeds, to inspire us to greatness. And if late 20th-century America seems in short supply of them, the good news is that the pool of potential heroes has never been greater. That's because every one of us--ourselves, our friends, even our kids--has heroic potential. And there is plenty we can do to develop that untapped greatness, to ensure that the next generation gets the heroes it needs.

Portrait of a Hero

Though our personal heroes differ, we all share a common vision of what a hero is--and isn't. Temple University psychologist Frank Farley, Ph.D., has distilled this vision into what he calls his "5-D" model of greatness. Together the five "D's" help explain what makes a hero, where they come from, and why they're so important.

The first "D" is for determinants, six character traits Farley believes define the essence of heroism. Not every hero has them all. But the more you have, the better. So if you seek greatness, either in yourself or your children, you would do well to nurture these aspects of personality:

o Courage and strength. Whatever a hero is, he isn't a coward or quitter. Heroes maintain their composure--and even thrive--under adversity, whether it be the life-threatening sort that war heroes face or the psychological and emotional strains that politicians and business leaders must endure.

o Honesty. It's no coincidence that "Honest Abe" Lincoln and George "I cannot tell a lie" Washington are among our nation's most cherished figures. Deceit and deception violate our culture's conception of heroism. "Ronald Reagan once said thai Oliver North was an American hero," observes Farley. "But Ollie obviously founder on the honesty standard."

o Kind, loving, generous. Great people may fight fiercely for what they believe, but they are compassionate once the battle is over--toward friend and foe alike. General George S. Patton was a brilliant military man, but his hero status was impaired when he publicly slapped one of his soldiers in the face. "The American public was revolted by that," notes Farley. "He wasn't kind to his men." Though Patton is still regarded as a hero by many, his popularity never recovered.

o Skill, expertise, intelligence. So far, our archetypical hero is courageous, kind, honest--in other words, a lot like Forrest Gump. But Forrest falls short on one measure: A hero's success should stem from his talents and smarts, rather than from mere chance--although, for the sake of modesty, a hero might well attribute his hard-earned achievements to luck.

o Risk-taking. "Even though many people won't take risks in their own life, they admire risk-taking in someone else," notes Farley, much of whose research has focused on Type-T personalities--perpetual thrill-seekers. No matter what their calling, heroes are willing to place themselves in some sort of peril. FDR, for example, took enormous political risks by defying the rank and file of his own party; Martin Luther King Jr. laid his life on the line for his ideals.

o Objects of Affection. We might be impressed on an intellectual level by somebody's deeds. But admiration is not enough--heroes must win our hearts as well as our minds.

In addition to these six determinants, heroes also exhibit depth, the second "D" in Farley's model. Depth is that timeless, mythical, almost otherworldly quality that marks a hero. It's hard to articulate exactly what this is, admits Farley, but we all know it when we see it--it's what makes even physically diminutive heroes seem larger than life.

"I think of depth as sorting out true heroes from celebrities, or the passing hero from the timeless one," Farley says. Clint Eastwood for example, often shows up on lists of today's heroes because of his rugged individualism. But studies show that he lacks that mythical depth factor that ensures long-standing heroic status.

Great Expectations

Heroes don't exist in a vacuum. They make specific contributions to the culture. So the third "D" is domain, the field in which a hero makes his mark. Although elected officials are currently held in roughly the same regard as, say, carjackets, politics remains the number one source of heroes. It may help, though, to be a dead politician, or at least a former one: Sitting presidents don't do very well when people are surveyed about their heroes. One reason, Farley thinks, is the intense media scrutiny to which we subject national figures.

Neck and neck for second place among the most common domains of heroes: entertainers (Barbara Streisand is big among women, Clint Eastwood among men) and family members (morn and dad, Uncle Bill who lost an arm in the war, your big sister). Religious figures rank fourth, with most of the rest coming from the military, science, sports, and the arts.

Why the low standing of athletes? The sheer number of them, for one; it was much easier for Joe DiMaggio to become a national icon when baseball and football were the only sports of any popularity. Moreover, sports have become big business, with athletes seemingly motivated as much by lucre as by love of the game. Some charge young fans to autograph a baseball. "Would Martin Luther King sell his autograph?" asks Farley, who wonders if public disillusionment with pro athletes means that most of tomorrow's sport heroes will be fictional characters like Rocky.

The fourth "D" is database, Farley's term for where we get information about heroes. The main sources are television, radio, magazines. Conspicuous by its absence is the one place where tales of heroism ought to dwell: history class.

"Schools are not dealing enough with studying the lives people who changed the world and did great things," Farley warns. "Nowadays schools deal more with abstractions, with isms--communism, feminism, racism. But if you really want to instruct young people in these ideas, embody them in the life and times of an individual."

The idea of nonviolent protest, for example, must seem quaint --if not downright irrelevant--to today's kids, who turn on the TV and see the world being changed through violence. "If you talk about nonviolent protest being a viable alternative, they're not going to understand it," Farley explains. "But if you embed it in the life of Gandhi, all of a sudden you see the lights coming on: This little man brought the British empire to its knees."

Why We Need Heroes

Heroes are more than a convenient way to get kids hooked on history. Above all, they spur us to raise our sights beyond the horizon of the mundane, to attempt the improbable or impossible. "Being inspired by people who do great things is one of the oldest, most reliable forms of motivation," notes Farley. In fact, many heroes themselves, including Winston Churchill and Patton, have cited biography as their favorite form of reading, as a source of both information and inspiration.

In this context, a recent survey reporting that nearly half of kids have no heroes at all has ominous implications. How can our children hope to transcend adversity -- such as poverty or racism -- without the example of the great men and women who came before them? "The great American story is the person starting from nothing and becoming something," Farley says. "We need more depictions of that."

Heroes are also a window into the soul of a culture. Look at a nation's top heroes, and you'll get a pretty good idea what values its citizens ascribe to, what ideals they cherish. American heroes tend to be individualists and risk-takers. But in China, heroes might be more likely to conserve tradition. That has important implications for everything from international business dealings to political and military negotiations.

Heroes at Home

The last "D" is distance, how close we are to our heroes. If the mythical quality of many great people makes them seem somewhat distant and inaccessible, that's not true of the answer people most often give when Farley asks them to name their heroes: "Morn" and "Dad."

Parents may not be heroes to the masses. But if their kingdom is small, their influence within that kingdom runs deep indeed. So it's no exaggeration to say that each of us has the potential to be a hero in our way. There are few more effective ways to make a difference than to be a hero.


Illustrated by Timothy Cook