Heroes are sober and undramatic, they act to serve others, not to prove they are better than them. This is how Arthur Ashe, a tennis icon that crowds remember for his sport achievements and social work, described heroism. The past two years have brought to the attention of the public several terms that have now become part of our everyday lives, ranging from the medical domain to international politics. Most of these words or expressions relate to a general situation of emergency, whether the discussion turns to the ongoing pandemic, the current conflict in Ukraine, or climate change. Living in a general state of volatility and uncertainty for such a long time has also revived the idea of heroes and heroic actions.

The whole world has celebrated its heroes in the past two years. As the pandemic started, public opinion praised profusely those working in hospitals, who were battling the virus on the frontlines risking their lives every day. Recently, global attention has moved towards a more traditional type of frontlines, those of the Ukraine military conflict. As a result, Ukrainian citizens answering their call to arms are currently under the spotlight for fighting back the Russian invasion.

But the concept of heroes is declinable in different ways. For instance, there are those heroes who fight for social justice, as it has been the case for those who have challenged the current status quo advocating for better rights and equality for minorities. Differently from these ordinary heroes, highly popular characters have also become subjects of fascination through the world, as people have been holding on to role models to find hope in such dark times.

In the current conflict in Ukraine, public opinion has acclaimed the actions of President Zelensky, who has been standing next to his people day in and day out to sustain the country’s resistance. Moving from the military to the digital domain, several individuals have been showing their support for “antiheroes”, namely “baddies gone good”. This would be the case of the Anonymous hacker collective, who have always walked a fine line between cybercrime and digital activism (or “hacktivism”) and they have now joined the fight to the Kremlin. Anonymous are proving to be very zealous in targeting Putin’s critical assets, while also making sure everyone knows about their good actions and reporting on their successes constantly on social media.

It is possible to define heroes as particularly adept leaders that stand out during a situation of emergency or crisis. This is also applicable to organizations. While crisis management or business continuity are everyone’s responsibility, having leaders is essential to the correct outcome of response actions. While in management the term “hero” is rarely used, there are individuals who bear more responsibilities than others. Furthermore, several experts have referred to the “banality of heroism”, meaning that heroes are often regular people fulfilling their duties in the most challenging circumstances. While the task itself might not be extraordinary, the strength to perform it in tough environments definitely is. Public opinion tends to glamourise such standout individuals, and perhaps rightly so, since their moral depth has the power to inspire others. Therefore, it is interesting to investigate what type of considerations experts have made about heroes, to understand their role, responsibility, and main features.

Social research has devoted a lot of attention in the past to how individuals manifest their evil side. Several experiments became famous as they showed how easily participants could resort to punitive actions as they received the power to do so. For instance, the Stanford Prison Experiment had ordinary people act as guards and prisoners, to understand the psychology of incarceration dynamics. Shockingly, scientists had to terminate the test before it ran its full course, since those posing as guards began to adopt increasingly punitive measures, to the point of almost forgetting the “prisoners” were not actual detainees. It is even more disturbing that simply giving someone the status of detainee – albeit only as an act – was enough to justify the use of extreme violence and disenfranchise prisoners of basic rights.

This stream of research has led experts to start a discussion on a different but connected aspect of this phenomenon. If scientists could study what triggers evil, why not investigate what creates heroes? Some have tried to categorise heroes, distinguishing between those who act in high-risk situations (e.g.: military conflict) and the ones who carry on a constant battle with sacrifices (e.g.: activists). Both act in the interest of others, risking either their physical safety or fundamental rights such as freedom, and they represent different types of heroic behaviour. A collection of studies on the topic reports the definition of heroes from American sociologist Orrin Edgar Klapp, who described them as those who “organize and simplify collective responses by enlisting interest in causes and creating mass followings, heightening a sense of we, and strengthening morale by focusing collecting efforts and complexities on one individual”.

Philip Zimbardo, emeritus professor at Yale University, has been carrying forward research on heroism, trying to understand what pushes people towards such virtuous behaviour and whether this is an innate quality or something that individuals can develop and nurture by working on it. The early results seem promising, although it remains challenging to test heroism skills until an actual crisis breaks out.

The field of study on heroism is relevant to the resilience industry, as management disciplines always rely on leaders, champions, and facilitators. These are pivotal roles that are able to inspire resilience processes and stir them towards best practices. As it emerges from early studies, there is a good chance that this type of behaviour can improve through training and exercising.

Even if in some individuals such characteristics might be more innate, further work can boost their development and increase the chances to exhibit them in a crisis situation. After all, there is plenty of courses on leadership that are administered regularly; hence, it worth wondering whether this could be the case for heroism as well.

Author: Gianluca Riglietti

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