Heroes and leadership

Is it embarrassing to have an epiphany at such an age (all I’ll admit to is being somewhere under 50)?  I have groused for years about the lack of a youth movement in this country, and the tech-centered protests that pass for youth movements in the rest of the world.  But I have also been grousing about what passes for leadership.  When one is young, it is good to have heroes.  People who set the bar, provide examples.  As we age, we revisit these heroes, see their weaknesses, and hopefully mature enough to forgive them their faults and let them be human again.  Maybe we even learn to forgive ourselves our weaknesses, and with good humor realize what we are both capable of in extraordinary times, but more importantly how we operate in practice (not theory) on a daily basis.  Hopefully it humanizes us, makes us more tolerant, and less prone to the black and white simplicity of youth; which is appropriate for that time, it mobilizes energy and focus much more easily than a deep appreciation of the absurd and complex, which usually involves depression when one begins that journey- once out the other side though, it seasons us into adults.  We choose our battles more carefully, and have an overt need to balance personal responsibilities and our public selves.  But are we any less needful of heroes?

I know I have been mourning the loss of Studs Terkel again.  It seems to be a cyclic event for me.  I have humanized him in my mind a long time ago, and I am grateful for his constant self deprecation lest anyone make a hero of him.  Maybe it is the very definition of “hero” that has changed.  The media loves to toss about that word, to sell fathers day cards, to memorialize anyone who ever wore a uniform, you know the patter.  But I do not appreciate such flip use of the word.  Studs is still a hero to me BECAUSE he is human, because the definition is less a monolithic sculpture to perfection than a survivor of life with great soul, panache, energy, social contribution, and goodness.  Not perfection, but a consistent example of humanity I choose to admire, warts and all.

As an adult, a hero comes with difficulty.  I can’t say my parents are heroes anymore, as I did as a child.  It is not that I don’t love them- in fact, I love them more now for knowing them as an adult.  It is something else- the lack of intimacy?  The distance needed to have a hero or heroine?  I am still not sure.  It is in some part because I am not dead, or as Bill Maher recently said about turning 50, you have a lot left you can still do.  Some of the choices they made I do not wish to make, and I want to live long, healthy and as vibrantly as possible.  So I look for people who did, and see how they weathered life, what choices they made, practices they engaged in, and re-evaluate what they achieved and what I want to achieve.  I do not think leaders evolve out of a vacuum, and certainly not a vacuum that encourages a lack of self reflection.  Those people are not leaders, they are props- set up to some useful end by others and easily  manipulated.  We have an abundance of those people in roles leaders should have right now, in public and private arenas.  Leadership is hard- because if one is not to be the willfully ignorant prop of others, then one must make choices about one self, actions, and information.  One must be compassionate (active) not simply empathetic and sympathetic (passive).  One must choose good advisors, and develop complex perspective on issues of responsibility.  School board member or senator, local gadfly writer or Washington Post journalist, the leadership qualities needed are still the same, and only vary by degree.

This begs the question:  are all heroes leaders?  I don’t think so.  The heroes we choose as adults are usually not the ones set up by the media, although an uneasy venn diagram may exist between the two. We might also say our heroes and heroines are leaders in a particular way, that I’ll buy.  But an adult hero is so personal, so chosen, that perhaps they do not need to also be recognized as a leader.  But I think it is useful if they are- it helps us gain courage and example for the kinds of leadership we expect of ourselves, or certainly should expect for ourselves.  Remember, that leadership expectation is a matter of degree not kind.

I still admire Studs, and his wife.  They lived long and well, and in the process made contributions both small and large to our collective social lives.  I will never be as accomplished, but may I stay true to my path.  That is my wish, and why- I suppose – I still need my heroes.  So this fifth-grade essay is complete-  maybe we all need to write on the topic once a decade, as a self check on who we know ourselves to be and who we want to be in the future.  If you do not know of Studs, here is a great link to watch him at about 95 years of age (and several more interviews with and by him are avail. free on the net):


“For Studs, there was not a voice that should not be heard, a story that could not be told,” (Gary T. Johnson), “He believed that everyone had the right to be heard and had something important to say. He was there to listen, to chronicle, and to make sure their stories are remembered.”

And to laugh; always with perspective, good humor, and the deepest of good will.  If you have not read his collection of interviews in “Hope Dies Last”, do.  RIP Studs.