Hero Worship and the Making of True Leaders

Monday morning, I watched a very interesting interview on CBS This Morning. The guest was author, General McChrystal, and he spoke about his new book, Leaders: Myth and Reality. One of the things that most intrigued me about the interview was that, just two days prior, I lead a women’s retreat that focussed on female leaders of the Old Testament Coincidence? I think not. The response of the women to the retreat and then the surprise of seeing this morning’s interview have caused me to really think about what we are teaching our children about whom and what a real leader/hero is.

General McChrystal argues that “leadership is not what we think it is and never has been.” His opening example is the portrayal of George Washington crossing the Delaware. We’ve all see this famous painting by Emanuel Leutze, which hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The problem is that historians believe that the actual crossing looked something more like this depiction by artist, Mort Kunstler.

For many years, Americans have accepted as fact the portrait of Washington in which he looks confident, standing with the flag, his troops bravely battling the elements. But Washington could not have taken such a stance without tipping the boat, and the troops would not have had a clear and glowing sky leading them onward while the snow and wind battered everything else around them. More likely, as Kunstler portrays, Washington would have been nervously holding onto the wheel of the hastily-constructed barge while the men, barely clothed for the cold, would have been fighting the weather and the current to make it safely across the river. 

Why is this important? Because there is a mythology that heroes and leaders are “ten feet tall, never scared, never wrong, have the answer to all our questions.” But, McChrystal argues, “this is almost never correct.” Moreover, it’s typically not the leader who solves the problem but the team he or she is commanding. We often give leaders certain attributes even though they may not be that way in real-life, or in private. We thrust greatness upon people, forgetting that they are in fact people. People are human. They make mistakes. They do things the wrong way. They have flaws and bad habits. They aren’t always honest or moral. They aren’t meant to be placed upon a pedestal, or to stand upright with their legs propped up on the side of a rowboat, lest they cause everything to be out of balance and go toppling into the waves.

McChrystal also says that we count on and encourage our leaders to solve all of our problems. He argues, and I agree 100%, that a leader teaches us how to solve our own problems. He or she helps us find the tools necessary to make things better. He “leads” us to find greatness in ourselves. The effectiveness of a true leader should be based on moral leadership not on looks or great speeches given, or portraits based on myth and not facts.

This past weekend, the women who attended our parish retreat learned lessons in leadership and in life from Miriam, Ruth, Deborah, and Hannah. These were women who sometimes made mistakes, who did not always do what society expected them to do, who had pasts that had to be overcome, who sinned and were redeemed. But they all strived for some common goals: to be people of character, to hold fast to their faith, to counsel and advise, to teach others how to live virtuous lives, and to be women of God. They were not queens, not rulers, not rich, and not always revered. They had flaws, but they worked for the good of the people and taught others to do the same. They weren’t about power and glory (and when Miriam did become haughty, she was punished, served her time in exile, and was forgiven), but they were about doing what was right for the glory of God. Not themselves. For God.

In this world where everyone bows to sports heroes, politicians, and Hollywood movie stars, hailing them as leaders and heroes, we are telling our children that, to be a leader is to be braggadocios, self-serving, rich, morally bankrupt, abusive, foul-mouthed, promiscuous, lecherous, and gluttonous. By holding up these people as those to emulate, we teach that it’s okay to lie, to tear down, to disparage, to make fun of, and to engage in all forms of debauchery. We forget that true leaders and heroes are ordinary people, going about their lives doing their jobs to the best of their ability. My friend, Susan, blogged about the heroes of the recent hurricanes. Those are the people I want my girls looking up to!

George Washington was not a hero because he was tall, strong, fierce, and out to be a great destroyer of armies and men. He was a hero because he faced his fears, he was good to his men, he was loving toward his family, he did his job to the best of his abilities, and fought beside his men. He wasn’t perfect; he made mistakes, and that’s okay. Sometimes, a leader does. But what makes him a true leader, a real hero, is what he learns from his mistakes and what he teaches others about how to do things better.

Our children need to know who the real heroes are. Let’s teach them about Miriam, Ruth, Deborah, and Hannah. Let’s make sure they know about the heroics of men like St. Peter and St. Paul. And let’s encourage them to model themselves after some of the real heroes of the world:
Nelson Mandela
The Dalai Lama
Pope John Paul II
Malala Yousafzai
William Kyle Carpenter
Candace Lynne Lightner
Rosa Parks
Jane Addams
Joan of Arc
Oskar Schindler
Martin Luther King Jr

It’s time to stop the hero-worship. It’s time to stop promoting myths about what greatness is and what it looks like. It’s time to redefine leadership and heroism. It’s time to recall the words of Isaiah, “He who walks righteously and speaks uprightly,
who despises the gain of oppressions, who shakes his hands, lest they hold a bribe, who stops his ears from hearing of bloodshed and shuts his eyes from looking on evil, he will dwell on the heights; his place of defense will be the fortresses of rocks; his bread will be given him; his water will be sure.”

Isaiah 33-15-16.jpg

What I was writing about a year ago this week: Longing for a Little Sleep.

The second book in Amy’s Chincoteague Island Trilogy, Island of Promise, is now available in stores and online.

Amy Schisler is an award-winning author of both children’s books and sweet, faith-filled romance novels for readers of all ages. She lives with her husband and three daughters on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Her books, Picture MeWhispering Vines, and Island of Miracles are all recipients of Illumination Awards, placing them among the top inspirational fiction books of 2015, 2016, and 2017. Whispering Vines was awarded the 2017 LYRA Award for the best romance of 2016.  Island of Miracles has outsold all of Amy’s other books worldwide and ranked as high as 600 on Amazon. Her follow up, Island of Promise is a reader favorite. Amy’s children’s book is The Greatest Gift. The suspense novel, Summer’s Squall, and all of Amy’s books, can be found online and in stores.

You may follow Amy on Facebook at http://facebook.com/amyschislerauthor, Twitter @AmySchislerAuth, Goodreads at https://www.goodreads.com/amyschisler and at http://amyschislerauthor.com.

Amy’s books: Crabbing With Granddad (2013), A Place to Call Home (2014), Picture Me (2015), Whispering Vines (2016), Island of Miracles (2017), Stations of the Cross Meditations for Moms (2017), The Greatest Gift (2017), Summer’s Squall (2017), Island of Promise (2018).