2004 - No more heroes
A debate at the London headquarters
of the Royal Society for the encouragement of
the Arts, Manufactures and Commerce last week
was discussing the proposition that public life
has become so degraded by the promotion of celebrity
that it has lost the ability to identify genuine
The debate, which borrowed the
line "No more heroes anymore" from a
song by The Stranglers, the 1980s punk rock band,
was worth having because the concept of heroism
appears to have become diluted in recent years
by media overuse.
Just about anyone, it seems,
can be described as a hero these days whereas
once the term was reserved for wartime exploits
and dramatic rescues.
In fact, most of the heroism
discussed during the session related to warfare,
partly, perhaps, because the panel included two
historians and a notable army officer. Colonel
Tim Collins, commanding officer of the Irish Rangers
during the war in Iraq, achieved instant fame
at the outset of the conflict when his eve of
battle speech was quoted verbatim around the world.
His address to his troops was
feted as an outstanding and rare example of modern
rhetoric that stood comparison with Shakespeare's
"band of brothers" speech for Henry
V before Agincourt. But did this make Col Collins
"I don't regard myself as
a hero," he said. "I was a chieftain
of a Celtic regiment talking to his tribe, not
seeking to be a hero, only to provide leadership."
Col Collins is right that a traditional
definition of heroism measures deeds, not words.
Gallantry medals, for example, are awarded for
outstanding bravery. But Andrew Roberts, one of
the historians on the panel, said that bravery
alone was insufficient since some reviled figures,
such as Adolf Hitler, had proved themselves capable
of bravery in battle. "There has to be a
moral element to an act of courage," he argued,
"for it to qualify as heroism."
Tristram Hunt, another historian
and fellow panellist, introduced the concept of
self-sacrifice that had been stressed by the Victorian
moralist Samuel Smiles, whose book, Self Help,
defined a code of protestant commitment and hard
work that underpinned late 19th century entrepreneurism.
Today, he said, there was a growing cynicism over
what he called "manufactured heroism".
But is manufactured heroism a
modern phenomenon or is much of the heroism we
have encountered in our history books merely a
device for channelling national fervour and patriotism
in times of conflict or deflecting attention at
The Soviet leadership in the
1920s invented the concept of the hero worker
as propaganda for the communist system. The British
government diverted attention from an ill-advised
invasion of KwaZulu when it marked the bravery
of the defenders of Rorke's Drift with 11 VCs.
The courage of these soldiers was unquestionable
but so was that displayed by thousands more in
other wars whose deeds went unwitnessed.
There used to be such an individual
as the unsung hero but today it seems that the
only heroism that matters is that which gets noticed.
This is why the argument of another panellist,
journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, that heroism
is a feature of so many walks of life, not just
the battlefield, held some appeal.
Heroes must be viewed as extraordinary
people who perform extraordinary acts. Yet, so
often, these acts are invisible and unrecognised:
the donation of a kidney, perhaps, or years of
devotion to a family member with some long-term
It should surprise few of us
that not one member of the panels or the audience
mentioned anyone in corporate life as a hero.
But is that fair or can we find heroes in the
In the US, at least, it is common
to find hero-worship of corporate figures such
as Jack Welch and Bill Gates. In the UK, if we
cannot call it hero-worship, we can point to occasional
populist business figures such as Sir Richard
Branson - about the only business figure recognisable
from the windows of the Clapham omnibus. For many
years, Sir Clive Thompson, last week ousted as
chairman of Rentokil, was a consistent favourite
among his peers.
No matter how much we may admire
such people, surely it debases the currency to
describe them as heroes? But what about sports
stars? Do they deserve to be described as heroes?
Two weeks ago I was listening
to a powerful argument for companies to give jobs
to Olympic athletes. The event, at the House of
Commons, was promoting membership of the Olympic
and Paralympic Employment Network (OPEN)*, a programme
that encourages companies to provide work and
funding to Olympic athletes.
It may surprise some employers
to know that many top class athletes are not wealthy
professionals but are trying to scrape a living
to fund their training and competition. The argument
of OPEN, partnered with Blue Arrow, the employment
agency, is that the sort of focus and commitment
these people bring to their sport could inspire
their work colleagues in a business.
The OPEN programme is an important
opportunity for athletes and allows employers
to identify themselves with the Olympic movement.
There is some concern that special treatment of
athletes might engender jealousy but I would think
this unlikely. The workplace needs heroes too,
although I am not sure this sentiment is shared
by many managements. It is easy to imagine management
tensions over the loss of an employee at intervals
throughout the year.
There is an anti-heroic vogue
at the top of companies just now because so many
former corporate stars have fallen out of the
firmament. But the extraordinary popular reaction
to Col Collins' speech should not be ignored.
His balance of toughness and compassion, combined
with a gifted use of language, demonstrated that
it is still possible to find inspirational leadership
that can make a difference.
Perhaps we have become uncomfortable
with the concept of heroism, given that its definition
has become blurred by celebrity. Tom Wolfe memorably
wrote of the Right Stuff, in his book of the same
name about the early astronaut programme. I find
the complex mix of qualities that he suggests
marked out people as possessing the right stuff
far more appealing than the much weaker corporate
notion of "talent".
I cannot get excited when executives
talk of managing talent, but reading about the
qualities of the finest pilots in the jet and
rocket age leaves me with a sense of awe.
If only we could find examples
in the office. Instead we see people constantly
seeking preferment in an atmosphere that promotes
self-centred ambition. Teamwork is supposed to
be encouraged but in practice the workplace more
closely resembles a Darwinian struggle for survival.
Do people in offices possess
the right stuff? I am sure that some do. But the
modern workplace does too little to find it. Offices
just don't do awe.
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