Personal development: What makes an everyday hero?


Our personal development writer Gemma Rose believes that with the right mindset we are all capable of performing heroic deeds.

The biographer William Manchester described this little boy as: “Sickly, an uncoordinated weakling with the pale fragile hands of a girl, speaking with a lisp and a slight stutter, he had been at the mercy of bullies… This was hardly the stuff of which gladiators are made.” Years later, this weakling would prepare Britain for war, a time that is considered to be his finest hour. “Faith is given to us to help and comfort us when we stand in awe before the unfurling scroll of human destiny,” he broadcasted to the nation on 14 July 1940, on the cusp of the Battle of Britain He said: “We must show ourselves equally capable of meeting a sudden and violent shock or – what is perhaps a harder test – a prolonged vigil. But be the ordeal sharp or long, or both, we shall seek no terms, we shall tolerate no parley; we may show mercy – we shall ask for none.” For his courage and conviction, Winston Churchill is remembered as one of the greatest heroes of all time.

Dr Philip Zimbardo, professor of psychology at Stanford University, US, has dedicated 35 years trying to understand what makes a hero, an area of research that is still in its infancy. According to him, heroism is more than altruism – it is a deep concern for other people in need or for a moral cause, at great personal cost, without expectation of reward. Through his Heroic Imagination Project, he aims to stir ordinary people into heroic action, something that he believes we are all capable of. His project also attempts to debunk the myth that heroes are divinely appointed, natural warriors, or are individuals acting alone. Rather they can be of all ages and from all walks of life; they may work in a network, they dedicate their life to a cause; or merely do one single heroic act in their lifetime.

Heroes aren’t always good people. Churchill spoke just as disparagingly of Gandhi as he did of Hitler. He was a keen supporter of eugenics, deemed a racist and white supremacist, and was in favour of using gas to quell a rebellion. Zimbardo believes that the line between good and bad is permeable: people can cross it many times. Furthermore his research, such as the 1971 Stanford Prison study, shows that good people can do evil under certain circumstances.