This Day On The Street
Continue to site right-arrow
ADVERTISEMENT
This account is pending registration confirmation. Please click on the link within the confirmation email previously sent you to complete registration.
Need a new registration confirmation email? Click here
TheStreet Open House

From Cowardice to Courageous: How to Be a Hero When Others Need Us Most

By Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, Senior Associate Dean and Lester Crown Professor of Management Practice at the Yale School of Management. He is the author of The Hero's Farewell: What Happens When CEOs Retire (Oxford University Press).

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Beware of media cynicism about groups such as the recent apathetic subway passengers on a platform mishap or the stalled-out U.S. Congress. Crowds can act with courage to do the right thing when properly inspired.

In this age of liberated or empowered "self-directed work teams" and the rational-seeking "wisdom of crowds," there is still a role for heroes, the vital few who defy reason and safety to make a difference for us all.

The closing month of the year was bookended with paradoxical models of cowardice and courage as lessons for Congress and the rest of us. The month opened with the tragic scene of a doomed man pushed on to a subway track crying for help while motionless onlookers looked on in paralyzed horror. The following week ended with a scene of teachers instinctively shielding young schoolchildren from a deranged machine gunner with their own bodies.

Psychological research partially helps explain our cowardly inaction but not our courage to act. Conflicting headlines and contradictory research do not provide much guidance, just one-sided reason for unproductive despair. For example, even great bestsellers from fellow Yalies such as James Surowiecki's brilliant The Wisdom of Crowds (2004), Irving Janis' profound Groupthink (1972) and Stanley Milgram's alarming Obedience to Authority (1974) offer little cheer for courage and initiative.

The Wisdom of Crowds celebrates market rationality and superior judgment of groups over outstanding individuals. By contrast, Groupthink is more condemning of crowds, focusing on the non-rational conformist tendencies of groups due to an illusion of invulnerability that punishes dissenters challenging the prevailing thought. Similarly, most of those (65%) in Milgram's famed obedience studies submitted to experimental demands even when they believed that the lives of fellow experimental subjects were at risk. Such work does not explain when bold action, independent thinking, and creative imagination prevail. In short, they do not explain courage.

None of the 20 nearby people on the midday Manhattan train platform moved to assist 58-year-old Ki-Suk Han when he was allegedly pushed by a homeless man into the path of an approaching subway on Dec. 3. Just 100 feet away, they had 90 seconds or so to help but did not. Somehow, R. Umar Abbassi, a freelance photographer on the scene, found the time to snap photos of the struggling man, which he then sold to the the New York Post as a front-page photo, a profile of Han's final seconds of distress. Abbassi grimaced later as he recalled seeing Han crushed "like a rag doll" at close range and thought his camera flash would be all he could do to alert the coming train.

1 of 5

Check Out Our Best Services for Investors

Action Alerts PLUS

Jim Cramer and Stephanie Link reveal their investment tactics while giving advanced notice before every trade.

Product Features:
  • $2.5+ million portfolio
  • Large-cap and dividend focus
  • Intraday trade alerts from Cramer
Quant Ratings

Access the tool that DOMINATES the Russell 2000 and the S&P 500.

Product Features:
  • Buy, hold, or sell recommendations for over 4,300 stocks
  • Unlimited research reports on your favorite stocks
  • A custom stock screener
Stocks Under $10

Jim Cramer's protégé, David Peltier, uncovers low dollar stocks with extraordinary upside potential that are flying under Wall Street's radar.

Product Features:
  • Model portfolio
  • Stocks trading below $10
  • Intraday trade alerts
Try it NOW
Try it NOW
Try it NOW

Check Out Our Best Services for Investors

Dividend Stock Advisor

Jim Cramer's protégé, David Peltier, identifies the best of breed dividend stocks that will pay a reliable AND significant income stream.

Product Features:
  • Diversified model portfolio of dividend stocks
  • Updates with exact steps to take - BUY, HOLD, SELL
Trifecta Stocks

Every recommendation goes through 3 layers of intense scrutiny—quantitative, fundamental and technical analysis—to maximize profit potential and minimize risk.

Product Features:
  • Model Portfolio
  • Intra Day Trade alerts
  • Access to Quant Ratings
Options Profits

Our options trading pros provide over 100 monthly option trading ideas and strategies to help you become a well-seasoned trader.

Product Features:
  • Actionable options commentary and news
  • Real-time trading community
Try it NOW
Try it NOW
Try it NOW
To begin commenting right away, you can log in below using your Disqus, Facebook, Twitter, OpenID or Yahoo login credentials. Alternatively, you can post a comment as a "guest" just by entering an email address. Your use of the commenting tool is subject to multiple terms of service/use and privacy policies - see here for more details.
Submit an article to us!

Markets

DOW 17,221.70 -165.51 -0.95%
S&P 500 2,007.66 -21.89 -1.08%
NASDAQ 4,648.5970 -32.90 -0.70%

Partners Compare Online Brokers

Free Reports

Free Newsletters from TheStreet

My Subscriptions:

After the Bell

Before the Bell

Booyah! Newsletter

Midday Bell

TheStreet Top 10 Stories

Winners & Losers

Register for Newsletters
Top Rated Stocks Top Rated Funds Top Rated ETFs