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

Similarly, on March 16, 2009, 33-year-old actor Chad Lindsey waited for a midday train when a man got close to the edge too quickly, lost his balance and slipped onto the tracks. The victim, Theodore Larson, 60, suffered an apparent concussion and lay bleeding and unconscious. Remembering Wesley Autrey's improbable success three years earlier -- crouching below a train -- Lindsey didn't want to push his luck. Lindsey pulled Larson to the side of the platform where the crowd rushed over to help raise Larson 10 seconds before the train arrived.

Lindsey left on the next train, expecting anonymity, despite his heroism, once fellow passengers gave him tissues to mop away a stranger's blood. This style parallels the iconic, patriotic, heroic images played in our past by actors such as Jimmy Stewart, Gary Cooper and Gregory Peck -- but Chad Lindsey, Wesley Autrey, and Dawn Hochsprung are real people, heroic people, and in the modern day.

Of course, these examples are all drawn from the lives of ordinary Americans in civilian life, but in the military such heroic acts abound. Those trained for combat, such as the many police and firefighters who, on 9/11, rushed in selflessly to those fiery towers as others raced out to safety, were also trained for heroic roles. General Thomas Kolditz, in In Extremis Leadership (2009), shows how he learned that soldiers must be trained to identify genuine crisis, thus overcoming the "pluralistic ignorance" that prompts Latane and Darley's bystander apathy.

In short, they learn that, instead of relying upon others, a genuine crisis can be identified by recognizing five key elements: Is it unexpected or part of everyday experience? Is it extraordinary or business as usual? It is time-sensitive in which urgent action is essential? Is there potential for grave harm through inaction? And lastly, is this a murky, ambiguous situation with no clear road map to follow?

If the answer is "yes" to all of the above, then forget your passion for "the wisdom of crowds," which makes us cowards. It is time to act! Action requires confidence and competence -- do you know what to do? This is where the military and public safety workers have lessons for prospective heroes. They are trained through crisis preparation.

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