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

Bill Bond, the school safety specialist for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, warned: "When you allow absolutely insane people to arm themselves like they are going to war, they are going to war!" Bond himself had been a heroic principal of a high school that suffered a murder rampage. He had a gun to his head. He said: "In a school, the only real protection is kids trusting you with information."

It turns out that the heroic teachers of Newtown were trained in lockdown and crisis preparation. The kids had gone through drills so that, when they were told to follow a teacher and when to be quiet, they knew what to do instantly. Who knows how many lives at Sandy Hook may have been saved from the crazed machine gunner?

Thus, one lesson is the Boy Scouts motto, "be prepared," while forgetting about the scholarly research on crowd size, the urban or rural setting, the shortness of time, or even the risk of personal jeopardy. Louis Pasteur intoned: "Chance favors the mind that is prepared." Heroes need to have the trust of others and a sense of personal efficacy. Even minimal crisis-management training may give them the confidence and competence to act.

A second lesson, then, is to inspire the crowd and forget about the cynical media that warns about an apathetic society. Once you act, others will likely follow your lead. In studying scores of corporate scandals, if only one knowledgeable person had courageously gone public, many other informed, righteous colleagues would have followed. The once-cowardly townsfolk in the classic films High Noon and It's a Wonderful Life rose up to join heroes in the fight against evil. This is the mythic American character. In fact, crowds in real life, whether on battlefields or burning wrecks or subway train platforms, generally rush to help the heroes in their valiant causes.

This can work even to unfreeze paralyzed legislatures as we are reminded by the near failure of our Constitution's framers as they met in Philadelphia in 1787. In short, larger states demanded a bigger voice in the nation's new legislature, given their greater contribution to the nation's financial might and defense strength, while less populous states wanted equal votes. The issue of representation had led to a seven-week stalemate with the convention about to collapse. Two delegates from Connecticut, Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth, creatively suggested a dual house system to break the logjam, which Benjamin Franklin courageously endorsed and refined. This historic "Grand Compromise" was adopted on July 16, 1787, by a heart-stopping single vote.

The answer to the courage vs. crisis paradox is: character, not context. Don't blame the city, the culture or the crowd. Heroism springs from individual character. The mythic American character is always triggered when a hero inspires the crowd.

In fact, this is not unique to America. This is what heroes have done over the history of humanity. Heroes provide a code of conduct during uncertain times and a path through adversity. In this era of "cultural relativism," anthropologist Joseph Campbell boldly revealed the universal qualities of heroes, calling them "the monomyth of the hero" in his classic The Hero With a Thousand Faces. In city parks, town squares and village greens across countries, cultures and continents, we see statues that celebrate not crowds, but rather the courageous individuals who inspire crowds.

This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.
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