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.

By contrast, the following week, when a crazed man with an assault weapon opened fire, killing 20 little children at Newtown, Conn.'s Sandy Hook Elementary School, there were no passive bystanders concerned about their own safety. The faculty of this school acted as courageous individuals without concerted effort, let alone reference to the headlines and despairing scholarship to save lives. Courageous teachers such as Vicki Soto, Anne-Marie Murphy, Rachel D'Avino and Lauren Rousseau, as well as principal Dawn Hochsprung and school psychologist Mary Sherlach gave their lives by putting themselves in front of the armed intruder. The devoted educators did not consider their own well-being for a moment before they acted.

What is the explanation for such contrasting human conduct? Is it the callousness of New York's big-city life versus the more intimate small-town values of idyllic Newtown, 80 miles away? Was it the identification with the victim -- perhaps ethnic prejudice against Han, a Korean, versus compassion for innocent, vulnerable children? Was it that Han was a stranger to those on the platform while the teachers of Sandy Hook had a bond with the children? Perhaps it was all of those factors -- but perhaps it was more.

New York Times columnist Joe Nocera recently drew upon some pioneering research to conclude: "Sadly, the science says we're more likely to do nothing than to respond." His sources were two 20-something psychologists, Bibb Latane and John Darley, who a half century ago conducted intensive studies of the bystander effect to understand why people do not help others in distress in emergency situations -- even when there are others nearby to assist them. Their interest was catalyzed after the public outrage over the apathetic neighborhood response to the 1964 murder of 28-year-old Kitty Genovese in the Kew Gardens section of Queens. At least a dozen, and some initial reports suggested 38, neighbors heard her calls for help as an assailant stabbed her. As one neighbor was memorably quoted by the New York Times: "I didn't want to get involved."

While revisionists challenge the details on the magnitude of the reports of apathy, tragically, 10 years later, another young woman, Sandra Zahler, was beaten to death in the same apartment complex, overlooking the Genovese murder scene and, again, no one intervened.

Latane and Darley's research suggested that two processes set in as we look to others for guidance on how to act. First, there is a "pluralist ignorance." That is, we are not sure if this is a situation where we should act, so we look to see what others do. The second is a "diffusion of responsibility," which inhibits people from intervening to help. The more others are present, the more we presume others will help.

This may seem to explain the midday bystander apathy in midtown Manhattan recently, but how do we explain the heroism in Newtown a week later? In fact, what if the setting is not young kids with whom the heroes have a personal relationship?

For example, consider how differently a crowd acted in another midday mishap, this time in Logan, Utah, on Sept. 12, 2011. Motorcyclist Brandon Wright was rescued by a crowd of total strangers after he was stuck by a BMW on a highway. The bike hit the car hood, and Wright slid underneath the car, where he was about to be consumed by the fiery collision.

The immediate witnesses crawled under the car to check on Wright's condition but failed in an initial attempt to lift the vehicle until others quickly joined. Ultimately, 12 strangers assembled to lift the car and free Wright while nearby construction workers rushed over with fire extinguishers to put out the flames.

Five years ago, during a routine trip with his two little girls, Wesley Autrey, a 51-year-old Harlem construction worker, was a hero -- and where? On a New York subway platform. That day, 20-year-old Cameron Hollopeter suffered a seizure while on the platform, and he fell onto the train tracks seconds before a train approached. Autrey jumped on the tracks, entrusting his two girls to the custody of two strangers. With no time to escape, he pulled Hollopeter into a small space a few feet deep as the train passed overhead. They emerged to a cheering crowd and, later, a celebration from the mayor and the president.

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.

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.
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