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Alan M. Webber

Alan M. Webber

Alan Webber, a founding editor of Fast Company magazine, is an award-winning editor, author, and columnist. His most recent book is Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths for Winning at Business Without Losing Yourself.

Hero insanity

America loves its heroes, more so today than ever. It started well before 9/11 but certainly reached a fever pitch with that tragedy. People who acted bravely, selflessly, confidently, competently that day became heroes in the eyes of the American people, who have been fed an over-abundance of anti-heroes: elected officials caught in campaign lies and sex scandals; religious leaders caught in nefarious schemes and sex scandals; entertainment celebs caught in financial scams and sex scandals; business leaders caught in corrupt practices and sex scandals.

With so much muck and mud hitting so many men and women of prominence and celebrity, isn't it simply reassuring to have an individual with no prior claim to fame act in a decent, competent, and courageous fashion? I'd say it's almost required as a law of physics, a swing of the emotional pendulum, the equal and opposite reaction to so much cowardice and calumny.

But is it leadership? Is it even heroism?

A pilot who is trained to fly an airplane responds coolly under pressure and finds a way to land his crippled plane safely. Nice job! Great job! Congratulations on a job very well done! But does it warrant the outpouring of emotion that accompanied Captain Sullenberger's river landing?

I suspect that if the American public's nerves weren't quite so badly frayed by all the over-attention to bad behavior, if we weren't all addicted to a culture of celebrity and extreme amplification of every news story, in other words, if the whole country were only a little bit more sane, then we'd have a more modulated reaction to most events, the good, the bad, and the ugly. And we'd reserve the word "hero" and "leader" for actions and circumstances that actually merit their application.

By Alan M. Webber

 |  October 19, 2009; 9:06 PM ET
Category:  Leadership personalities Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Webster's dictionary defines hero in part as "a man admired for his achievements and noble qualities" and "one that shows great courage." Captain Sully is admired for all three attributes--the decision to land in the Hudson, the fact that he achieved it successfully without any loss of life in air or on the ground, and the fact that he walked the aisles of the plane and did not leave until all passengers were safely out of the cabin demonstrates noble qualities and great courage. If Mr. Webber has a different definition of hero, I am curious to learn it and even more curious to learn who he believes is hero-worthy.

Posted by: anonymous66 | October 21, 2009 1:23 PM
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You do not have to choose the danger or adversity in order to be a hero you simply have to face the danger and adversity with a level of courage and willingness for self sacrifice that is exceptional. Simply because the situation did not demand you to make the self sacrifice does not matter, it is the willingness that matters. People are dismissive by saying 'oh he was saving his own skin', but it is obvious his primary concern was for all his passengers, 'saving his own skin' was not his motivator, he would have calmly and courageously landed that plane (and made sure everyone was out safetly) had it meant 100% chance of his own death if it meant his passengers survived. Also the cop-out of 'he was doing his job' would apply to all soldiers, law enforcement and emergency personel, that fact has no bearing on heroism.

Posted by: gsigas | October 21, 2009 1:53 AM
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The one that I find outrageous is when John McCain is called a war hero. For starters, he was on a mission to accomplish something with his aircraft and then return to the carrier. In a word, he failed to accomplish his mission–he was shot down, Then he sat in a prison camp until released. He did refuse an early release as the standing orders were “first in, first out.” How is he a hero when he was a failure and then he followed orders?

Posted by: mtrobt | October 20, 2009 11:51 PM
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"reserve the word "hero" and "leader" for actions and circumstances that actually merit their application."

I think this is a very astute observation of our present national leadership, but a completely asinine one when referencing Capt Sullenberger.

Perhaps the best part of the article was that it was short.

Posted by: GordonShumway | October 20, 2009 11:39 PM
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You may have a point but using Capt. Sullenberger to prove it was a poor choice. He saved 155 people's lives. How many people can say that? I believe that's a home run... and he did it without steroids.

Posted by: oldmanwinter31 | October 20, 2009 11:11 PM
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What a stupid, nit-picking article. If Sullenberger isn't a "hero" I don't know who is.

Posted by: smc91 | October 20, 2009 10:47 PM
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Some real heroes are the Moms, Wives, Husbands, and Dads who let their cherished children or spouses join the military in wartime.

And I strongly agree with SWMUVA: "the single mom who is struggling to raise three decent kids alone while working two minimum-wage jobs..."

Posted by: UsedToBeGOP | October 20, 2009 10:25 PM
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Capt. Sullenberger is a fantastic role model and moral lesson for a society whose motto seems to be "if the minimum wasn't good enough, it wouldn't be the minimum." I would much rather have my children observe and admire the exceptional skill and professionalism (as others have said, how many pilots have achieved this feat?), graciousness, and modesty of this man than most who make it onto the evening news.

And besides being a role model, he is a hero in my book, because he protected lives in a way that many, if not most, of his colleagues could not have achieved. It should not matter that he had training and he earned a paycheck for that achievement. If that were the criteria, then no one in our military could ever be considered a hero, either, because after all, they too are well trained and are paid for their work. Indeed, using your definition, only poorly trained folk who jumped into a fray and accidentally got it right could be heroes...that's awfully narrow!

Consider that perhaps instead of being irked that he's called a hero, you're irritated by the fawning of the 24-hour media...repetitive news cycles can make anything seem overdone.

Posted by: HSerof3 | October 20, 2009 10:16 PM
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Another example: the US Air Force who was downed by anti-aircraft fire during the war in the Balkans. He was hailed as a hero simply for evading capture by the Serbs.

Posted by: boxall_david | October 20, 2009 10:13 PM
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Well played, Alan.....well played.....

Posted by: zkerby | October 20, 2009 9:30 PM
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Why pick on Captain Sully? He is the only person to successfully land a commercial plane on water in.....the entire history of commercial aviation. Oh, and he did it in 90 seconds after both engines failed, saving 140+ lives, to say nothing of those on the ground.

That is pretty heady stuff, a bit more impressive than, say, sitting around with the fat, lazy, overpaid Washington Post Editorial board/staff thinking up lame story ideas, like this one.

Posted by: zkerby | October 20, 2009 9:29 PM
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Hey, it was New York City. If he landed it in the Nowhere River next to East Bugtussle then the story wouldn't have flown any further than the plane.

Posted by: mr14sunshine | October 20, 2009 9:25 PM
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I've watched TV programs as the U.S.Presidents gave out "medals of honor" to people whose accomplishments were nil. Pres.Obama was awarded the Nobel Prize for what he Might do in the future.
Loosen up and give a real hero, Sully, the honor he deserves for an almost miraculous landing feat and life-saving behavior while his own life was in the balance.You are stingy when it comes to praise.

Posted by: drzimmern1 | October 20, 2009 9:06 PM
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When the Great Unwashed Masses are fed a daily TV diet of glurge (sloppily sentimental and cloying tales, see snopes), they require ever more and more weepy schlock to feed their addiction to the jolt of raw feeling they have come to expect as part of life's experience. Everything has to be a TV show, reality is just too hollow, chaotic and frightening.

Since the news can't naturally deliver the kind of mainline wallop of emotion that, say, a fictional soap opera can, they have to seize upon any opportunity to parade a "hero" to the teary-eyed, patriotic mob.

Now every cop and soldier and firefighter is a cheap hero, which robs the term of any meaning at all.

Posted by: info53 | October 20, 2009 7:56 PM
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This entire series makes a mockery of Leadership and Heroism. Yes, Cpt Sullenberger was a winner and a hero. And, you will recall, he lost his pension in a corporate move that undoubtedly benefited financially the Corporate CEO vermin that this column routinely consults. I've seen 18 year old privates with more Honor, sense of duty, and heroism than the entire Fortune 500.

The next time we go into a Depression thanks to Wall Street and CEO rodents, I suggest we begin to address "corporate and financial reform" in a more vigorous manner.

Posted by: fdffjdjjf-0999--88888 | October 20, 2009 7:54 PM
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Too dam many heroes. Every tom, dick and harry today is a hero if he wears a uniform of some sort.

Posted by: fudador | October 20, 2009 7:31 PM
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"...the US has emerged itself for so long in the myth of WWII..."

I'm not sure how we have been "emerging" ourselves in anything (maybe immersing?), but WTH do you mean by the "myth of WWII?" Do you mean like the "myth" of the moon landing or the "myth" of the holocaust? Oh, you mean we need to recognize that we should "take our places" among the rest of the world's mediocrity and just...fade...away. I get it. No thanks!

Posted by: capsfan77 | October 20, 2009 7:23 PM
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Let me put this nicely: Mr. Webber, it is possible that I have read something dumber than this in the past year, but it is highly improbable. You don't think it took extraordinary courage to not be paralyzed by indecision? You don't think it took great strength of character to choose the river over Teterboro? You don't think it too amazing physical and emotional skills to land that plane safely in the water and immediately supervise the evacuation?
I don't know how you define "hero," but this meets any definition I know of.
I know the Post has lost reporters, but is there no one applying editorial judgment? This is hack work at best and should have found its place in the reject pile.

Posted by: djah | October 20, 2009 6:49 PM
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Oh, for God's sake. What a small-minded, purse-mouthed column. YES, of course the man is a hero--he did an amazing job and he saved hundreds of lives. Let's put this in perspective--he did what *very* *few* pilots are able to do. Successful ditchings are *extremely* rare. He could've been overwhelmed by the seeming impossibility of the circumstances. But he wans't. He found a way to deal with his terror--again, successful ditchings are extremely rare--and hold it together to save all those lives.

Stop trying to chintz out on the praise--if you don't want to acknowledge his heroism, fine, but stop trying to rain on everyone else's parade.

Posted by: NYC123 | October 20, 2009 6:43 PM
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A hero isnt a guy who does something noble or great to save his own hide, a hero is someone who takes great risk and endures self sacrifice in order to save others. Sully, while being a great, well trained pilot, did his job because he was trained to do it to save his life and the people on board. His life was already on the line, he didnt make a choice to put himself into harm's way for the sake of others. He's merely a guy who did an admirable job. He deserves a pat on the back, but not all the other hoopla.

A hero is the guy who runs from safety towards the WTC on 9/11 to try to save others.

Posted by: ASW02 | October 20, 2009 6:02 PM
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Sully was a hero. You can say that he was an ordinary Joe that got really unlucky and then really unlucky in a space of 5 minutes.

But how many people can keep their cool under those extremes.

If I remember right, he was the last one off the plane. (He did a final walk through before leaving.) 100% class act.

He's the best kind of hero, because he sets such an excellent example for how to behave. Just keep your emotions in check and think your way through it... easy to say, but hard to do.

Posted by: rwolf01 | October 20, 2009 5:56 PM
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Heros are way for us to highlight the best of us. Something to be the example to strive for. Why do we celebrate firefighters and police, more so after 9/11? Their actions that day reminded us that they, more than most of us, put their live in danger to help us. That willingness to sacrifice for others should be celebrated and given the title hero. In the case of Captain Sullenberger I would say while you train for emergencies, it's never the same as actually being in the situation. Do a internet search on "pilot error" and you can see how badly things could have been. It could have easily turned into another plane crashing into a New York building instead of a river landing. Calm under intense pressure...quick thinking...Skillful execution...Yup sounds like things we should strive for and celebrate. It's a sad world where the only the anti-heros get the rewards and perks and the heroic deeds and doers get unnoticed and ignored.

Posted by: Nosf | October 20, 2009 5:16 PM
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In Sullenberger's case it is not only leadership but heroism as a result.

Don't discount what he did, read below:

Because he's "old school" and gets what needs to be done accomplished. Not the new mentality "what can I get away with and still get paid". I was jet engine mechanic in the Navy and I can tell you he was brilliant on his approach to hitting the water. He had to factor in his AoA (angle of attack = speed, descent rate, pitch angle of the aircraft relative to the landing surface). Additionally he also had to account for how the engines would factor into this equation. If the engines hit the surface of the water unequally or at a negative AoA it would cause the aircraft to tumble over or flip to the side of the engine (or wingtip) that impacted the water first. Not only did he account for this but he pulled it off, saving every life on the plane.

Navy Carrier pilots do the same landing everyday when they catch a wire. But this guy lost both engines, hit the water evenly and every passenger survived.

Posted by: JimB20009 | October 20, 2009 5:07 PM
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Local news affiliates are the worst offenders.

Posted by: ihatelogins | October 20, 2009 4:52 PM
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I couldn't agree more. The man is called a hero for doing his job properly: For once no one died in a plane crash, but remember that he was also saving his own skin. We're certainly starved for heros, and way too much has been made of this incident, but what does being white have to do with it?

Posted by: AZANNE | October 20, 2009 4:18 PM
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Sully is a hero to those who were on the flight that day. He is an exemplary pilot to those of us who are trained to fly aircraft. What possibly elevates Sully to hero staus for even those of us who are or have been pilots is that he had both engines to fail and he basically had to do what he was trained to do despite what he would be inclined to do under the circumstances. He committed an act called a controlled crash, albeit in possibly the best of mediums - water - with no power.

For many of us, President Obama is a hero. However, to many who would have been inclinced to think of him as a hero will not because of his political identity. It is interesting that Democratic Presidents are pretty much their own entity. Recent Republican Presidents, starting with Reagan, have pretty much been party controlled. Hardly any heroism here.

The Republican Party has made great inroads in degrading acts of heroism and good deeds. They attacked John Kerry for his Vietnam War military medals. They attack any accolades that those different than they either earn or are awarded. Republicans have forgotten that to attack others for their accomplishments is also to attack themselves. Hence, I shall venture forth and label Republicans the "sick puppies" that George H. W. Bush would like to level at two outstanding news commentators.

Posted by: EarlC | October 20, 2009 4:13 PM
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I agree with Swmuva. We are desperate for heroes. It's not about wanting leadership and it's not about hoping for competency.

In my opinion, the US has emerged itself for so long in the myth of WWII that America-as-hero is part of our psyche. Therefore, it's painful when a Vietnam or 9.11 happens and we realize Americans are as flawed and vulnerable as anyone else.

Our self image as rescuer and survivor has been manifested in hundreds of movies like Rambo, Die Hard, and Rocky. We have mythologized ourselves as the people who tamed a continent, established democracy, and saved the world. Sullenberger allows us to believe again that Americans can do anything and that God has blessed up especially.

I think it's time to bury that image and take our places among the rest of the world. It's hard to give up, though.

As for Demtse, WTF?

Posted by: arancia12 | October 20, 2009 2:56 PM
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Responding to DEMTSE post: And what about the man who jumped in front of a moving train to save the guy in NY City? What about the Tuskeegee Airmen of WWII? What were they? Competent, controlled black men. Ture heroism has no skin color,as we learn in every war and every calamity,so why bother to mention it?

Posted by: strattonriv | October 20, 2009 11:28 AM
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Sully represents a competent, controlled white man, whose cool under pressure. The quientessential "American hero".

Posted by: demtse | October 20, 2009 9:48 AM
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I couldn't agree more. Nowadays, every small-town volunteer firefighter who rescues a kitten from a tree is labeled a "hero" and makes the evening TV news. Meanwhile, the single mom who is struggling to raise three decent kids alone while working two minimum-wage jobs is just another schlub. We need a sense of proportion and a dose of reality here.

Posted by: swmuva | October 20, 2009 9:39 AM
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