I grew up on westerns and war movies. My sisters once tricked me into going to see South Pacific by telling me it was about the war in the Pacific. I thought it was going to be the sequel to Sands of Iwo Jima.
John Wayne was nominated for an academy award for Sands of Iwo Jima. His character, Sergeant John Stryker, was everything I (and my pals) wanted to be—decisive, brave, tough, fair, and Ben Franklinesque. How can you top “Life is tough, but it’s tougher if you’re stupid”?
Stryker also is an alcoholic, has serious relationship problems, and wants no part of self-reflection. For that time, especially right after the last unambiguous war (1949), his character is pretty complex; much more so than, say, an Audie Murphy character.
Fifty years later, Tom Hanks played Captain John Miller in Saving Private Ryan. Same war, different theater (in more ways than one). Like John Stryker, John Miller is brave, tough, and fair. But his character is not blessed by simplicity and he struggles with indecision: “You want to leave? You want to go off and fight the war? All right. All right. I won’t stop you. I’ll even put in the paperwork. I just know that every man I kill the farther away from home I feel.”
We all have icons, avatars that we draw on when we frame ourselves. Heroes. I wanna be just like her/him when I grow up. And we can change heroes. Sometimes we realize suddenly that we don’t admire a character as we used to. We see them in the same movie years later—or meet them if they’re non-fictional—and wonder What was I thinking?
I find that as I’ve changed my ideas about leadership, my heroes have changed, too. I’m not rejecting any of The Duke’s characters. I just see them differently. My vision has changed. I refer to Wayne’s sergeant and Hanks’s captain frequently in my leadership sessions. What do you admire about Stryker and Miller? What do you find troubling? What might this tell you about your own values? How does this choice shape how you define leader and how you interact with other people? I use other characters (even from other media) as well, usually depending on the age of my groups. Keeping up with other people’s heroes is interesting, and I learn lots about them and about myself in the process.
Who are my heroes? I can ask myself. Then think about it. I know they are a reflection of my insight into being human. I choose them and that choice is not about them. It’s about me. As I change, my heroes change. And, maybe more important, I can be more aware of who I admire, what I admire, and why. So I can make that choice with care.