Sergeant Stryker and Captain Miller: Changing Heroes

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.



Mac Bogert
Mac Bogert
I fell in love with learning, language, and leadership through the intervention of two professors—I had actually achieved a negative GPA—who kicked my butt for drifting through my first couple of semesters at Washington and Lee University. After graduate school at U. Va., I started teaching English at a large high school in northern Virginia. A terrific principal lit my fire, a terrible one extinguished it. I left after five years (the national average, as it turns out, maybe the only time I did something normal) and started an original folk/blues/rock band. That went well for a time until the record company sponsoring us folded. I toured for some years as an acoustic blues musician, primarily as an opening act for bands like the Muddy Waters Band, Doc, and Merle Watson and such remarkable talent. As that market dried up (disco), I earned my Coast Guard Masters License and worked for the next decade as a charter and delivery captain and sailing instructor. At the same time, I was working part-time as an actor and voice-over artist, selling inflatable boats and encyclopedias, and working as a puppeteer. Itchy feet, I suppose. I came back into the system in 1987 as a teacher specialist in health and drug education in my county school system, also part-time as Education Coordinator (and faculty member) for Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts. I ‘departed’ both jobs in 1994 (therein lie more stories than 350 words could hold) and started my own business. AzaLearning is the career I’d been dodging for decades. I serve 200 clients around the country, helping with all kinds of coaching, planning, transforming conflict, creative problem-solving, communication, and mediation (I also trained and worked as a community mediator somewhere during sailing and teaching): learning, language, and leadership. In 2016 I published Learning Chaos: How Disorder Can Save Education and actively contribute to a couple of online education magazines as well as publish a newsletter, a blog, and the learning chaos podcast.

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  1. HI, Jeff and Joanna.
    Thanks for the comments. Loving the small Us is a wonderful thing, JoAnna. My heroes did indeed start with John Wayne. Then Frank Zappa, Ry Cooder and Bonnie Raitt. I don’t have a hero any more, though I love heroism. Anyone who is skeptical (questions her/his own BS) and embraces vulnerability fits the bill for me now, whether it’s a neighbor or a public figure.

  2. Mac — Once again, it appears that we had very similar experiences as kids.

    Who are / is my hero? Well, for a long time it was Charles Lindbergh until I learned of his association with Hitler and Naziism, racial superiority and anti-Semitism.

    Other than that, I’m not sure I have any anymore. There are people I admire; Churchill being one, FDR, Neil Armstrong, President Obama, Doris Kearns Goodwin. But heroes?

  3. I haven’t thought about my hero’s in a while. I suppose as I’ve aged, I’ve learned that people are so complex – a mix of good and evil. I don;t want to be anyone’s mix but my own.

    However, I do have a memory to share. When I was in fourth grade we had to dress up as our favorite character and do an audible book report to the class dressed as the person of our choosing. I remember most kids picking presidents, athletes, and movie stars.

    I picked Beatrice Potter.

    Maybe back then I knew I should home in on writing. And while I didn’t sharpen that skill for decades after that book report, I love that small JoAnna always knew.