We love our heroes. In every age people have longed for them and, when they found one, lifted the heroic one up in celebration. Whether we think of Moses or King David, Hercules or Odysseus, Napoleon or George Washington, Michael Jordan or Serena Williams, we like our heroes.
Some, like the late scholar of world religions Joseph Campbell, whose works remain popular, believe that something at the deepest level of the human psyche relentlessly seeks the heroic. More than 50 years ago, Campbell asserted that all our human stories, despite their seemingly endless variety, are really variations on one great “monomyth.” “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”1
The Default to Heroic Models
I thought about Campbell on a recent evening as the National Symphony Orchestra performed Richard Strauss’ last great tone poem, A Hero’s Life (Ein Heldenleben). The stirring music drew a series of portraits of the hero, the hero’s adversaries, the hero’s helpmate, the hero’s battlefield, the hero’s works of peace, and the hero’s withdrawal from the world. During the second section, as Strauss introduced his adversaries—the carpers, the vituperators, the whiners, and the hairsplitters—my mind jumped to the everyday leadership realities of congregations and their clergy.
Although few of us will become the stuff of legends, most of us operate—as do most of our congregations—with heroic models of leadership. Consciously or not, we default to heroic self-understandings. We become would-be heroes who journey into dangerous circumstances; meet helpers; confront adversaries; undergo ordeals of testing, conflict, and battle; and seek a promised land of peace, prosperity, fame, and happiness. While some parts of the “monomyth” may seem far-fetched, all of us can identify our versions of Strauss’ carpers, vituperators, whiners, and hairsplitters.
The quest for the heroic gets us into trouble—whether we search for a hero to follow or seek to become one ourselves. The composer’s heroic pretensions caused him great personal agony, eventually allowing him, some 30 years after he wrote the tone poem, to collaborate with Adolf Hitler. Both the heroes we seek and the heroes we attempt to be will, sooner or later, reveal feet of clay and topple from their pedestals. In the quest to become a hero, bad judgment and illusion find room to blossom. As the hero goes it alone, great damage can be done to the world.
Evaulation and Mutuality
Congregations can be communities in which we go beyond heroism. The topic of this issue of CONGREGATIONS—evaluation—carries with it a different model of leadership, one I find much more congruent than the heroic with the best of the Jewish and Christian traditions. Evaluation implies mutuality. It admits imperfections. It builds in safeguards to keep strong individuals from running away with their fantasies or obsessing about their demons.
Because the heroic seems to be “hard-wired” into our understandings of leadership, we can expect that models of mutuality will constantly be challenged. Old canards about the inefficiency of committees (“a camel is a horse designed by a committee”) will be resurrected to return us to heroic patterns that seem more effective and efficient. All of us seek strong, decisive leaders upon whom we can depend. But as we transfer our agency and responsibility to someone else, we set that person and ourselves up for a fall.
Thus the topic of evaluation, though sounding technical and procedural, is about something radical. When a group of people sit down to assess how a program works (rather than leaving it on autopilot), or when a leader participates in an honest, constructive performance review, declarations of independence are being made from the old heroic pattern. When we seek information that we may find uncomfortable, when we listen to other viewpoints, when we let the data reveal unsettling truths, when we probe resistance for its important messages, then we are recognizing that leadership is not primarily heroic work. It is the work of a community joined in commitment and accountability.
1. Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1949), 30.
Rev. Dr. James P. Wind is the president of the Alban Institute. Prior to joining the Institute in 1995, he served as program director at the Lilly Endowment’s religion division. Dr. Wind is the author of three books and numerous articles, including the new Alban Institute Special Report on Leadership.