The Real Heroes Amongst Us

Antonio del Pollaiolo - Ercole e l'Idra e Ercole e Anteo - Google Art Project.jpg

I am reading a book on Greek mythology and the great heroes like Heracles (also known as Hercules) and Jason (of the Golden Fleece legend). Mythologist Joseph Campbell, in his framing of the Hero’s Journey, suggests that we’re all heroes of our own lives. The question is what is the quest we’re on, what are we striving for, what is the success we seek, what do we generate as a result? In the Greek myths, the heroes often pursue glory by overcoming adversity and vanquishing enemies, often with great bloodshed. Heroes may be exceptional characters but they are also archetypes, role models who inspire others. Alexander the Great attempted to emulate Heracles, down to his lion headdress and his conquest of the world.  

The more celebrated modern-day hero is not a great conqueror but an entrepreneur who generates enormous wealth. Take Elon Musk, the world’s richest man who has also just been named 2021 man of the year by Time Magazine. Musk has accomplished a lot on the world stage – innovations, money, growth, etc. He is also a somewhat self-made man – he didn’t inherit his wealth. But Musk is also reviled in some quarters for what he chooses to do with his great wealth. 

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Another kind of hero is the Dalai Lama. He’s cherished for his wisdom and his response to great challenges. He is a broker in compassion. While Musk generates innovations and wealth for himself and investors, the Dalai Lama generates wellbeing for others. The Dalai Lama also has had a heroic life, fleeing his native Tibet and the Chinese takeover. His response to this adversity is grace rather than animosity to the Chinese regime. His capital lies in the goodness he generates in compassion for others.

While Musk and the Dalai Lama are rare larger-than-life figures, there are far more quiet everyday heroes, working ordinary jobs, quietly helping others, creating ripples of joy and change. I have encountered many such people, as you likely have as well. There was a humble office cleaner at the African Leadership University who placed exquisite vases of flowers in the staff break room as an offering of beauty. There is an aunt who was crippled by arthritis but wore a grin and broke out frequently in infectious giggles. There is a gentle woman I met in Mauritius who lost her son in a violent attack but only radiates kindness and generosity. 

I recently conducted a hackathon for a community change agent named Juanita Montgomery in Greensboro who created an organization named WIIN ( that promotes stepping up to a greater purpose. When I invited her to introduce herself, she instead chose to speak about everyone else in the room, naming what she valued about them. The message that emerged from the hackathon was the quality embodied by Juanita, the concept of love capital – multiplying goodwill and mutual assistance.

Juanita at the community hackathon

The author David Brooks states” “To lead a worthy life, you sort of have to have three projects or three accomplishments. One is to be in internal harmony with yourself. And that’s to do the practices that will elevate you. I like reading spiritual books as my way to get my insides elevated rather than degraded. The second is to be in harmony with others. And I think the crucial skill there is the ability to see people and understand them and make them feel that they’ve been considered, heard and understood. And then the final thing is to commit to some great loves, to fall in love with great things and really commit to them.” Many heroes easily check the third element of creating great things from a place of passion, and some may even manage the first element of being at peace with themselves (though most don’t), but very few can claim the second attribute of offering kindness to others.  

We live in a time when we need many more true heroes like Juanita who spread love capital in communities. Unlike other forms of capital, love capital is infinite and not a zero-sum game. Love capital doesn’t require strength, power, money or fame. It asks us to invest our time, our attention, and our efforts in kindness to others. What love capital generates, compounds. Kindness received is often passed on to others. 

Who do you know who is a hero who creates love capital? How do they generate, invest in, and multiply this resource? What can we ourselves do to become brokers of love capital? As we head into the holidays, I will be thinking more about love capital and what I can do in the New Year to create more of it in a world much in need of love.

Sign at West Market Church, Greensboro
Sign at West Market Church, Greensboro

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Humanity over Enmity — From Narrow Identity to Broader Affinity

Mural by @artistraman

Last week I wrote about moving from DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion) to IDEAL (inclusion, diversity, equity + affinity & love) (link). The idea is that cultivating affinity is key to changing the dynamic from apathy or aversion to authentic connection or love. Here is a story that illustrates how. 

I was in Hyderabad, India, to do a train-the-trainer program with youth organizations in the country. As part of the program, the trainers had to deliver a session to a live group of participants. The organizers brought in participants from a local slum. 

When the participants filed into the room, they sat automatically with those they identified with. The men sat with men. Women with women. Girls with girls. Boys with boys. Hindus picked a seat next to other Hindus. And Muslims with Muslims. Everyone self-segregated themselves into visible identity groups – gender, age, religion. The trainers wanted to shake this up and did so in a clever way. They asked everyone to walk around the rooms while the facilitators clapped their hands. When they stopped clapping, everyone was instructed to stop where they were. 

When they got the group to stop, the identity groups were completely scrambled. They asked people to sit down with the four people who were now around them. They then moved into an activity using a tool called Visual Explorer to get the participants to each share a story about their aspirations. I snapped a picture of a young Muslim woman sharing her story surrounded by a mix of adults all listening intently. These were people who would have never otherwise have stopped to listen to her. While I don’t know what may have changed as a result but mutual respect was visible. I believe that in sharing these stories something shifted in how these individuals now saw and related to one another. 

Street mural in Mauritius

Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen pointed out that polarization comes when we focus on a single aspect of our identity, such as race, religion, or class. When we unpack our identities more fully with others, we find many commonalities that we share that can be the basis for forming a relationship. A Muslim and a Jewish man may both find they have daughters, love soccer, and like to play music. What is needed are ways to bring all of who we are into view, into the light, so as to be seen, so as to discover what connects us.

 This insight has been at the heart of my work in leadership development over two decades in more than two dozen countries. In conflict zones, the impact of this is dramatic. Social scientist Ashutosh Varshney studied places around the world to discover why some places that had a similar ethnic make-up saw communal riots while others didn’t. What he found was the places that didn’t have riots had community networks that spanned across the different groups. When trigger events occurred, these networks were able to diffuse the tension and resolve the issues peacefully ( 

We might notice that the places where we see violence occur in the world are often accented by separation. When we are able to create boundary-spanning networks and ways to see into the lives of others, we find that we often have more in common than the facets of difference that may divide us. What we need then are ways to bring us together and help us see each other more fully. My work with CoMetta ( is focused on doing this by hosting open community conversations that build empathy and understanding. We can all do this work of bridging in ways that are closer to home. 

My wonderful neighbor Anna Wilkins is a model of how to do so. She organized a series of gatherings throughout the year where neighbors host potlucks that are open to everyone in the neighborhood ( Rather than pass each other on the street as strangers, we now have a sense of belonging. 

This belonging can sometimes be a matter of life or death. My wife worked as a social worker for a nonprofit organization based in a slum in Mumbai. Back in the 1990s, Hindu-Muslim riots convulsed the city. Mobs roamed the streets looking for people of the other religion to target but the people who worked at the nonprofit sheltered each other. While nearly a thousand people died in the violence in the city, nobody from the nonprofit organization was hurt.

Creating harmony needs networks and orchestration. It doesn’t happen automatically. If we want peace, we need to build bridges to help us connect rather than walls to keep each other out. When we invite people into our homes and networks, we get to see each other’s eyes and read one another’s hearts. What we invariably find — in expressing our struggles and aspirations — is a common humanity that draws us together rather than an enmity that drives us apart.

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