February 3, 2022

TPL Insights: Building Peak-Performance Cultures #105 – How We Can All Be Superheroes to Real People Part 1

By Rob Andrews

Paraphrased by Rob Andrews from Gen. William R. McRaven’s Book, The Hero Code

I’ve been a huge fan of retired Admiral Bill McRaven since I learned of him shortly after Osama Bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan on May 2, 2011. I’ve watched his commencement address to the UT Austin 2014 graduating class numerous times and read his books Sea Stories and Make Your Bed. I read the summary of his new book The Hero Code though my subscription to getabstract and am compelled to share it, as it is full of sage advice for all of us.

Take-Aways from The Book

  • You don’t need a superhero costume to perform feats of heroism.
  • The battlefield and life demand courage.
  • Humility calls for understanding your place in the universe.
  • Sacrifice can happen anywhere.
  • Integrity goes a step beyond honesty.
  • Compassion is not just an act for Forrest Gump star Gary Sinise.
  • Perseverance put one doctor on the path to the Nobel Prize.
  • Placing duty ahead of everything else reflects responsibility and commitment.
  • Hope is the antidote to fear and despair.
  • Humor keeps you humble and soothes the sting of adversity.
  • Forgiveness allows the soul to heal.

When General Bill McRaven was five years old, the US Air Force assigned his father, an officer, to the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe in France. The new family home lacked a TV, so McRaven voraciously consumed superhero comic books. He loved Batman and the X-Men. But he idolized Superman – a patriotic hero who used his powers to rescue citizens and battle evil forces. The youngster turned towels into capes and practiced leaping from furniture.

Three years later, the McRaven family returned to the United States. McRaven switched on the TV at their hotel and saw Superman flying, saving Lois Lane, and fighting villains. As he toured New York City with his father, McRaven frequently glanced upward. He knew Superman was fictional, but in his heart, he hoped he was real, so Superman could help people.

When his father asked what he was looking for, McRaven told him the object of his search. The elder McRaven pointed to a policeman and told his son that the man was a hero because the police protected the city. At that moment, McRaven understood that in the absence of superheroes, human beings are responsible for saving the world. His admiration of real-life heroes such as astronauts, doctors, and soldiers, grew as he matured. But McRaven didn’t believe ordinary people like himself could have the same qualities as the heroes he revered possessed.

“For some, living the Hero Code comes more naturally. But for most of us, we must learn how to bring forth these virtues.”

That belief changed in 1977, when McRaven joined the Navy SEALs. Over the course of his 37-year career, he witnessed destruction, disease, and poverty – problems that seemed insurmountable. But he also saw passionate men and women from every background pursuing peace, restoring damaged nations, and elevating the poor. He realized that heroism lives in everyone.

Heroism has ten crucial qualities:

The battlefield and life demand courage.

One day when Admiral McRaven entered the Special Operations command center in Tampa, Florida for his daily briefing, he learned that a landmine in Afghanistan had killed three soldiers. The victims included a young female lieutenant, Ashley White, who was a volunteer member of the cultural support team that McRaven formed in 2008. He recruited American women to participate in missions, primarily, to engage Afghan women who possessed inside information on the enemy. By August 2011, White had joined the elite 75th Ranger Regiment and earned the Combat Action Badge for being shot at during a firefight.

“Combat has a way of wearing you down. The fear eats at you every night. It whispers in your ear and plays on your worst nightmares.”

War demands extraordinary bravery; but heroic acts emerge in everyday life, too. People who confront their inner demons – such as addiction and depression – show great courage. Everyone can fight injustice or overcome challenges by taking one step forward.

Humility calls for understanding your place in the universe.

McRaven attended a dinner at the Cooper Institute in Dallas, Texas with Dr. Kenneth Cooper, the celebrated cardiologist whose 1968 book, Aerobics, inspired the fitness movement. McRaven sat between Cowboys’ Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach and an older gentleman, introduced to him just as Charlie. McRaven learned that Charlie was a former Air Force pilot. When he asked what Charlie had flown, he demurred and expressed greater interest in learning about McRaven than in talking about himself.

“The power of humility is that it brings us closer together, and the role of every hero is to unite people, not to divide them.”

After dinner, Staubach told McRaven that Charlie – General Charles Duke – was the youngest of only twelve men who have walked on the moon. Duke never mentioned this feat. Staubach told McRaven that Charlie was a modest man.

Those who practice such humility recognize that intelligence, physical strength, and material wealth are insignificant compared to the power and complexity of the universe. Humble people know that everyone struggles for understanding and that the differences between people are minor.

Sacrifice can happen anywhere.

Marine Lt. Patrick “Clebe” McClary instructed his 15-man squad to take battle positions as they stepped from the helicopter in pitch darkness atop Hill 146 in a strategic spot in the Quan Duc Valley, Vietnam. At dawn on March 5, 1968, rockets began falling and Vietcong soldiers with grenades and bags of explosives charged toward the American foxholes.

McClary, shaken by a blast, dove in Ralph Johnson’s foxhole. When a grenade landed at Johnson’s foot, the 19-year-old Black private yelled a warning and jumped on the grenade. He was killed instantly while protecting his comrades. His heroic act inspired them to fight harder and hold the hill. McClary vowed to tell Johnson’s story to the world.

“Learning to sacrifice is easy. Start by giving a little of yourself, every day.”

On March 28, 2018, more than 5,000 people, including Johnson’s sister and other relatives, stood on a pier in Charleston, SC, to inaugurate the Navy’s newest destroyer, the USS Ralph Johnson. Tim Scott, South Carolina’s first Black senator, said Johnson offered a vision of togetherness and mutual sacrifice.

People perform heroic acts all the time without fanfare, like the teacher who won’t give up on a struggling student, the single mom working two jobs, and the child who looks after a sick parent. When you give every day, you build your own lasting heroic legacy.

Integrity goes a step beyond honesty.

Years before he became the second president of the United States, attorney John Adams performed an extraordinary act of integrity. On March 5, 1770, several hundred colonists threatened a small group of British soldiers. Amid escalating tensions, the soldiers fired and killed five Americans, enraging Bostonians, who wanted to lynch the soldiers.

“Integrity requires action. To be known as men and women of integrity you must demonstrate your moral backbone.”

Despite the dangerous circumstances, and the risk to his reputation, Adams defended the soldiers in court, acting on his belief that everyone deserves fair treatment. The soldiers gained an acquittal for acting in self-defense. Adams’s brave, unselfish stance influenced the future of jurisprudence in America.

Practicing integrity is difficult. Obeying the rules and doing what you know is right often conflicts with a natural desire to follow the crowd and be popular. Despite the struggles you encounter, acting with integrity will cement your reputation as a virtuous, principled human being.

I sincerely hope this paraphrased content has inspired you as it did me. Stay tuned for Part 2 next week.

Warmest Regards,

Rob Andrews
Allen Austin
Consultants in Retained Search & Leadership Advisory