« Interview with Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google: "You don't learn very much when you yourself are talking" | Main | Coming to Canada! »

March 22, 2007

"The Banality of Heroism"

Chiune and Yukiko Sugihara2.jpg

Chiune and Yukiko Sugihara.jpg

My Stanford psychology professor, Dr. Philip Zimbardo, and Zeno Franco, a Ph.D. candidate in clinical psychology at Pacific Graduate School of Psychology wrote a terrific article called “The Banality of Heroism.”

Dr. Zimbardo ran the (in)famous Stanford Prison Experiment, so he knows how circumstances can make good people do bad things. This article is different—it’s concerned with how ordinary people can do heroic things. One example in the article is Chiune and Yukiko Sugihara (pictured here) who helped more than 6,000 Jewish people escape from Lithuania during World War II.

The short explanation of what it takes to be a hero is the presence of “heroic imagination” which the authors describe as “the capacity to imagine facing physically or socially risky situations, to struggle with the hypothetical problems these situations generate, and to consider one’s actions and the consequences.” Nurturing a heroic imagination takes five actions:

  1. Maintain constant vigilance for situations that require heroic action.

  2. Learn not to fear conflict because you took a stand.

  3. Imagine alternative future scenarios beyond the present moment.

  4. Resist the urge to rationalize and justify inaction.

  5. Trust that people will appreciate heroic (and frequently unpopular) actions.

Dr. Zimbardo and Franco are concerned with “heroic” actions in society, but a “heroic imagination” is clearly the hallmark of entrepreneurs too. I urge you to read the entire article.

Finally, Dr. Zimbardo has a new book (website) coming out called The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil which will be the topic of an upcoming “Ten Questions With…” This book is also a terrific read.


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference "The Banality of Heroism":

» Guy Kawasaki explains “The Banality of Heroism” from The Hero Workshop
Guy Kawasaki has details of a psychology paper written about the ability of normal people to do heroic things. There are five actions that lead to someone having a “heroic imagination”. [Read More]

» Calling On the Hero Inside from Epic Living
Guy Kawasaki points us to heroism in his post The Banality of Heroism. Have you acted in a heroic way lately? In a culture that constantly sends us messages about being entertained and catered to, it can be easy to [Read More]

» Are we capable of everyday heroism? from Tech, Life and Jayson!
I came across this interesting article which was cited by Guy Kawasaki. Titled The Banality of Heroism, it looks at the hidden heros in each one of us. At Abu Ghraib, one photo shows two soldiers smiling before a pyramid of ... [Read More]


With thousands of Americans in harm's way in Iraq and Afghanistan we should not be confused about what heroism is and who the heroes are.
There are few examples more moving than that of the work of Prof. Mohammad Yunus who founded Grameen Bank (meaning village bank)in Bangladesh. Ninety-seven % of his loans go to poor women, a group virtually excluded from financing options. The bank has a very low default ratio. What a miracle of vision and courage. He was justifiably chosen as a Nobel prize winner in 2006.
wow powerleveling lord of the rings power leveling maple story power leveling
wow power leveling

This thread is probably in the archives by now, but this was such a great post that I went back to look at the comments and really got a lot out of the remarks that had been left after I last checked.

Michael Chui, Tom White, and Troy thanks especially for picking up on the social engineering / social entrepreneurship aspects of heroism.

Superb article Guy! I love reading about people of such extraordinary character. I wish we could all somehow reach for difficult bit worthy traits like those you described.

I always, tell everyone that: "We are all given a chance every day to act either in a big way or a small one." It is unfortunate that so many times we respond with our small side.

Thanks Guy, for doing what you can to change the world a little at a time!

Phil Butler

I am looking forward to reading this book - love this concept. Have a blog post on the book as well
You are fortunate to have had a professor like him!

Am I the only one who sees this post as very closely related to The Effort Effect? "Nurturing the Heroic Imagination is a "growth mind-set". I recently finished reading Change or Die, which is on a similar topic - basically, the use of cognitive therapy to effect real change. (See this also.)

My business has to do with building (or rebuilding) pipelines for digital media companies, and all the toughest parts are "social engineering" - these references could simply not be more relevant for anyone trying to effect real change on a personal, or professional level.

Great stuff, Guy! Keep it coming!

Guy, thanks for link to Dr. Zimbardo's article in Greater Good magazine. I've been inspired by Sugihara since watching a PBS documentary on his life.

You may also be interested in a recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review about social entrepreneurship, that echoes your comment on the "heroic imagination" of entrepreneurs:

"The social entrepreneur should be understood as someone who targets an unfortunate but stable equilibrium that causes the neglect, marginalization, or suffering of a segment of humanity; who brings to bear on this situation his or her inspiration, direct action, creativity, courage, and fortitude; and who aims for and ultimately affects the establishment of a new stable equilibrium that secures permanent benefit for the targeted group and society at large."

It takes a hero to leave behind the comfort zone of a big company and venture out into an unknown terriotry.

In today's world where there are dearth of "true" heroes, we need more articles like these. Who knows whats my inflection point ?

Thanks for the link to the article.
I have linked at my blog over here:

Sugihara's actions were chronicled beautifully in a great book called "The Fugu Plan," by Marvin Tokayer.

He is a true hero to the Jewish people. Unfortunately, his reception in Japan was lukewarm, if not cold. Apparently, his actions were viewed as disrespectful of authority and was later asked to resign. Wikipedia has the details

Nonetheless, thank you for bringing this great story again to life.

Heroism cannot be limited to just "certain areas" of life. It is defined by the action of the individual when confronted with those daunting circumstances. Thanks for changing the world Guy.

I think the recurring theme of entrepreneurs as heroes in the VC blogs is one of those subject areas which should be avoided. With thousands of Americans in harm's way in Iraq and Afghanistan we should not be confused about what heroism is and who the heroes are.

I am definitely going to check out this book.

Wow, thank you for this insightful article. I've really enjoyed this post, and the one on Dr. Dwek and the Effort Effect you posted recently.

Thanks for linking the essay and the book, too; I doubt I would have heard of it otherwise.

To Fineline, I'd just point out that, in all the entrepreneurship blogs I read, all of them point out that successful entrepreneurship begins with the firm belief that you're making a positive difference in the world, and further that you can't seem to do that from inside some large, ponderous corporation. Entrepreneurs who are out for money don't seem to make it. Perhaps they lack the heroic imagination.

Banality? Nooo not the mensa words.

Thanks for telling us about this very brave man. I'll remember him like I remember Oskar Schindler, Miep Gies, Corrie Ten Boom, and Raoul Wallenberg.


I live in Kaunas, Lithuania, city where Sugihara's action take place. (http://www.vdu.lt/sugihara/index_a.html)

In last twenty years business here goes from "wild west" phase to sophisticated corporate world.

Because it happens in very short time, we had rarely opportunity to have experience of all these phases.

And I can confirm, that twenty - fifteen years ago there was a lot of "business heroism", but now it changes to the same "safe" business, like in all developed countries.

"Heroic" business phase is fantastic! I suspect, that you experienced it in Macintosh years. Maybe it is what entrepreneurs can't live without.

"Entrepreneur as hero" is a persistent myth, and is valid so long as the ends of the venture serve something other than the entrepreneur's will to power, or wealth, or fame.

There are few examples more moving than that of the work of Prof. Mohammad Yunus who founded Grameen Bank (meaning village bank)in Bangladesh. Ninety-seven % of his loans go to poor women, a group virtually excluded from financing options. The bank has a very low default ratio. What a miracle of vision and courage. He was justifiably chosen as a Nobel prize winner in 2006.

That is "Heroic imagination" at work, with a capital "H." All to often the trap that successful entrepreneurs fall into is to believe that they should be granted the "heroic imagination" label simply for turning profitable in their third year.

It is not that entrepreneurship itself is heroic. Some is, some isn't.

Making money is not in and of itself heroic.
Making a difference in the state of humankind IS heroic (the Sugiharas or Mohammed Yunnus for example).


The link has some extra chars.

Feel free to delete this comment as you update the link.

Seems interesting, let's see:-)



Thanks. I just fixed it.


Those are great points. I write about heroes nearly every day. Most of them don't consider themselves heroes and that the five requirements of heroic imagination are simply the right thing to do.

Post a comment

This weblog only allows comments from registered users. To comment, please Sign In.

My Photo

Contact Me

  • bar.gif


Search this blog


  • Alltop, confirmation that I kick ass


Feed and Leads


Alignment of Interests

  • Alltop
    Stay on top of all the news topics.
  • BagTheWeb
    Find, bag, and share websites and articles.
  • Doba
    Drop-ship products for ecommerce sales.
  • Garage Technology Ventures
    Raise venture capital for your tech company.
  • Paper.li
    Publish social-media newspapers.
  • Statusnet
    Make an Open-Source Twitter for your organization.
  • Peerspin
    Pimp your MySpace pages.
  • Sixense
    Control your game like never before.
  • SocialToo
    Engage people at social media sites like Twitter.
  • StumbleUpon
    Find interesting stuff on the web.
  • TicketLeap
    Sell and manage online ticket sales for events.
  • Triggit
    Make real-time bids for online ad space.
  • DataSift
    Analyze big data from social media.
  • Tynt
    Trace who's using your website content.
  • uStream
    Stream video live.
  • Visible Measures
    Monitor how people interact with online video.
  • Writer.ly
    Find freelancers for book projects.
  • XAT
    Chat with people.


  • quick sprout