A bold beach rescue by 80 strangers last weekend bonded bathers across race, gender, ethnicity, and age to save nine swimmers washed out to sea in a Panama City, Florida rip tide. It also bonded into action a cross-section of Americans, transcending bystander apathy to do the right thing on—of all occasions—the Fourth of July Weekend.
What better a tribute to the courage of our nation’s founders—those 56 delegates from across the nation to sign the Declaration of Independence and underscore American values? Catalyzed by fellow onlookers, a random scattering of bathers put themselves in great peril for a great cause. Despite the anger, bullying, and bravado on the national political stage, Americans continue to be a heroic people fueled by compassion and courage. Despite the political mantra of rugged individualism, righteous collective action is the real defining American ethic.
From the zeal of new tech startups, the shared bootstrapping of immigrant ethnic communities from Europe and Asia rising in urban ghettos; the pioneer spirit of the wagon trains developing our western frontiers; the native American resilience from misguided government assaults on tribal lands; black slaves helping each escape to freedom; the Grange movement of rural America; the earlier trade unionist fighting for safe work conditions and voice are a small sampling of this spirit. In his book, Organizing Genius, the late Warren Bennis studied energized historic American work groups from the Manhattan Project to the original Disney Animation Studios, and concluded that great groups and great leaders were not antithetic to each other as some scholars presume, but interdependent.
Yes, it is true that the nation’s economic and social legacy is not just leadership by committee—but triggered by brilliant invention, self-improvement-oriented tinkerers, and maverick entrepreneurs with no fear of repressive government; constraining ritual, or predestined class boundaries. As the film Back to the Future reminds us, we even believe we can reinvent our histories to change our futures—a theme that would be hard to imagine in traditional cultures. But again, this mythic bold leadership is not absent the enthusiastic reinforcement of collective action.
In fact, many of the classics of American cinema celebrate triumphs of collective action and infuse pride in U.S. audiences who identify with the spirit of groups rallying around noble leaders: Gregory Peck in Twelve O’Clock High; Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life; Henry Fonda in 12 Angry Men; Gary Cooper in High Noon. Small-town banker George Bailey is saved in It’s A Wonderful Life as all the struggling townspeople who benefited from his trust and kindness came to his rescue with their own generous financial sacrifices and moral support. Oh sure, European horror films have showcased inflamed townspeople, but those angry, torch-bearing villagers projected their fears onto those creatures that frightened them by their different nature. In reality, this nation, too, has its share of violent hate groups, street gangs, and misbehaving frats—but that is a source of national shame rather than inspiration.
Meanwhile, back to the beach in Panama City, Florida, Jessica and Derek Simmons spotted crowd commotion and saw that six members of a single family—four adults and two young boys—and four others—as failed rescuers—who had all been overwhelmed and swept from shore by a hidden riptide. As the heads of these drowning victims bobbed in the sea, a parked police van and scores on the beach lacking rescue equipment stood by, paralyzed in horror, awaiting a rescue that was nowhere in sight. But to Jessica Simmons, “These people are not drowning today,” she told the media later, “It’s not happening. We’re going to get them out.” And they did, locking arms and hands as the struggling victims suffered from exhaustion, choking, and even a heart attack.
Such a scene of American greatness is repeated in the media monthly, but not celebrated enough. This past April, New Yorker Jonathan Kulig on his daily commute to his job at Con Edison saw a man fall on the tracks of the L train's Third Avenue station in Manhattan. Kulig jumped off the platform to lift the man to safety with others rushing over to help 60 seconds before a train raced through.
Two months later, this past June, Grey Davis, a dancer with The American Ballet Theater, repeated such a heroic act to save another subway rider who’d fallen at the 72nd Street Broadway-Seventh Avenue station. In April 2015, a disabled Metro rider in Washington, D.C. was thrown onto the tracks when his wheelchair misfired. In 30 seconds, David Silverberg, a visiting neurologist, jumped on the tracks to save him, inspiring the assistance of fellow riders, preventing the certain death awaiting this man with no legs.
In September 2011, a speeding motorist collided with a motorcycle, trapping the cyclist under the flaming wreck. Minutes before the inferno exploded, a dozen strangers rushed to the impossible task of lifting the burning car and freeing the cyclist. Just last August in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, David Phung jumped into swift currents of snake-infested brown water to successfully save a drowning woman and her dog.
Sure, sometimes American groups have missed the moment to act. This past May, 18 members of Penn State’s Beta Theta Pi fraternity were criminally charged with the death of a 19-year-old classmate who they failed to assist 14 hours after he fell unconscious during a hazing.
Pathetically, 18 people again watched as Ki-Suck Han was pushed off a subway platform by a deranged man in front of a speeding train with no efforts to assist this slight man to safety. In fact, the only one to lift a finger was a photographer who sold the New York Post horrifying photos of the poor man’s head being crushed before them. Infamously, many New York neighbors failed to intervene, even calling the police or shouting out the window, during the rape and slow murder of Kitty Genovese in the public courtyard of her own Queens apartment. That led to widespread condemnation the launch of a field of inquiry called diffusion of responsibility by Princeton’s John Darley and Bibb Latane. The missing ingredient for larger groups to act with noble courage is the spark of leadership.
But to dwell on the antiheroes, as we often do, can lead us to miss some key lessons about the heroes. There are, in fact, a few key qualities that heroic leaders, with no formal authority over strangers, can tap to ignite collective greatness:
- provide a role model they can relate to—an accessibility or ability to identity with other
- offer a code of conduct—what is the moral course?
- translate uncertain situation by bringing a human dimension to complexity
- demonstrate a sense of justice—fairness in decision making
- guide others along a path through volatility—a route through the haze and smoke of battle
- confidently reveal a recipe for resilience from adversity—breaking fear and fatalism
Instinctively, this is the playbook followed above by Jessica Simmons on the panicky beach, Jonathan Kulig on the dark subway tracks, and David Phung, in the turbulent flood waters.
In city parks, town squares, and village greens around the nation, we see statues celebrating, not task forces or board committees, but rather bold-thinking individuals in our history. However, these leaders did not act in solitude. They were joined by inspired constituents to accomplish superhuman feats—not by threats and fear, but by an appeal to their own capacities for greatness. Our leaders today need to be reminded that leaders need collective action.
Jeffrey Sonnenfeld is Senior Associate Dean for Leadership Studies and Lester Crown Professor of Management Practice at the Yale School of Management as well as author of Firing Back: How CEOs Rebound From Career Disasters(Harvard Business School Press).