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From Cowardice to Courageous: How to Be a Hero When Others Need Us Most

By Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, Senior Associate Dean and Lester Crown Professor of Management Practice at the Yale School of Management. He is the author of The Hero's Farewell: What Happens When CEOs Retire (Oxford University Press).

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Beware of media cynicism about groups such as the recent apathetic subway passengers on a platform mishap or the stalled-out U.S. Congress. Crowds can act with courage to do the right thing when properly inspired.

In this age of liberated or empowered "self-directed work teams" and the rational-seeking "wisdom of crowds," there is still a role for heroes, the vital few who defy reason and safety to make a difference for us all.

The closing month of the year was bookended with paradoxical models of cowardice and courage as lessons for Congress and the rest of us. The month opened with the tragic scene of a doomed man pushed on to a subway track crying for help while motionless onlookers looked on in paralyzed horror. The following week ended with a scene of teachers instinctively shielding young schoolchildren from a deranged machine gunner with their own bodies.

Psychological research partially helps explain our cowardly inaction but not our courage to act. Conflicting headlines and contradictory research do not provide much guidance, just one-sided reason for unproductive despair. For example, even great bestsellers from fellow Yalies such as James Surowiecki's brilliant The Wisdom of Crowds (2004), Irving Janis' profound Groupthink (1972) and Stanley Milgram's alarming Obedience to Authority (1974) offer little cheer for courage and initiative.

The Wisdom of Crowds celebrates market rationality and superior judgment of groups over outstanding individuals. By contrast, Groupthink is more condemning of crowds, focusing on the non-rational conformist tendencies of groups due to an illusion of invulnerability that punishes dissenters challenging the prevailing thought. Similarly, most of those (65%) in Milgram's famed obedience studies submitted to experimental demands even when they believed that the lives of fellow experimental subjects were at risk. Such work does not explain when bold action, independent thinking, and creative imagination prevail. In short, they do not explain courage.

None of the 20 nearby people on the midday Manhattan train platform moved to assist 58-year-old Ki-Suk Han when he was allegedly pushed by a homeless man into the path of an approaching subway on Dec. 3. Just 100 feet away, they had 90 seconds or so to help but did not. Somehow, R. Umar Abbassi, a freelance photographer on the scene, found the time to snap photos of the struggling man, which he then sold to the the New York Post as a front-page photo, a profile of Han's final seconds of distress. Abbassi grimaced later as he recalled seeing Han crushed "like a rag doll" at close range and thought his camera flash would be all he could do to alert the coming train.

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