Hero or Fool?: It’s Hard to Decide in the Face of Failure

Today, I’m taking a different angle on leadership, looking at another unlikely leadership lesson from the idealistic individualist Chris McCandless, whose off-the-grid Alaskan adventure ended in starvation, and sparked a novel and film, Into the Wild. Author Jon Krakauer posted a recent blog at the New Yorker describing the biochemistry of McCandless’ tragic death.

McCandless posing with his last note, a call for help.

McCandless posing with his last note, a call for help. From the New Yorker blog, courtesy of his family.

Krakauer tells a fascinating story about wild potato seeds, toxic for McCandless although normally harmless.

But the most interesting part of the article in terms of contemporary leadership mythologies was the passionate debate in the comments about whether the tragic young man is a hero or a fool, a role model or an object lesson.  This same debate happens whenever any visionary leader fails. It’s a classic opposition — are we fools or heroes? There’s never an easy answer.

There are two basic responses to McCandless’ death in the blog commentaries.

First, he’s a hero, an idealist whose independence and sense of adventure inspires us to reach for our dreams. In this idea, his death was a terrible accident, a tragedy that cut a great life short.

John Muir, at home in nature

John Muir, at home in nature

One of the most eloquent arguments for the young man’s heroism came from @thornhill, who connects McCandless failed trek to the great environmentalist John Muir’s transformational journeys. He wrote: “McCandless’ naivety is not necessarily a bad thing. It is the same naivety that caused John Muir to literally walk from Wisconsin to Alabama and then from San Francisco to Yosemite with little more outdoor experience than McCandless. Both had a love of nature, a desire to test themselves, and a longing to find true freedom. The same naivety in both men but Muir is revered and McCandless is lambasted because he was unlucky enough to eat the wrong nut.”

A second opinion, that McCandless was a foolish adventurer whose story should be a warning and not an inspiration, comes mainly from Alaskans. This group argues that too many people underestimate the dangers of nature, coming to Alaska or other wild places and dying because of their ignorance.

Alaska from the air. Photo by Royce Bair

Alaska from the air. Photo by Royce Bair

seward44 offers the most logical assessment:  “It’s my belief that the majority of those romanticizing Chris McCandless are city dwellers who romanticize the Alaska wilderness. Those of us who live in Alaska understand the first rule of survival: Respect the wilderness. And that means preparing for situations such as weather, landscape, food, etc.

“How someone could starve to death mere miles from the highway is a mystery to most of us. The fact that such an individual has been elevated into a hero is an even larger mystery.

Every year people die in Alaska. They die of bear attacks and exposure, falls from mountains and by drowning in glacier-fed rivers. Each one of these individuals made a mistake, or series of mistakes, that contributed to their death. This is not romantic.

“Was Chris McCandless a hero? Well, put it this way: I’d hate to have him for a hiking partner. There are many young people working hard to change the world, not just themselves. It’s time to write and talk about them.”

Read more of the article and comments.

hero-leadersThe problem with thinking about leaders as heroes is that none of us are Superman, so failure is inevitable. The more innovative and outside-the-box we are as visionaries, the more risk we take on. So, in fact, we are always both heroic and foolish, whether we succeed or fail.

We see the false opposition of these ideas in the debate about McCandless, whose death and subsequent celebrity made him both a role model and a “Darwin Award” nominee. A more mature understanding of his story, and the story we’re telling about visionary leadership, would accept both foolishness and heroism as part of a profoundly human journey instead of insisting on the larger-than-life oppositions of idiot and genius, demon and angel.

It’s easy to praise the heroism of visionary leaders who succeed in changing the world, often at a price to their own security and health. When risk pays off, we get to be heroes, transforming the courageous foolishness that made our achievement possible.

When we fail, it’s a lot harder to remember our heroic leap we took. We feel like fools, and the world confirms it. Our efforts often end in obscurity. Our sacrifices seem to cost more than we ever imagined.

But transformational leadership, in success and failure, requires the willingness to be heroic fools. To tell only one side of that remarkable choice shrinks our understanding, and weakens the leadership stories we live as a result.

Like McCandless, if we want to follow our vision, we must go to a place we have never been before, in our own way. That often means taking risks that frighten our families and test ourselves and our ideals.  Usually, our risk is less extreme, and the results less devastating. But win or lose, we can’t lead if we don’t take that idiotic, brave leap of faith.

Read more about McCandless:
Sister Carine McCandless on the Mythologies of her Brother’s Life and his Fandom
The Wild Truth: Was Chris McCandless trauma victim, hero, or just a lost seeker?

October Hauntings: The Ghost of Chris McCandless

8 comments

  1. Fascinating character and story, with the divergent ways that people read it. I was personally deeply affected by McCandless’ story since I contain(ed) a similar longing to escape into the wild. I’ve concluded that the lesson for me lies in his choosing isolation, alienation, and a certain amount of self-delusion. As well as an unexamined frisson of death-wish, so common in the young & disaffected.

    The tragedy was not his quest, it was his hamartia (new word! just discovered in Breaking Bad discussions) hero’s tragic flaw.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamartia

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    1. That’s a really important lesson — and hamartia! Boy, I haven’t heard that word in a long time!

      I wonder if it’s possible to consider our own hamartia and prevent the human tragedy the Greeks warned us about in their plays, learning how to moderate our bad leadership habits and move beyond unconscious choices that drive us. McCandless chose isolation and alienation — how powerful (and more survivor friendly) if he’d been able to choose independence with sustainable interconnection that fed his strong spirit, and helped him avoid the danger he unwittingly walked into.

      For most of us, it’s our own wilderness we face. As leaders, we have to be awake to ourselves and to the dangers of the wilder world.

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  2. […] about leadership, so many stories! And I’m as bad/good as everyone else, as smart/dumb about buying into mythologies and processes that succeed/fail. Leadership is a great unknown, a dream of a common language of […]

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  3. Riley Barrad · · Reply

    Thanks for writing this article. Very insightful. Im just kind of mad that the education office is putting this book into the english curriculum. I heard some of my peers immiturally say that they are going to follow McCandlless footsteps and go live in the wild or go out on a month plus outing with minimum gear. uh oh :/

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    1. I get your frustration! It’s foolish to imitate someone who put himself in danger, no matter how noble the goal might have been! That’s a kind of foolish fake heroism, right?

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  4. […] has been written about Chris McCandless’ fatal journey Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer’s biography made into a successful movie. Now Carine McCandless’ book […]

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  5. […] challenging the myths that oversimplify the story of a leader or celebrity. Chris McCandless was neither a hero nor a fool; he was a troubled young man trying to find peace and live his principles. But we have turned him […]

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  6. […] why he was so unprepared and careless to cause such a tragedy, given his courage and independence. Into the Wild (book and film) explained just enough to make him an anti/hero. And his continuing posthumous […]

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