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Vol. 8, No. 5
(626) 350-1500 Ext 102  

Extraordinary achievements demand extraordinary leaders.


The Concept of Heroic Leadership

© 2010 William A. Cohen, PhD  

Adapted from  Heroic Leadership (Jossey – Bass, 2010)


In the Spring of 2009, I attended the 50th reunion of my graduation from the United States Military Academy at West Point. I was seated next to my classmate, Harry Walters. As a cadet Harry Walters had been an outstanding athlete, fullback in Army’s undefeated season of 1958 prior to our graduation. At the end of the year the team had ranked third in national standings, and it was the year that another classmate, Pete Dawkins, had won the Heisman Trophy. Harry had gone on to serve honorably in the Army, become CEO of a corporation, and then under President Reagan had served as Assistant Secretary of the Army, and then VA Administrator. 


However, the school that had once fielded great football teams and produced outstanding athletes like Walters and Dawkins has done poorly for a number of years. Yet, West Point’s sister service academies, Navy and Air Force have done pretty well during the same period. I asked Harry what he thought the problem was. Were we not getting the same quality players as our sister academies? Were we expecting too much from them in meeting West Point standards in academics and leadership while we expected great things on the gridiron? Without hesitation Harry answered: “There is no doubt at all about the problem. It is always the Coach, not the players and other issues which make success at football tougher for the players. When Red Blaik coached, Army won. It is always the leader, and in football, that is the coach. When we once again start winning, it will be because of the coach.”


I instantly realized that Harry was 100% correct. Successful football coaches practice Heroic Leadership. But so do coaches of girls’ high school soccer teams. I’ve told the story many times of the girls high school soccer team in New York that was undefeated for years while other teams, male and female did only so-so. It was all due to the coach and his heroic leadership.


Heroic Leadership is special. It requires leading any group with absolute integrity while raising individual performance to a personal best and building a team spirit of sacrifice for the common good. Heroic Leadership requires tough standards. Meeting the standards of Heroic Leadership may sound like an impossible dream, something rarely if ever achieved.  However, it is not. Heroic leadership exists and has left descriptions, names, and dates – everything needed in order to emulate and duplicate these “impossible” successes in our own organizations. These successes are always needed in society, but never so more as when we are in the grips of a severe recession and when our organization is in trouble due to other causes. And it doesn’t make any difference whether “your organization” is a corporation, a non-profit, a school, an athletic team, or even a country. Heroic Leadership is crucial!


Peter F. Drucker, the greatest management thinker of our time and called “The Father of Modern Management,” knew and promoted Heroic Leadership throughout his long career and 39 books and hundreds of articles. In his first book devoted specifically to management, Drucker wrote that the first systematic book on leadership was written more than 2000 years earlier by Xenophon and it was still the best. Xenophon was a Grecian general and he wrote on leadership in battle. Years later Drucker said, “The Army trains and develops more leaders than do all other institutions together – and with a lower casualty rate.” A few years ago Richard Cavanaugh, President and CEO of the Conference Board wrote about a meeting he conducted at which both Drucker and legendary CEO of GE, Jack Welch were co-speakers. They were asked: Who does the best job of developing leaders? To quote Cavanaugh: “To my surprise, the usual suspects so often cited for finding and training leaders didn’t figure – not the Harvard Business School, or Goldman Sachs, or McKinsey & Company, or General Electric, or IBM, or Proctor & Gamble. The enthusiastic choice of both of these management legends was the United States military.”


Why is Battle Leadership, Heroic Leadership?

War is one of man’s least commendable activities. The misery, death, and destruction that war causes is so horrendous that even professional soldiers publicly condemn and seek to avoid it. Even “just wars” which might be counted as having a positive outcome are unbelievably costly. To end slavery in the United States cost almost one million casualties at a time that the total U.S. population, north and south, was a only little over 31 million. Getting rid of the scourge of Nazism and fascism cost the world 56 million casualties.  Despite this, war has been very profligate. Over 7000 years of recorded history, historians have found less than 100 days in which man was not engaged in warfare somewhere in the world. Mankind was forced to learn about leadership under the most trying of conditions. As General George S. Patton said, “Wars may be fought with weapons, but they are won by men.” Men and women must be led. Leadership on thousands of battlefields has developed and fine-tuned the abilities of combat leaders and given them practical knowledge which collectively far surpasses that of other organizations. Little wonder that “The Father of Modern Management,” discovered that battle leadership taught 2000 years ago was absolutely compelling and necessary for modern business and non-profit organizations.


Moreover, battle leadership is Heroic Leadership because life and death decisions must be made in an environment rarely faced by the non-combat leader. These may include:

·        The worst possible “working” environment imaginable

·        The price of success or failure having horrific and far reaching effects on the organization and others represented by the organization

·        Personal danger

·        Food and sleep deprivation

·        Physical hazards

·        Constant stress

·        The need to make critical decisions rapidly and with incomplete and unconfirmed information

·        The requirement of sometimes having to assume far greater responsibility on the instant, with little preparation or warning

Battle leadership is possibly the only leadership environment where both leaders and those led would prefer to be somewhere else. So before you assume that battle leaders are mindless brutes and that Heroic Leadership is something automatic,  and not worth your time, you’d better think again.


“Carrot and Stick” Leadership is not Heroic Leadership

It is true that “carrot and stick” leadership has been practiced on the battlefield, and still is at times: both on the battlefield and in the boardroom. There is a time and place for it — but contrary to common belief, the term is not synonymous with military leadership. In Drucker’s favorite leadership book, Xenophon, the general, describes the limitations of carrot and stick leadership. Cyrus the Great of Persia was an absolute monarch. He held the power of life and death over his followers. He could reward or punish and motivate in any way he chose. Cyrus’ father asked Cyrus what he thought was the best way to motivate his followers. Cyrus answered: “After reflecting about these things, I think I see in all of them that which especially incites to obedience is the praising and honoring of one who obeys and the dishonoring of the one who disobeys.”


There it is, “carrot and stick leadership,” described 2000 years ago. Cyrus’ father agreed that this sometimes worked.  “However,” he continued, “when people think that they may incur harm in obeying, they are not so ready to respond to the threat of punishments or to be seduced by gifts.”  Then he told Cyrus that there was a far superior way in which human beings would obey even when danger was present. The leader had only to take care of his subordinates better than they could take care of themselves and to ensure that he took care of them even before his own interests. There is an old injunction in the military that a commander must not eat until his soldiers eat first. That’s Heroic Leadership, and it will work in any organization.


How to Acquire Heroic Leadership

I’ve spent almost thirty years in the researching the concept of heroic leadership. Contrary to much I’ve heard, when applied correctly it not only leads to success, it leads to extraordinary success. It is all about acquiring and using imagination for understanding and applying the lessons of Heroic Leadership to corporations, non-profit organizations, and government. Without question, an understanding of such lessons and our ability to apply them are desperately needed now. This is a time of great challenge which threatens the very fabric of society. We face not only the greatest financial crisis of our time, but a world wide crisis of extremism and those threatening our very lives and our way of life.

The basics of this application I see in three parts: the first is strategic and has much to do about what the leader does and how he or she behaves. This is what I have called the “Eight Universal Laws of Leadership.” These are:

1. Maintain Absolute Integrity

          2. Know Your Stuff

          3. Declare Your Expectations

          4. Show Uncommon Commitment

          5. Expect Positive Results

          6. Take Care of Your People

          7. Put Duty Before Self                           

8. Get Out in Front

Obeying these laws puts you in the position of having the correct overall approach to implementing Heroic Leadership no matter its field of application or the environment or particular challenge you may face as leader. But that’s not the end of heroic leadership.  There are an infinite number of influence tools that may be used to influence others, and that heroic leader may choose from in any leadership situation. However, there are only eight eight basic tools. Master these, and you will be able to apply the eight laws to specific challenges that you face. These eight are:

                               1. Direction                               2. Indirection

                               3. Redirection

                               4. Deflection   

                               5. Enlistment      

                               6. Persuasion 

                               7.  Negotiation

                               8.  Involvement                   


You don’t need to master special competencies to be an ordinary leader, but you do to be a Heroic Leader. Heroic Leaders do things that ordinary leaders won’t, or can’t do. This is because extraordinary, even great, accomplishments require Heroic Leaders. Pick any Heroic Leader you choose that we’ve talked about in parts I and II, even going back into historical times. You will see that all knew how to accomplish certain tasks. Some had mastered these competencies from childhood or through special training and education. Others struggled and learned them “on the job.” But all knew how to do these things, or they would not have been able to successfully accomplish the Herculean tasks they undertook, sometimes under the most difficult of circumstances and sometimes with very limited resources.

All Heroic Leaders are able to attract followership, even when it seems most unlikely that they are able to do so. Abraham Lincoln, defeated for almost every political office that he ever sought  previously, attracted enough of a followership that when the Republican party spilt at their convention and could not agree on one of the favored candidates to become the candidate for president of the United States, he was chosen. Then he went on to win the presidential  election, fight a Civil War, ultimately not only “save the Union,” but bring the country closer together, end a two century year-old history of slavery in the United States, and become known as one of our greatest, if not our greatest, president.

Or take another great leader in another field, the field of sport. Coach Vince Lombardi was able to take a losing football team and build its self-confidence so fast, and to such an extent that within two years his team played for the National Football League (NFL) championship. Did I say losing? In the year prior to Lombardi, the Green Bay Packers had lost all but two of its 12 games, and of these games not lost, one was a tie. But his first year at head coach, Lombardi’s new team won seven games out of twelve. Green Bay would have won the NFL championship the next year, but lost a close one to the Philadelphia Eagles.  After this loss Lombardi stated that losing a championship game was unacceptable and it would not happen again. It didn’t. He would win his next nine post-season games.

Lombardi went on to accomplish a 105–35–6 record as head coach. He never, ever, suffered a losing season. He led the Packers to three consecutive NFL championships in 1965, 1966,and 1967 which included the first two Super Bowls. That’s never been done before or since. All in all, he won five NFL Championships during his nine years as Head Coach of the Green Bay Packers. There is no doubt that Vince Lombardi was a model Heroic Leader.

Here are the eight competencies which the heroic leader must master:     

    1. How to Attract Followership

    2. How to Develop Leader Self-Confidence

    3. How to Build a Heroic Team

    4. How to Develop High Morale and Esprit de Corps

    5. How to Motivate in When Times Get Tough

    6. How to Take Charge in Crisis Situations

    7. How to Develop Charisma

    8. Problem Solving and Decision Making

Your challenge is not to turn an organization into a combat-ready military unit,  although if you are in the military this might indeed be your task. Heroic leadershipis much broader. Your challenge is to apply the principles of heroic leadership to your own organization of whatever type in a manner that you lead with integrity and honor are not afraid to dare the impossible and as a result achieve extraordinary results.





“Heroic Leadership:  Leading an Organization through Crisis with Honor and Integrity by Dr. Bill Cohen is relevant and timely.  He illustrates the application of many sound leadership principles, established through experience in both peace and war…in the form of universal laws, tools, and competencies …by presenting an outstanding collection of contemporary and historic examples.  Heroic Leadership   should be on the reading list and in the library of every leader and student of leadership today.”  General Peter J. Schoomaker, U.S. Army (Ret.),  former Commander-in-Chief, United States Special Operations Command and former Army Chief of Staff


“Once again Bill Cohen brings forth a “must read” manual for present and future leaders. His ability to connect the leadership traits necessary to lead in our complex society is remarkable. The virtues of leadership are highlighted and this is a must read for those who are inspired to lead. He has given a gift to future leaders and I am humbled by his work.” – Harry N. Walters, Former Assistant Secretary of the Army for Manpower and Reserve Affairs and Administrator of Veterans Affairs for President Reagan 1981-1987


“General Cohen’s book is a major contribution to the literature of successful leadership. He has clearly demonstrated through this distillation of 30 years of study and practice that the successful Heroic Leader must, first of all, be a servant to those being led. Heroism involves sacrifice of one’s own interests in favor of others. The hard decisions of leadership invariably require sacrifice of comfort, personal gain, ambition, and even one’s life so that others might survive and succeed. Heroic Leadership is a superb guide to understanding and applying this concept of leadership.” – Major General John Grinalds, USMC, Ret, former President, The Citadel


“Must read this book! It will help leaders in and out of uniform to do what needs to be done to lead their organizations to success.” –  General Thomas G. McInerney, USAF, Ret., former Air Force Assistant Vice Chief of Staff, and Chief Executive Officer, Business Executives for National Security


For more information, contact me directly by e-mail at or telephone (626) 794-5998. Yes we do give international seminars — The U.S. country code is 01.



An army of stags led by a lion is more to be feared than an army of lions led by a stag.


                                                                                      – King Philip of Macedonia, father of Alexander the Great