Real heroes

by Jerry Schuitema: Award winning veteran journalist, author, retired management consultant and former economics broadcaster who focuses on behaviour in business and economics.
Few things are better at uniting a divided nation than heroic behaviour. We saw this in the effect that Nelson Mandela, a struggle hero adopted by many across all colours, had on a divided nation in the mid-nineties. We’ve had many more in our history, some of whom teach us that we are all capable of behaviour that will be both nation building and uniting.

A good example lies in our early history and the legend of Wolraad Woltemade.

On a stormy early morning of June the 1st, 1773, De Jonge Thomas with some 200 passengers and crew on board found itself near the mouth of the Salt River. It broke anchor and started to break up after being driven onto a sand bar. A number of sailors and passengers perished in the cold and turbulent waters, some strong swimmers made it ashore, but others were left clinging to the hull.

That was the scene confronting Wolraad, the local dairy farm manager for the Compagnie, when he arrived on horseback with provisions for his son.

Woltemade had no hesitation in spurring the animal into the sea to rescue those in distress. When he approached, he urged two to jump into the water and grab hold of the horse’s tail. He did that 7 times, saving 14. On the 8th attempt the exhausted old man went into the sea for the last time. Sensing their last chance of being rescued, too many of the victims grabbed hold of the horse and pulled it and rider under.

There is something very special about the Woltemade legend. There are others that have the same texture, perhaps not as dramatic and as legendary, but a distinct ingredient that sets them apart from other acts of courage and bravery. Like Raymond van Staden sacrificing his life to save a boy off Warner Beach, and Donald Mboto doing the same off St Michael’s beach. Then there’s John Cerqueira, who helped a disabled woman down 68 flights of stairs when the World Trade centre was collapsing around them. But the same ingredient can be found in the not so dramatic acts – like former Broadcast colleague Conrad Burke, who witnessed a miscreant carry three packs of energy drink past a helpless till lady without paying for them. Conrad confronted the petty thief on the street, forced him to hand over the goods and returned them to the store.

We tend to think of heroes in a much broader context, from admiration for talent and success in various fields, to political and military leaders and martyrs. Apart from the worship so facilely expressed for “celebrities”, some of whom have made little or no real contribution to our lives, heroism should imply some act of sacrifice, fortitude and courage.

It comes more easily to those impassioned with some mission, religion or ideology – like martyrs. It also has some supporting ingredient for people whose job it is to defend, protect and serve: like soldiers, police and fire-fighters. Love, companionship and family are also powerful motives behind many acts of selflessness and heroism.

These may not be less deserving of our acclaim, but the acts of Woltemade and the others I mentioned are very special in one key regard: they were unconditional. They may have displayed different levels of courage, but they share one element in their magnificence.

They were random acts of selflessness not inspired by ideology or any other motive, but simply by our humanity. They had no expectation of self-gratification, recognition, acclaim or material reward. Unlike many of the others, they attract unanimous celebration.

As such they go much further than the good they achieved at the time. They confirm our basic instinct and ability of caring for others and that this attribute enables us to confront even death with fearlessness, fortitude and dignity. They show us the power of being unconditional and where our true strength lies. They teach us the value of looking beyond the constraining walls of immediate self-interest and gratification. They teach us that not everything in life is about transaction. Indeed the most uplifting and character building acts seldom are.

We go through life with cynicism and a “what’s-in-it-for-me” mantle, haggling at every turn and stifling, if not destroying our true majesty. We are constantly disappointed and distressed when the conditions we set are not met, only to discover later that our expectations were unrealistic in the first place.

We are all capable of heroism. It does not have to be the ultimate sacrifice, but every act of selflessness builds on the other until we blossom into the full giving human beings we can be. This is the real role modelling we should adopt. This is the ultimate life skill we should teach in our homes and in our schools. It is also a skill that should be taught in business schools, for the business of the future is going to be based more solidly on the strategic foundations of generosity and caring for others.

It is an attribute that should be the distinguishing feature of all leaders in society, including business. It is one that clearly cannot be bought, only rewarded. The real tragedy of excessive pay levels is that not only have they divided us further, they have also tarnished the process of identifying the real leaders in our midst. By their very nature they contradict selfless intent and those who insist on and can only be bought with excessive material rewards are most likely the least qualified to lead. The essence of true leadership is to serve rather than to rule.

The benefits for us as individuals, society and mankind of heroic behaviour from the most modest to the grandest are beyond our wildest speculation.

I suspect that in the age we live in it could become the most important attribute for survival.

Useful resources:
Contribution Accounting Methodology
The Contribution Accounting Methodology has taken shape over many decades. It is the culmination of years of exposure to economics, business, on site activities, interaction with a wide variety of parties including shop-floor workers, organized labour, accountants, leading executives and entrepreneurs.
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