Modern society worships superheroes in literature, television, and blockbuster movies. We get a kick out of seeing good triumph over evil. We relish the idea of a savior protecting the innocent. But the moral frameworks of these characters are as fictional as the superpowers they are imbued with.
Sometimes we forget, however, that true heroes walk among us. They may not wear capes or shoot webs from their wrists, but their feats are far more impressive. The danger they experience is genuine, the stakes far higher. They go beyond the call of duty, often risking their own lives to help others.
While the 24-hour news cycle can sometimes make the world seem like a dark and cruel place, there is plenty of good to be found. With that in mind, we take a look at just ten extraordinary real-life heroes.
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10The Hero Of The Montecito Mudslides
Photo credit: KSBY
In January 2018, Southern California was struck by a series of deadly mudslides. The storm-related disaster claimed the lives of nearly two dozen people and hospitalized 163 others. A mudflow in Montecito was so powerful that it dislodged a number of houses from their foundations. Reaching speeds of up to 32 kilometers per hour (20 mph), the debris-filled wave laid waste to vehicles, trees, power lines, and buildings.
Since heavy rain had been forecast, rescue teams were already mobilized along the coastal town when the storm hit. Fortunately, firefighter Maeve Juarez was on hand to coordinate the rescue efforts.
Maeve was inspecting the San Ysidro Creek Bridge in the early hours of the morning. Moments after leaving, an enormous gas explosion completely destroyed the bridge and set fire to neighboring houses. She rushed back to the scene, just in time to see one couple jumping from the second floor of their burning home. The woman had broken her feet during the escape. Maeve clothed the half-naked woman and carried her over 400 meters (1,300 ft) to safety.
Maeve continued working through the night with her colleagues and is credited with saving over 100 lives. She was presented with the first Medal of Valor award in the history of the Montecito Fire Department, along with her colleague Andy Rupp.
9The Man With The Golden Arm
Photo credit: Australian Red Cross
James Harrison’s entire outlook on life changed at a very young age. At the tender age of 14, the Australian underwent a surgical procedure that required a series of blood transfusions. Seeing as his life was saved by the kindness of others, Harrison decided to “pay it forward.” Four years later, in 1954, he started giving blood. Even his own fear of needles could not deter him.
Doctors soon discovered that James had a very rare type of antibody—the anti-D antibody—in his blood plasma.
Researchers established that the anti-D antibody could be administered to combat a condition called rhesus disease. In rhesus disease, a pregnant woman’s immune system recognizes certain markers on her baby’s blood cells as foreign. The mother’s immune system then starts churning out antibodies that target and destroy her baby’s red blood cells. This unwanted process can cause serious complications during pregnancy, potentially resulting in the baby’s death. But James’s blood plasma was used to devise a treatment that could stop the mother’s immune system from becoming primed in this way.
James was the very first donor of what would become Australia’s Anti-D Program. James (aka “the man with the golden arm”) has donated blood plasma a staggering 1,173 times. He gave blood every two weeks for 60 years.
The Australian Red Cross estimates that the 81-year-old’s donations have helped save over two million babies. “Every ampule of Anti-D ever made in Australia has James in it,” explained Rhesus Program Coordinator Robyn Barlow. It is no wonder, then, that he was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for his noble deeds.
8Tragedy On The Water
Photo credit: Mercy Blankson
In August 2018, a passenger boat carrying 24 people slammed into an object in the waterways of Rivers State, Nigeria. The boat capsized, throwing its occupants overboard. Without hesitation, Joseph Blankson dove into the waters. As soon as the 36-year-old had rescued one person, he would go back to save another. One by one, Blankson pulled 13 people to safety.Sadly, while attempting to rescue a 14th soul, he succumbed to fatigue and drowned. Joseph’s incredible sacrifice meant that he was the only fatality that day.
Blankson leaves behind his wife and three children. Mercy Blankson described her husband as a loving father who, “put people first, before himself.” The president of the Nigerian Senate, Bukola Saraki, offered the following words:
Every now and then we hear amazing stories of Nigerian heroes. Joseph Blankson gave his life to save 13 people. I salute this Nigerian hero who by his last great act, showed us, once again, that we have remarkable people across this nation. His memory will be writ in gold.
The Rivers State government has organized an endowment fund to provide for Joseph’s grieving family.
Photo credit: Gendarmerie Nationale, France
In March 2018, an ISIS gunman went on a rampage across the French town of Carcassonne, shooting at off-duty police officers. The attacker then drove to the commune of Trebes and stormed the local Super U market. The attack had suddenly turned into a hostage situation.
A brave police officer, Lieutenant Colonel Arnaud Beltrame, did not hesitate to take the place of one of the frightened hostages. Beltrame entered the building and secretly placed an active cell phone on a nearby table. This act gave his colleagues an opportunity to listen in.
Lieutenant Colonel Beltrame spent over two hours in the presence of his Moroccan captor. Upon hearing the sound of gunfire, French officers went into the supermarket and killed the terrorist. Three people were killed during the rampage, while 15 others were hurt.
A badly wounded Beltrame was transported to a hospital. Knowing his injuries were life-threatening, Arnaud married his partner from his hospital bed. Mere hours later, Arnaud died from his injuries.
A state funeral was held to honor Beltrame’s sacrifice. His mother said she was not surprised to learn of her son’s heroism:
He’s always been like this. He would tell me, “I am doing my job, Mom, that’s all.”
6The Angel of Nanjing
Over a stretch of the Yangtze River lies the Nanjing River Bridge. This colossal road-rail bridge took eight years to build and was completed in 1968. It boasts a four-lane highway, a 6,772-meter-long (22,218 ft) railway track, a viewing tower, and a series of piers.While a remarkable feat of Chinese engineering, the structure has turned into a major suicide hot spot. Around 2,000 people have used the Nanjing River Bridge to take their own lives between 1968 and 2006.
In 2003, a vegetable seller named Chen Si started his daily walk along the bridge. Much to Chen’s shock, he saw a man readying himself to jump. Chen Si acted quickly and dragged the man back across the steel railing. From that day forth, he made it his life’s mission to save others.
Every weekend, Chen Si uses his free time to patrol the bridge. Riding along on his motorbike, the Nanjing resident keeps a lookout for the telltale signs of depression. “Their way of walking is very passive with no spirit, or no direction. I’ll go and talk to them,” explained Chen. He even hands out suicide prevention pamphlets that list his own cell phone number as an emergency contact.
Watching over the bridge for more than a decade, Chen Si has now saved hundreds of lives. An award-winning documentary, Angel of Nanjing, provides the audience with just a glimpse of Chen’s selfless work.
5The Human Shields
Photo credit: GoFundMe
In 2017, a shooter attacked innocent men, women, and children at a Las Vegas music festival. The attack was the deadliest mass shooting in the history of the United States, leading to 58 deaths and hundreds of injuries.
From the horror emerged stories of great courage. One of the night’s survivors, Jonathan Smith, went to considerable lengths to help fellow concertgoers. The 30-year-old ushered dozens of people to safety, putting himself in the line of fire. Smith was eventually struck in the arm and neck. “It was like a heavy punch to my arm. At that point my whole body spun around. I hit the gravel,” explained Smith.
Smith was himself saved by an off-duty cop. San Diego police officer Tom McGrath rushed to Smith’s aid and stemmed the bleeding. “He’s somebody who inspires me,” said Officer McGrath. “I know he might not want to give himself all the credit, but he definitely did a wonderful job, and I was just happy to be there to help him towards the end, and get him out of there when he was hit.”
A GoFundMe page was set up to cover Smith’s medical bills. The campaign raised over $80,000.
In quite an extraordinary display, ordinary people throughout the Strip set to work helping each other. Lindsay Lee Padgett used her truck to ferry the wounded to the hospital. Carly Krygier used her own body as a human shield to protect her young daughter. And US Army veteran Rob Ledbetter tended to the injured.
4Predicting A Tsunami
Photo credit: ABC News
In 2004, 10-year-old Tilly Smith was vacationing on a beach in Phuket, Thailand, when she made a lifesaving discovery. According to Tilly, the sea was bubbling “like on the top of beer.” To many, this may seem like a trivial description. But Tilly knew that something much greater was at play.
Weeks before, Tilly was learning about tsunamis in one of her geography classes. An educational video showed some of the early warning signs: frothing water and a suddenly receding tide.
Tilly pleaded with her family to abandon the beach. Her father, Colin Smith, trekked back to the hotel to warn the staff. But the Surrey girl had a much harder time convincing her mother, Penny, of the impending danger.
“I said ‘There’s definitely gonna be a tsunami,’ and my mum didn’t believe me. She didn’t react,” recalled the British youngster. “And then I said, ‘Right, mum, I’m going. I’m definitely going. There is definitely going to be a tsunami.’ And she just [said] ‘Bye, then.’ ”
Tilly’s father alerted an on-duty security guard, and the authorities quickly evacuated the beach. The Smith family sought refuge at their hotel, just minutes before the tsunami hit.
The tsunami was triggered by an earthquake just off the coast of the island of Sumatra, Indonesia. An ensuing barrage of tsunamis devastated vast areas of Southeast Asia and killed nearly 230,000 people.
Tilly’s persistence saved the lives of every person on the beach that day. She was awarded the Thomas Gray Special Award from the Marine Society.
3Hookers For Jesus
Photo credit: Samantha Clemens/Southwest View
Annie Lobert has not had an easy life. During her teen years, she started out working as an escort and exotic dancer. In a bid to make even more money, Lobert moved to Sin City with her boyfriend. Then everything changed.
After she returned home from a job, Lobert’s boyfriend demanded all of her money. “I told him, ‘No,’ so he took me into the backyard and [beat me].”
Lobert’s boyfriend took away her ID and cell phone. She quickly found herself trapped in the sex-trafficking industry and ended up taking drugs. After five grueling years of abuse, Lobert escaped her pimp boyfriend.
In 2003, Lobert was taken to a hospital after a cocaine overdose. The incident forced Lobert to take stock of her life. She vowed to use her belief in God to help other sex workers find a new path.
Lobert, now 51, went on to establish the nonprofit “Hookers for Jesus.” Former working girls and sex trafficking victims are given counseling, emergency supplies, and a place to stay. Lobert’s Christian ministry also aims to protect the women from their former pimps. “Our house in Henderson, we had pimps show up with guns,” said Lobert.
Sex trafficking in the United States is a multimillion-dollar enterprise. The International Labor Organization estimates that 4.5 million people are trapped in forced sexual exploitation worldwide.
2The Poisoned Village
Photo credit: Goldman Environmental Prize
When Phyllis Omido started working at an iron-smelting factory in Kenya, little did she know that her own health was at risk.
The African nation’s booming solar panel industry has created considerable demand for lead. The EPZ refinery, where Omido worked, used to extract lead from old car batteries. Operating as the plant’s community relations manager, Omido was tasked with producing an environmental impact report. The news was dire. The plant’s chemicals posed a potential danger to those living nearby. Although Omido recommended the factory’s immediate relocation, her pleas were ignored. Instead, she was removed from the project.
Three months on, Omido’s son became ill. Doctors soon discovered the cause: elevated levels of lead within the boy’s bloodstream. Because Omido was breastfeeding at the time, it is believed the lead was passed on via her breast milk.
Phyllis quit her job and began investigating health concerns within Owino Uhuru—the slum where the EPZ refinery was based. Through Phyllis’s efforts, it was discovered that many residents had suffered miscarriages and respiratory disease. Mounting pressure forced the closure of over a dozen smelting factories across Kenya.
In 2015, Omido was the recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize. The young mother has now brought a class-action lawsuit against the Kenyan government. Meanwhile, the senate health committee has agreed to organize relief efforts in Owino Uhuru.
Omido’s campaign has not been without incident. In 2012, gunmen launched an attack on her home. She lives in constant fear of being abducted by vigilantes and must carry a panic button.
Photo credit: Ferne Pearlstein
September 11, 2001, was the day that countless heroes made themselves known to the world. Step forward, Rick Rescorla.
Ever since the first World Trade Center attack back in 1993, Rescorla was convinced of the need for better evacuation plans. The security expert argued that the World Trade Center, owing to its economic importance and symbolism, would remain a target of Islamist terrorism. He even predicted that the next potential terrorist attack could involve a cargo plane, loaded with bombs or chemical and biological weapons.
Rescorla worked for Morgan Stanley Dean Witter. The company occupied 22 floors of the South Tower. The military man warned his bosses of the possibility of more terrorist attacks and recommended the company move its offices to a different location. But the company still had a lease for the building that would remain in effect until 2006. Rick Rescorla understood the danger, though. So he devised detailed evacuation plans for the tower. He also made sure that mandatory drills were carried out twice a year, despite resistance from management.
When the first plane hit, Rick issued an evacuation order. The workers knew exactly what to do. As thick, black smoke billowed from the North Tower, Rick led thousands of men and women to their safety.
While the evacuation was still in its infancy, Rick phoned his longtime friend, Dan Hill. Rescorla told Hill that the Port Authority had ordered the building’s occupants to remain where they were. Hill recalls what his friend told the Port Authority:
Everything above where that plane hit is going to collapse, and it’s going to take the whole building with it. I’m getting my people the f—k out of here.
That decision likely saved thousands of lives.
Rescorla was born in Cornwall, England. He served as a police officer and fought for the British Army. A staunch anti-communist, Rescorla moved to the United States to fight in the Vietnam War. Rick would go on to achieve many things. He was a writer, teacher, security expert, war veteran, and cancer survivor.
Rescorla was last seen going back into the South Tower to look for remaining workers. His body was never found.
Did you know…
… that today is Check the Batteries in Your Flashlight Day? On this day in 1965, an electric power failure caused a blackout over northeastern United States and Canada. Be sure to keep the batteries fresh in your flashlights just in case!
Today’s Inspirational Quote:
“When you do the things in the present that you can see, you are shaping the future that you are yet to see.”
— Idowu Koyenikan
It’s our business.
Because diamonds are forever.
Push the boundaries.
Inspired by research by Prof. James Baron, the founders of the biotech firm AgBiome created a company with no managers, run by committees of passionately committed employees. Yale Insights talked with Baron about what the company’s example tells us about leadership and organizational structure.
“Just treat people as adults.” This shouldn’t be a radical HR policy, but perhaps it is. Eric Ward, the co-founder of AgBiome, an agriculture-focused biotech firm in North Carolina’s research triangle, describes it as a core value for the start-up. “What happens in traditional companies is that there are a set of incentives put out there that indicate to people that they are not trusted to be proactive and solve problems on their own,” he says in a recent Yale case study. “The trite way of putting that would be people are assumed to be lazy and stupid.”
Having hired capable people, AgBiome puts them in charge of their own work. There isn’t a layer of managers making decisions at the firm, or even a list of job titles; rather, there’s an expectation that teams will “self-assemble around solving a problem.” Committees of employees oversee finance, business development, investor relations, and compensation.
The company’s unusual structure began with an article in the California Management Review. It described five organizational blueprints and the impacts associated with each. While each model had examples of positive outcomes, the data showed that “commitment” model firms, where the employees are passionate about the company and work in long-lasting, family-like structures, have a greater likelihood of surviving and going public.
When Ward and his co-founder Scott Uknes founded their company in 2012, they built on the paper’s insights, creating the non-hierarchical structure and considering internal processes with the commitment blueprint in mind. For example, new employees go through a months-long hiring process, including hourlong reference calls and interviews with numerous employees, to make sure they have both the needed technical proficiency and a willingness to participate in the company culture.
Ward and Uknes eventually contacted one of the authors of the research paper, James Baron, now the William S. Beinecke Professor of Management at Yale SOM, thinking he might be interested in visiting. Baron upped the ante and suggested the company could be a subject for a Yale case study. A firm that eschews hierarchy and other assumptions inherent in most company structures might be a paradoxically effective example to teach MBA students about leadership, HR, and organizational models.
Yale Insights talked with Baron about organizational blueprints, AgBiome’s application and modification of the commitment model, and what students and other organizations can learn from its example.
Q: Tell us about the paper that you wrote that influenced AgBiome’s structure.
While I was at Stanford, I worked with a number of colleagues to trace several hundred emerging companies in Silicon Valley over more than a decade. We looked at the way in which the founders built the companies and how the companies evolved over time. We were able to look at the effect of culture on how firms grew, whether or not they survived, whether or not they went public, if they went public how well they did, how bureaucratic they became, and so forth.
Our paper in the California Management Review intrigued the founders of AgBiome. They built their company around a commitment model and last year invited me to visit. We turned the visit into a Yale raw case.
Q: What is the commitment model?
We found five broad blueprints for organizing companies. The commitment blueprint was one where people were recruited to the firm based on their desire to be part of an enduring, family-like entity. They were controlled by a strong peer culture, and their affection was really to the organization more than to the specific project that they happened to be working on.
Hewlett-Packard in its glory days would be the quintessential commitment organization. The top-tier Japanese companies of the 1980s were commitment companies. People came in at
the entry level and stayed over the course of their career. They were deeply loyal to the organization, not to whatever particular role they were assigned to.
It’s an organizational form that’s been around for a long time and certainly not limited to Silicon Valley.
Q: Why has it worked for tech firms?
We spoke with venture capitalists who follow Silicon Valley companies. None of them forecast that we were going find the commitment model to do so well, but once we achieved the results that we did, they had an interesting explanation. They said startups confront two key issues: success and failure.
In firms that are successful more rapidly than people anticipate, there’s this perennial problem of how you keep people engaged. How do you motivate them to move on to version 2.0? With the commitment model, since people’s affection is really to an abiding organizational entity, they’re much less likely to cash out their stock options and buy an island in the Caribbean or whatever they’re dreaming of doing.
Conversely, when you confront initial failure, since people are attached not to that specific project, but to the premise of the organization itself, they’re more inclined to stay on in the face of a setback, whereas if you’ve recruited star talent to a particular project and that project doesn’t pan out, that talent will leave immediately.
The fact that commitment can help firms cope with either unanticipated success or unanticipated failure may be its biggest strength.
Q: Your study looked at companies in their first decade. Does the commitment model continue to be an advantage as firms mature?
We didn’t find any strong evidence to suggest that it didn’t, and in fact, we found that firms that started with a commitment model but abandoned it paid a pretty steep price because workers who are there because of an abiding love for the organization see the culture change.
Clearly, as organizations get bigger, as they get more diverse, holding a commitment blueprint together becomes more challenging because you can’t rely as extensively on informal interaction and everybody knowing one another in order to propagate the culture.
Q: Is AgBiome typical of organizations using the commitment model?
AgBiome uses committees to make every decision in the firm, including broad strategy decisions, including decisions about the CEO’s compensation. Not all commitment firms have such radical decentralization.
They felt very strongly that being nonhierarchical and participative was going to be critical to their business. I think they have a pretty compelling case that given their strategy and the kind of business that they’re in, a nonhierarchical structure not only enables them to attract and retain better scientific talent, which is critical to their mission, but also allows them to make decisions faster and better, which they argue differentiates them from larger, more bureaucratic competitors.
Certainly, it’s not a model that would fit every industry or every sector. I think knowledge-intensive industries where you require a lot of collaboration and intellectual coordination are the settings where this model is most compelling.
Q: How does the company approach recruitment?
Because it’s so important that commitment firms recruit people who share their values and can function as part of a team, by definition, they are much more selective. Anybody who recruits with AgBiome discovers very quickly that it’s a different kind of organization. They need scientific specialists, but much more emphasis is put on, “Is this person going to fit our culture and be somebody that will flourish with the rest of the team?” and less on concrete technical skills.
They handle recruitment in a very different and extended way. They interview your references extensively before they even talk to you. Recruits meet many, many people throughout the organization. Because the best way of guaranteeing that someone’s going to be a full-fledged member of the team is to involve the team very actively in the recruitment process, it tends to go much more slowly. They’re very careful to make sure that people aren’t surprised when they show up on day one about what they’re getting themselves into.
One of the concomitants of the commitment model is that growth has to be more measured and more focused than it might otherwise be.
Q: How successful are they in finding good fits?
There are some cases where people make it through who are not a match, and there’s some selection out of those misfits. A few more have left voluntarily to go back to school, but when we asked them about turnover, they kind of laughed and said, “That’s just not a problem that we have.”
They say AgBiome is not for everybody. But they believe that the kinds of scientific and technical talent that they’re trying to recruit, A, those people want to work on really cool stuff in an unencumbered way, and B, many of them find it really interesting to have the opportunity to play a role in the broader governance of the organization, which workers do in this organization.
They sit on committees, that, as I said, determine compensation or business development priorities. Employees get a much broader exposure to the organization and interesting variety added to their work by virtue of being a part of its governance.
Q: How does an organization with no titles and no hierarchy handle advancement?
Advancement means growing deeper and deeper in your area of professional expertise and growing deeper and deeper in assuming responsibility for the governance of the organization. As people do that, they are recognized for it, but not by moving up a well-defined bureaucratic hierarchy.
They have a recognition committee that works with the compensation committee. When people have, in the view of the committee, passed a professional milestone, achieved greater depth of responsibility and greater professional expertise, they will celebrate that with a recognition. That usually would include an increase in compensation and some kind of honorific recognition.
Q: As the company itself grows, how does it keep this family-like structure without becoming unwieldy?
The idea the company uses to describe growth is cellular division. That’s the mindset that their scientists come to naturally, so they have adopted a model of spinning off cells that are to be no larger than 50 to 70 people—a size at which people can manage relationships with one another in a trusting way. There’s neuroscience that supports that view.
These folks make all of their organizing decisions based, not on intuition or some diffuse set of value commitments, but on careful review of scholarly research. When they decided that they were going to move to this model of cells, they went to the anthropological literature to find the optimal sizes of tribes, which is where the 50 to 70 size comes from.
They’ve now created four of these cells and something called a cell senate, which is intended to coordinate between and among the cells. There’s a lot of structure that’s required to hold this thing together. As they get bigger and more diverse, the question will be whether the effort that is required to eschew hierarchy ends up becoming an encumbrance itself, whether people are spending so much time on committees that they’re not able to actually focus on their regular nine-to-five job.
Q: What can other companies learn from this?
The founders of AgBiome buy into a core set of assumptions, which if you don’t buy into them, would make it hard to move in the direction that they’ve moved. The way that they put it is, if you look at the people that you’re hiring, they’re carrying on complicated lives in which they’re exercising a lot of responsibility in their finances, in the rearing of their children, in caring for their parents, in serving as members of their community. They argue many organizations seem to presume employees are not trustworthy and their job should be specialized as narrowly as possible in order to minimize the scope of damage that they can do to the organization.
They believe that the same degree of efficacy and trustworthiness that you see people displaying in the other arenas of their lives should be the starting point in thinking about how you build an organization. They also believe that management is best done by people themselves.
Now, that’s a bit controversial to a school of management, where many of our students fancy themselves as being specialized overseers of employees, but the folks at AgBiome would say, to the extent that you can minimize the reliance on specialized managers, it’s not only less expensive, it’s much faster in terms of decision-making, because it removes these intermediate layers that have to be gone through whenever decisions need to be made.
Q: Is there a C-suite team or other version of upper management?
Scott Uknes and Eric Ward are the co-founders and co-CEOs. They really do work jointly. Eric and Scott are talked about as if that’s almost one word. They do have a few people in C-suite roles, a CFO and the head of HR. But, even there, they exercise their roles differently. They act more as a resource to the employee committees than the sole decision maker within the domain of their job title. Clearly, as the firm gets bigger it would not be a surprise to see more specialized senior roles. They now have somebody in charge of sales, so they are starting to develop a leadership team.
Of course, over time they’re going to get more formal. There will be more specialization, but I don’t see that as an indictment of the model. The goal for them is to try to minimize, but not eliminate entirely, hierarchy and specialization. I don’t think the question is, do they still look like they looked when they were first founded? The question to ask is, do they still look less bureaucratic and nonhierarchical than an otherwise comparable firm in their industry?
Q: How does this raw case fit into the Employee course that you teach to first-year MBA students?
Many of the cases that we studied are large, long-lived organizations. I wanted one that was at the other end of the evolutionary spectrum. A young tech-oriented start up in the Research Triangle in the process of developing its HR architecture is compelling.
AgBiome raises questions for the students about our assumptions about what an organization needs to look like, some of these assumptions that we talked about before: the role of management, whether workers can and should be trusted to make critical decisions or whether those decisions really ought to be vested in the senior ranks of the organization. When the folks from AgBiome got in touch, it seemed like a really propitious opportunity.
AgBiome is a very strongly mission-driven organization that believes that it is harnessing science for the purpose of helping feed the world and promote agricultural development. The virtue of a compelling mission that drives the leadership that you are engaged in is a really important takeaway from the case.