Leader or Hero?

Do you admire leaders or heroes?

Do you aspire to become a leader or hero?

What’s the difference? Why should you care?

Personally, I had never aspired to be either until I arrived at Harvard – first time as a graduate student, second time as a visiting scholar, and now as resident of Cambridge with the privilege of an associate-in-research affiliation with the university which allows me access to all kinds of opportunities and possibilities at and through this venerable institution.

This past weekend, I was invited to first speak as a panelist with half a dozen other alumni at a career options forum, sharing with students and faculty the variety of career choices I’d made at different points in my life. Then I was happy to join hundreds of other Asian American alumni at a summit that brings back leaders and change makers in their fields who began incubating their dreams, cultivating their aspirations, and refining their passion during their formative and transformative years at Harvard, and went on to carving a different path and breaking new ground for the poor, the under-privileged, and the privileged. The idealistic fervor and concrete change delivered in speeches by World Bank president Jim Kim, Pulitzer Prize winner, author Sheryl WuDunn, Harvard College Dean Rakesh Khurana – just to name a few – have stirred my heart to re-examine my own point of departure and arrival, and to re-devote my work to serving the neglected and the needy.

What I’ve gained from speaking and listening in an academic environment that emphasizes intellectual exploration, social connection and personal transformation is first and foremost – as the summit’s slogan goes “Return, Reflect, Re-connect.” But more importantly, the weekend-long reunion reinvigorated my commitment and sense of mission that the privilege we’ve received in an elite higher education cocoon requires us to step out of our comfort zone and to give back more of ourselves. Giving not only money, time, energy, but also challenging ourselves to imagine innovative ways to lead, serve, inspire and create more opportunities for those with less to succeed and thrive.

Here are 3 ideas from various speakers that have stayed with me which I hope will stimulate your own reflection about who you want to be, and how to approach your work and life.

#1) Who are leaders? – Leaders help you, share their knowledge and resources, motivate you to accomplish your goal. Leaders forge new initiatives, set direction, strategy and examples to achieve results. But leaders may not always inspire you. Heroes inspire you.

#2) Who are heroes? – We all aspire to be heroes. Heroes are admired, celebrated and memorialized. Why? A hero’s journey often involves sacrifice in pursuit of a higher purpose than oneself.  Heroes have a lasting hold on our hearts and minds.

#3) Failure – Failures are painful but inevitable and valuable. Disappointment and failures are humbling and grounding. Failures help us discover our weaknesses, correct our false assumptions, identify true friends and family.

During moments of our introspective examination of our Asian cultural heritage, we also remember the demands from our parents who often base their expectations on outdated metrics of success – high score, big paycheck, big name.  But big is not for everyone. You can’t take fortune or fame with you, but you can leave a legacy of impact.

Re-defining success to include volunteering, giving away material possession and maintaining a healthy mental attitude, showing compassion for the underprivileged, extending empathy for the marginalized – is a not only the right thing to do for those of us who have access to higher education and resources, it is an honor to give and share as we have received so abundantly.

Mable, New York

Mable Chan

Mable Chan is the founder of China Personified. Her contact is mablechan@chinapersonified.com.