4 Living Heroes to Inspire Your Leadership

How can you become a great leader? Look to today's heroes for guidance.
April 30, 2014

Heroes, living and dead, have the power to inspire us. That's why so many successful people strongly recommend reading biographies. By reading about the lives of powerful people, we can plan our success and meet our challenges with better knowledge, greater preparedness and a fiercer sense of optimism and empowerment.

Living heroes take this concept one step further. They're living, breathing individuals, which makes it easier to imagine yourself accomplishing similar feats than when comparing yourself to a long-dead Napoleon, Rockefeller or even Ray Kroc. Even better, living heroes are still alive and available for correspondence. The following four living heroes will inspire you with their accomplishments, and their stories will help supercharge your leadership. 

Thich Nhat Hanh


Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh giving a public dhamma talk at


Born in 1926 under the name Nguyen Xuan Bao, Thich Nhat Hanh started studying Buddhism in 1942 and by 1962 had come to the U.S. to study comparative religion at Princeton. Despite earning a lecturer position at Columbia University, he returned to Vietnam in 1963 to join a peace movement led by his fellow monks. When asked if he was from the North or the South of that war-torn country, he would answer, "I'm from the middle." In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. He has since authored dozens of books in English, French and Vietnamese, and has become a global leader for peace and mindful living.

Superpower: Dedication and sacrifice. Despite the opportunities and safety afforded to an educated leader in the West, he returned to a war zone to support ideas he thought right. As a practicing monk, he continues to eschew physical luxuries despite the tens of millions of dollars raised by his writings and his ministry. As a leader, his dedication and sacrifice inspires others to do the same.

Super Challenge: What are you willing to give up to accomplish your goals? Are you asking anybody on your team to give up more than you do?

Pam Dorr

The first half of Dorr's career was spent in design and management for major retailers including Victoria's Secret and Gap. In 2008, she left the corporate world to work with Samuel Mockbee's Rural Studio, a combination undergraduate architecture program and housing assistance organization in Hale County, Alabama. Dorr expanded the organization's mission to include life skills training and employment assistance. When federal funding dried up in 2009, she applied her entrepreneurial spirit to open more than 20 businesses and collect profits that exceeded the funding shortfall. Her programs continue to revitalize the economy and empower the people of Hale County, Alabama.


Pam Dorr - HERO Housing


Superpower: Resourcefulness. One of Dorr's most successful programs is HEROBike, which builds bicycle frames out of bamboo—a nuisance plant that grows like a weed in Hale County. Then there's PieLab, which generates $25,000 a month in revenue; and was started when she found a discarded but repairable industrial oven. Wherever she turns, Dorr finds and capitalizes on opportunities others might have missed.

Super Challenge: How many opportunities do you miss because you're not looking for them? Do you listen to your team when they bring ideas to your attention?

Tom Callos


Tom Callos


Callos began his career as part of Ernie Reyes' West Coast Demo Team, an elite martial arts performance group based in California. He spent the '80s running one of the most successful and profitable martial arts schools in the country, but ultimately soured on the industry as it became more about profit and less about growing martial artists. He ultimately founded "The One Hundred," a group that encourages martial arts school owners to turn their schools into local hubs for activism, charitable works and community leadership. His followers have raised hundreds of thousands for local charities, formed global not-for-profits and one has even delivered a TED talk.

Superpower: Empowerment. Tom accomplishes plenty on his own, but his real mission is helping other people find their passions and the resources to act on them. This extends both to encouraging other industry insiders to reexamine their priorities and to find worthwhile causes outside the industry and sending a handful of black belts to help them out.

Super Challenge: Is your organization all about you, with everybody's efforts going toward your own development and aggrandizement? Or do you spend your hours finding ways to help your team succeed?

Julia Butterfly Hill

Like many other superheroes, Hill's creation story begins with an accident. At 22, while acting as designated driver for a friend, she was struck by a drunk driver in an accident that left her with nearly a year of therapy before she could walk or talk again. That experience led to a serious reexamination of her life and values which culminated in her taking a stand for the environment. To protest clear-cutting of old-growth redwoods, she lived at the top of a 180-foot redwood tree for 738 days until the lumber company agreed to preserve the tree and the grove in which it stood. Since then, she has traveled worldwide both as a motivational speaker and an environmental and social activist.


Julia Butterfly Hill


Superpower: Courage. Hill stayed 18 stories above ground even when the lumber company brought in a helicopter to whip her with hurricane-force winds. She went to Ecuador to protest a pipeline despite the fact that local activists were "disappearing." 

Super Challenge: What scares you about bringing your organization to the next level? Why aren't you turning that fear into motivation?

Who are your living heroes? Why are they your heroes? Share with us in the comments section below.

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Photos: Getty Images, Tom Callos, HERO Housing