03/14/2013 01:38 pm ET Updated May 14, 2013

Heroes for Different Times

We change our heroes. Or the times change, and those we looked up to or admired may seem different in the light of a different day, a different age.

Consider America's Founding Fathers. Only a few years ago, you'd have been hard pressed to find anyone mention John Adams in the same breath as Thomas Jefferson or George Washington or even Alexander Hamilton. But thanks to the bestselling biography by David McCullough, and the subsequent HBO miniseries, which both revealed America's second president to be an important, even essential, part of our early development as a nation, John Adams began to emerge as a human figure with human failings and a heroic nature despite himself. Perfect for our age when we want people to be real, even historical icons.

Now consider Thomas Jefferson. This complicated Founding Father, has been assessed and reassessed over the course of two centuries, and while he's still an important figure in American history, now that we know more about his conflicted attitudes toward slavery, his unsavory romantic entanglements and his deep personal flaws, he's less likely to be looked up to as the quintessential Enlightenment genius. Important, yes -- but peerless? Hmm.

I thought of this when reading an article about Lei Feng, a soldier in China's People's Liberation Army who died at the age of 21 and whose "story" -- or what was written to be his story -- was used by the Communist Party in China to espouse the values of someone who was selflessly devoted to China (or rather, communist China).

But apparently, Lei Feng no longer has the same sort of impact, especially since China, though still an authoritarian state, has embraced capitalism (or at least capital markets). According to an article in The New York Times, "National celebrations of 'Learn from Lei Feng Day'...turned into something of a public relations debacle after the party icon's celluloid resurrection in not one but three films about his life was thwarted by a distinctly capitalist weapon: the box office bomb."

In Pendulum, which I co-wrote with Roy H. Williams, we argue that the social cycles in Eastern and Western cultures are different. Here in the Western world we're currently in what we call a "We" cycle, which began a decade ago, and where we tend to prefer community actions over individualism. In Asia, or the Eastern world from our perspective, the cycle is more "Me," when individualism is considered a defining characteristic of relevance even greatness.

Yet the world is becoming more fluid. And perhaps because even China is now embracing a global and Internet-savvy economy, some Western attitudes are creeping in, such as those in our current "We" cycle. Propaganda heroes such as Lei Feng no longer speak to people who want what's real and what's relevant, not what the party line dictates.

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