Never have we been more in need of heroes.

In 1968, Simon and Garfunkel yearned for Joe Dimaggio. In 1977, "Star Wars" offered a new hope.  In 2016 Yu-Gi-Oh — the wildly popular Japanese collectible card game — proclaimed that a new hero was rising. We are always looking for heroes. Heroes represent the best of us and help us to see the best in ourselves. In today's moment, we desperately need to believe in ourselves, and to do so there must be those that we can look up to and believe in.

Today's social justice moment has dismantled heroes that have previously long been revered. Perhaps this is a good thing. Revisiting history is a process of promulgating a national consciousness that acknowledges hard truths. Those truths can sometimes be bitter to swallow.

Today's political moment has diminished trust in institutions long-held to be our protectors and arbiters of progress. Not only is trust in political institutions disintegrating, but trust in those that supposedly shepherd those institutions is also downright decomposing.

Today's public health moment terrifies the old and young alike — social ties broken, free movement restricted, economies splintered, opportunities evaporated and lives lost. For the first time in two generations, we are scared. We are scared to leave our house, to visit our grandparents and to greet strangers and friends alike.

And this is only a partial list.

I say again: never have we been more in need of heroes.

Heroes have always been important. They have been held out as representing the best of us throughout our past, present and future. All cultures commit to profiling and proclaiming them and this is not coincidental. We do this because it fulfills certain social and psychological needs.

There are many such psychological needs, but one of them is the need for individuals with exemplary qualities who can lead through a time of great tumult, disruption and confusion. We seem to recognize, on some level, that our well-being as a society relies on leaders who are not just dynamic, forceful and charismatic but who also embody moral virtues. In this respect, not all leaders are heroes and not all heroes are leaders, but there have always been those who are both heroes and leaders, and it is those kinds of heroes that we particularly yearn for in today's moment.

In short, we are in great need of hero-leaders right now. But the notion of heroic leadership deserves frequent revisiting.  What makes the heroic leaders who went before or since so worthy of edifying?  Why these burnished examples and not others?

7 Leadership Practices to Motivate Your Team This is a representational image. Photo: Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

Before we examine this, let's begin by agreeing that heroes are flawed. They may be exalted in certain ways but they are still human beings who often face extraordinary pressures and circumstances. They make mistakes, sometimes big ones. But these flaws and mistakes do not necessarily contradict, nor are they incompatible with, the quality of heroic leadership.

There are three reasons, then, that heroic leaders are so valuable.

First, they're recognizable. Obviously, they do not always start out that way, but they are able to reach a place where they are widely known and recognized. There are many leaders past and present who are not well-known, but heroes who are also leaders must, by necessity, be recognizable. That is because to be effective, a heroic leader must connect with as many observers as possible. Minimum tuned in means maximum tuned out, and attention is the basis for discussing and debating, determining and doubting. Does everybody love them? Absolutely not.  Does everyone know them? Absolutely. The platform needs to reach as many as possible, and hero-leaders are able to do that.

Heroic leaders do not seek recognition for recognition's sake, however. They seek it because it makes widespread and long-lasting societal impact possible. Heroic leaders from the past amassed powerful followerships and changed the world in lasting ways. Their enduring recognition, echoing from the past into the present, means that their deeds have survived the test of time. They've been written into history books.  They've been taught in schools.  They've been the subject of dissertations. They have legs, so to speak, and to have legs you must have done something worth remembering.

Second, heroes have a singularity of purpose and vision. They are able to see, with unshakable clarity, the end they are pursuing, and it is ever present in their frontal lobes.  You could say they are obsessed. But great hero-leaders of the past were undeniably obsessive in the quest for, and the defense of, their hoped-for future. Everything they did was in service of it, consciously or not.  It fed, and fed off of, their intellectual, emotional and behavioral command. To be obsessed is to think of a thing unceasingly and persistently. The etymology of the word "obsession" is psychological (to "haunt") and military (to "besiege"). In other words, the hero's mind is haunted and besieged by a goal or purpose. This singularity of mind leverages energy into force and force into motion, thus setting into motion events with the capacity to change the world.

Third, heroes are not just for their followers, they are their followers. They don't stand beside the river as we gasp for air; they are rushing along in the river with us.  They don't have to understand the people because they are the people. This does not mean that heroic leaders have to be of the same socio-economic status or cultural backgrounds as their followers. Churchill was upper crust, for example, while Britain wasn't. Eamon de Valera was as much Spanish as Irish. That's not important. What is important is empathy. Heroic leaders are able to feel what their followers feel and to act as them. Their emotional responses are perfectly consistent with those of their supporters. They have, and are, the pulse of their people, which also helps explain why they are so beloved.

These three qualities — recognizability, singularity of purpose and empathy with (and for) their followers — provide the foundation for why heroic leaders are important, and more importantly, why they are as relevant as ever.

Heroic leaders embody what we want to — and sometimes do — see in ourselves.  We tell their stories because they are projections of who we wish to be. They are our greatest stories because they reinforce the belief that one person can change the world, and believing that enables us to do just that. For all these reasons, heroic leaders are the vehicles by which we should, and do, grasp and erect our own leadership. The importance of living, and leading, by example was thus never truer.

Never have we been more in need of heroes.

(James R. Bailey is a professor of leadership development at the George Washington University School of Business)