In Building Up Without Tearing Down, Chad Ellsworth reveals how important it is to cultivate positive ways of initiating people into our organizations and then helping them become true leaders by cultivating the Heroic Arts.
Ellsworth’s interest in heroic leadership began when he joined a fraternity in college and experienced hazing. He then made a promise to himself that he would work to end hazing in his fraternity; when that did not turn out well, as he shares in these pages, he made a commitment to do so on a larger level. Today, he works to make organizations of all types and levels be aware that we do not help our organizations or the individuals involved in them to become better and stronger when we use techniques that humiliate or lessen the people in them.
After sharing his own personal hazing story in Building Up Without Tearing Down, Ellsworth calls for us all to speak up when we see what is wrong in our organizations and to help cultivate the Heroic Arts in ourselves and in other individuals. Drawing upon the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell, Ellsworth asks us to embark on our own personal hero journeys. He notes that change in an organization has to begin with the individual, citing Gandhi’s famous line “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” As Joseph Campbell outlines among the key elements of any hero journey, the hero must first learn something about himself, and then he must return with his newfound knowledge to share it with others. Ellsworth walks us through how to go on that hero journey for ourselves so we will be stronger, wiser, and better prepared to lead first ourselves and then others in creating improvements and a better experience within our organizations. In the process, we will discover, as Aristotle said, that “Where your talents and the needs of the world cross lies your calling.”
Building Up Without Tearing Down is divided into five parts: Emerging from Hazing, Challenging the Status Quo, Applying the Heroic Arts, Confronting the Forces Against You, and Changing Your World. Each part is then divided into several chapters. For example, Part IV: Confronting the Forces Against You, is divided into chapters on Engaging Your Enemies, Facing Your Fears, Falling on Your Face, Resolving to Rise, and Breaking Through. Ellsworth walks us through each step or process in the journey to becoming a hero in our own lives. Each chapter also contains exercises with reflective and action-oriented questions so you can develop and apply the skills you learn.
I could say a great deal about every section of this book, but I’ll just mention a few highlights here. One thing about Building Up Without Tearing Down that really interested me was Ellsworth’s fraternity experiences. Having never belonged to a fraternity myself, I always thought the purpose of fraternities and sororities was just friendship and a lot of partying, but Ellsworth shares with us that these organizations were founded to make their members better people and to help society at large. He says the original founders of fraternities “believed if the idea was successful, it would create a long-lasting movement that would feed the hungry, give clothes to the poor, and provide comfort and medicine to the sick, all while providing life-changing experiences to the people within the movement.” Unfortunately, hazing is a sign that many of these organizations have fallen away from that ideal, but Ellsworth is working to change that, and we can all do the same, whether it’s a fraternity we belong to, or a corporation, church, social club, or any other type of organization.
The call to be a hero is not an easy one. In fact, it’s scary, but Ellsworth reminds us that all heroes are human, and we can find comfort in their less flattering moments. For example, he shares with us how during the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. was close to giving up and afraid of looking weak and like a coward to his followers. Ellsworth also shows us how we don’t have to be visible powerful leaders to affect change. He shares as an example how Ronald Reagan’s request to remove the Berlin Wall did not accomplish anything, but when ordinary people decided they were going to pass through the gates in the wall, despite being told they would be killed, they banded together and eventually exerted the social pressure that resulted in the wall coming down.
Throughout the book, Ellsworth provides some wonderful inspirational quotes. One very appropriate for the Berlin Wall situation that he includes is by J. R. R. Tolkien: “Some people believe that it is only great power that can hold evil in check. But that is not what I have found. I’ve found it is the small things, everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keeps the darkness at bay. Simple acts of kindness and love.” Another quote that emphasizes our connection and influence upon one another is from Martin Luther King, Jr. “We are all… tied in a single garment of destiny… I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”
Ellsworth makes the case that not only can each of us be heroes, but that the world needs each of us to be heroes, citing a story of a sweatshirt he recently received that features more than ninety distinct superheroes. He loves the shirt because it reminds him that “the challenges facing our world are far greater than any one superhero can solve. We need a collection of superheroes from countless backgrounds with countless different strengths to take on the challenges facing our world.” In other words, we can’t wait around for someone with Superman or Wonder Woman skills to save us. We each need to do our part to make this world a better place.
You may not yet know what your part is, but if you want to make your life, your organization, and your world better, reading Building Up Without Tearing Down is a great place to start, and after that, the sky may be the limit.