The Hero With A Thousand Deaths

Tom GibbonsLeadership, Organization DevelopmentLeave a Comment

Earlier this September, Network Member Steve Boehlke was in Johannesburg, South Africa working with a group of young African entrepreneurs in conjunction with the African Leadership Academy .  On one of the days there he tweeted that the group was testing the hero’s journey and linked us to an article by Candace Allen that talked about the hero’s journey within the context of the entrepreneur.

 She talks of Joseph Campbell’s great work, The Hero With A Thousand Faces where he illustrates the classic myth of the hero’s journey and how this myth is seen across cultures and time in various ways.  It is a myth that in many ways we all share and Campbell shows us how we have been, and still are linked together within this journey of the hero.  Allen outlines the mythical hero’s journey as described by Campbell as follows:

The first stage involves departure from the familiar and comfortable into the unknown, risking failure and loss—a venturing forth for some greater purpose or idea. The second stage is the encountering of hardship and challenge, and the mustering of courage and strength to overcome or discover. The third is the return to the community with something new or better than what was there before. Ultimately, the hero is the representative of the new—the founder of a new age, a new religion, a new city, the founder of a new way of life or a new way of protecting the village against harm; the founder of processes or products that make people in their communities and the world better off.

I think that most managers in today’s organizations are actually stuck in the second of the three phases of this journey. It is this stuck and stunted hero that is dying and rightfully so.  In organizations we never stop encountering hardship and challenge.  We never stop slaying the dragon so to speak.  And yet now, as organizations change at unprecedented rates, and roles are changing just as fast, the completion of the hero’s journey is being forced upon virtually all of us. 

  •  We are asked to slay dragons every day, to lead the charge and then we sit in leadership courses that tell us we need to share leadership.
  • We learn we must have control of our business units while we have no real idea what the people in those business units are doing let alone what they know. 
  • We diligently take accountability for results that we know in our bones we have no control over. 
  • We live in a constant state of irresolvable paradox and expect that we should be able to resolve them. 

 We are being dragged into the return phase of the hero’s journey and it is not easy to cross the threshold of return, being stuck slaying dragons for so long and being rewarded for it. The stunted hero of organizational life today – the manager – is dying, some metaphorically, some literally.  The challenge still remains as it has through the ages.  Do we have courage enough to let something die so that something transformed can return?

 As Campbell points out near the end of the book, the journey of the hero of today is not the same journey of myth.  But the need to complete the third step of the mythical journey is still there.  The need to return; to return to the community with something new or better than what was there before.  That something is not a new product or better efficiency, although that might be achieved as well.  The key word in that phrase above is not the word new or better.  It is ‘community’.  But it will not be the ‘community’ as we might define and understand this term today. 

 As Campbell points out the hero of myth had very little relationship to the word ‘I’.  The hero of myth identified very strongly with some kind of a ‘we’, be that family, tribe, community, region, kingdom or country.  This does not pertain just to myth.  Sociologist Norbert Elias in his book The Society of Individuals ( points out that this ‘we’ identity changed as society changed and those that at one point in history identified with the ‘we’ of tribe, could not imagine someday identifying with a ‘we’ called kingdom.  But whatever it might have looked like, it was still an important ‘we’ identity.  It was not until well into the Middle Ages that a word to represent an individual, a word like ‘I’ even existed.  Today it seems it is just about ALL that exists, especially in organizations, and especially with managers and those ‘taught’ to be leaders.

 It is this ‘I’ – the hero as an ‘I’ – stuck in the second phase of the hero’s journey that is dying a thousand deaths. 

 It is not dying, then to be replaced by some all powerful ‘we’, but to be transformed into something that has a least some semblance of a ‘we’ identity.  Something that means and identifies with more than just what a single individual means.  Just as in the past we do not know what that will look like.  The hero of myth did not know what the impact would be from what she or he returned to the community with, just as we do not know what a ‘we’ identity will look like in the next generation of organizations. 

 I hope those young African entrepreneurs were engaged to find a way to be part of shaping this transformation, this ‘community’, this ‘we’ however it may be experienced.

 We will all be part of this.

Author – Tom

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