Constructing the social business story as a Hero’s Journey inspires strategic thinking in depth and detail.
By Ron Schultz
Part of the Creating Good Work series.
We learn from each other by telling stories. Connections emerge and then deepen from the narratives we share.
As Eli Weisel would tell you, “God loves man, because he loves stories.” And courtesy of the late and extraordinary mythologist, Joseph Campbell, we have been given one of the most satisfying of storytelling structures, the Hero’s Journey.
As the story goes, Campbell holed up for five years with myths from every culture around the world. And what he discovered within that voluminous research was that there was an archetypal structure that hero stories told in every country in the world followed.
The Hero’s Journey As a Business Story
Many years ago, I realized that strategic planning was nothing more than business storytelling, and that if one were to apply Campbell’s Hero’s Journey structure to business, it might prove to be an incredibly powerful tool. I was right.
Since my first foray when I guided the board of directors of Engineers without Borders through the methodology, I have employed it dozens of times. And it has worked within aerospace operations, engineering companies, Internet start-ups, healthcare companies, publishers, non-profits, farming concerns, and all manner of social enterprise, as well as some not so social. It has only failed me once, and that was because I ran into someone more controlling than me, and she wasn’t about to let it succeed. And so it goes.
Telling The Story
Since I can only take credit for adapting Campbell, I figured it’s about time I shared this wisdom with others. I call the methodology the Compelling Journey and my experience with it has been precisely that. If you read Creating Good Work – The World’s Leading Social Entrepreneurs Show How to Build a Healthy Economy, you will see the process repeated in action, again and again.
In both Campbell’s description and the Compelling Journey, the story begins in the current world in which we are operating. This isn’t about describing geo-political issues, unless they apply, but simply an awareness of ordinary day-to-day life for the enterprise.
“I Don’t Do Dragons”
Next comes the call to action -- what must be accomplished.
In Campbell’s world it might be the villagers arriving on your doorstep, screaming, “We’ve got a rampaging dragon and you have to take care of it.” In the world of social business, it might show up very differently, but feel much like we have to go deal with a dragon.
So, it might be no surprise that at this point in the Campbell structure, the hero refuses the call.
“You know, I really don’t do dragons.”
In the Compelling Journey, this is the point where we take a close and very personal look at our personal barriers that keep us from meeting what we have been called to accomplish.
We often tend to avoid this examination for fear of looking incompetent or worse, unwilling to meet the demands of our work. But being willing to honestly recognize and acknowledge what blocks us at those moments we are called on to step-up, can be incredibly liberating. Getting to that place is not always easy.
Facing The Dragon
But with the proper knowledge and inspiration, we can more easily face these fears. For example, in the case of the dragon, that knowledge might be that the dragon has your child.
Now that would certainly be enough knowledge to get me through my fears and barriers about dragons. But before we go charging off to meet the calling, we had better do some research and learn all we can about dealing with a dragon. If we don’t, we might literally become toast. We need to know what we don’t know before facing the beast.
Organizational And Cultural Barriers
But having the knowledge to face our own barriers is not enough. Before we face our ultimate challenge, we will invariably run-up against a whole series of organizational or cultural obstacles that might also keep us from accomplishing our task.
Unlike personal barriers, which are fairly fluid and shift along with a person’s current emotional perspective, organizational and cultural barriers are often more deeply entrenched. They form the boundary that keeps us operating in the current world.
That’s the good news and the bad.
The bad news is that because they are so deeply dug in and concretized, you can’t just bash your way through them. The good news is, because they are stuck and can’t be moved, you can usually go over them, around them, beneath them, slip between a chink in the wall or perhaps convince the organizational guardians that protect this barrier that it’s in their best self-interest to look the other way.
A New World Of Opportunity
After we figure out how to clamber around these barriers, we suddenly find themselves in a new world of opportunity. Think of Dorothy landing in Oz. The first thing we have to do in this new world is figure out who our allies are and who might be our adversaries. We are not necessarily looking for enemies, but those who might be inadvertently getting in the way. Often the first test in the new world is to transform adversaries into allies.
For Campbell, the next step is the precipice just before the hero’s supreme ordeal.
In the Compelling Journey, it’s the role required from leadership to move everything forward toward accomplishing the call to action. In this context, leadership is really a reflexive action. It requires a level of mindfulness and contemplation. Having come all this way, we’re not about to rush off without completely checking-in with ourselves and having a clear perspective of what is in front of us.
Dragons As Allies
It is out of this reflexive perspective that we journey to face the dragon. Now it should be mentioned that at no time have I ever suggested we kill the dragon. In this case, the dragon needs to be subdued, not destroyed.
Having dragon energy as a competitive advantage is a powerful ally. Harnessing that is often the most difficult part of this ordeal. But having done so, it is important to celebrate the achievement, without ever losing sight of why we began the journey in the first place. In the case of social entrepreneurs, the reason we take this journey is to benefit others.
As the celebration comes to an end, it is time for us to return to the world from which we started, baring what we have learned from the journey so we can share it with those we have set out to help.
What separates the Hero’s Journey/Compelling Journey from other strategic methodologies is the depth and detail of the narrative created. This is a structure that has been used for centuries to inspire, teach, and compel action. It describes the human condition and its struggles and all its iterations to benefit others.
Using it to tell the story of how we intend to shift the social challenges we encounter connects us not only to our current ordeal, but to all previous and future journeys, taken throughout the lineage of history. When we tell the story in its entirety, we discover it’s how we’ve always gotten things done. It’s how we release the dragon and make it our ally.
The secret to our success, however, is in how we choose to tell the story.