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Tag: Hero’s Journey

The ups and downs of the Hero’s story

When your story, which genre do you use?

Are you the Hero?

Were you rollicking along quite happily when an unexpected call for your attention, effort and skills arrived out-of-the blue?

Did you hesitate but eventually relent?

Was your journey rocky at moments, yet in quite surprising ways, did the world come out to help you?

Did you triumph eventually, though most of the time you thought you would fail, horribly?

Did you come home at last, and sadly find an unappreciative audience?

You might be a Villain of course

You were rollicking along quite happily doing your thing when, suddenly, you had a chance to do something, well, not so honest, pleasant or fair to advance your cause?  And you took your chance.  You succeeded wonderfully.  You have the champagne and fast car to prove it but you will never be a push-over again?

Or you might be a Tragic Victim

You weren’t rollicking along quite happily and you got the call for your attention anyway.  And it was a pain in the rear end.  And it all went badly.  As it always does.

Do you prefer the Hero story?

We tell all three stories but it seems that we like the first best.  We like the scary Hero story which comes out OK in the end.

But it is very scary along the way.

1  Refusal of the call

We no more want to accept the call than we want to get up at 5am on a Sunday morning.  Our creature comforts are important to us.   But equally we are glad, pretty much as we do when we are up and about before sunrise. Our horizons widen and we feel vital and alive.  It’s a viseral thing.  It’s not scientific or measured by a questionnaire. It’s visceral.   We feel our pulse quicken.  We feel engaged.  We feel that we are living.

2  Trials and Tribulations

Yes, we have the special skills and qualities to pull this off for those who ask, but it is a big ask.  And failure flashes before us.  It really seems that this is the one that will get away.

And not everyone wants us to succeed, either.  There are plenty who would have us fail and will do their utmost to make sure we do.

Yet, there are others who come out to help us.  Once we have got over our earlier procastination and unwillingness to get going, the universe conspires to help us.

We don’t know that we will succeed.  But we do that we want to, for ourselves, for the people who asked, and for the people who joined us along the way.  Our desire to succeed makes the possibility of failure all the more scary.

3  The return

And the oddest feature of all in the hero’s story is the disorientation we feel on our return.

We may be a hero returned from a war.  We might have won a gold medal at the Olympics.  We may have graduated from uni.

We have the party.  We have the parade.  But it is a let-down.

We aren’t being party-poopers or ungrateful.  It’s just that we are no longer who we were when we began, and nor are the people we left behind.  We have a lot of catching up to do.

Some people don’t try.  They leave again and try to relive their adventure.  Grand prix racing drivers spring into my unkind mind.

Some people go quiet.  Old soldiers do particularly.  People cannot understand what they have gone through.

Others understand that they are in a new phase of their lives.  They engage with the community around them and they bring their new selves to what is happening around them.  They may have a relatively quiet period as they become reoriented and re-weave their place within it.  This can be hard.  But it is easier when we live the question.

How can we, who have been away, find our way in the old life to which we return, but which is really a new place whee we return as a stranger.

What is our call now?  What is our new adventure?  What is the new call from the people around us?

The words of poet Mary Oliver get us a clue.

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

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Are you out of touch with the blooming of your life?

And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom

Anais Nin

I wonder when that time comes?

We fret when we are not blooming

I think we always know when the blooming is about to happen just as surely as some days we wake up and know we will tear through the to do list. But we can’t bloom all the time and when we aren’t blooming, we fret.

  • Some times we are anxious to flower before our time. We are not really ready to bloom. We are just anxious that we will miss the summer. We want reassurance like a child needs to know how many nights to Christmas.

Our sense of timing has gone missing. I am sure we could get it back with a few moments quiet contemplation or a five minutes of genuine listening to a friend’s distress.

  • Other times we are reluctant to bloom and we miss the summer. Sometimes we are not paying attention or we are trying to blackmail the world.

Maybe we need to “go out” and get in touch with the world to see if we notice the seasons changing. Maybe our friend needs a brief of fresh air or a change of scenery.

  • Other times we need to blossom but the weather is foul and we don’t want our fine petals to be cast into the wind.  We fret because we also know that there is no time other than now. “Conduct you blooming in the noise and crack of the whirlwind.” says Gwendolyn Brooks.

Maybe we stopping through vanity. Yes, we will be ragged and have no idea where our petals will fly. Maybe they will just lie unnoticed.

But it is time to bloom. And we can’t remain in a tight bud out of vanity.  It is time to burst into flower.

We always know when we are about to bloom

We will know when we are going to bloom anyway. Though we may have no applause.

No need to be vain. Bloom.

Autumn will come soon and we will be in another season of our lives.

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5 pretty petals of future work

I can see clearly now

Today, I visited Wirerarchy, Jon Husband’s blog. I was delighted to find the 5 principles of future work in plain language.

I do encourage you to go over and read his version.

To make sure I fully understood what Jon was saying, I rewrote his five points in my own words and compared them to other writings on the future of work.

Yes, Jon’s principles almost perfectly match the work on positive organizational scholarship, poetry and work, Hero’s Journey and positive organizational design.   Jon uses much more accessible language though.

Here is my version. I’ll add links to other versions below. And then I’ll walk the talk and tell you how I used the principles in the most unlikeliest of circumstances!

1 Changing focus

The future of work is not about institutions and organizations.

The future of work is about you and me.

2 Listening to the people who do the work

We don’t want to talk about abstract theories any more.

We want to hear the stories of people. Directly. With no translation.

3 Valuing what we can do for ourselves

We don’t want organizations and institutions to decide things for us.

We ‘ll support changes that allow us to do things for ourselves.

4 Representing ourselves

We won’t listen to so-called experts who secretly represent other people.

We’ll listen to people we know or who our friends recommend.

5 Being active and positive

We aren’t interested in being told to wait.

We will begin with what we do well. Right here. Right now.

How would you phrase these rules-of-thumb?

I would love to hear what you think of these rules-of-thumb and the way I have phrased them.

Links to my previous posts and slideshare

All phrased a lot more esoterically –

Previous posts on future work

The essence of a happy life is a point of view

5 point comparison of the Hero’s Journey, Appreciative Inquiry and Positive Psychology

5 poetic steps for exiting a Catch 22

Lighten your personal burden for navigating 2009

Be still: Kafka and Joseph Campbell

Slideshare on future work

Positive organizational design

Positive organizational scholarship

So how will we get things done in this enchanting, new world?

For three years, I taught Management to a very large class of 800 to 900 students in a lecture theatre with 400 seats. You may remember attending lectures in one of these oversized rooms yourself. Hordes of students come in and sit in rows and struggle to stay awake as the lecturer drones on.

Of course, no lecturer wakes up in the morning intent on being deadly dull. But they do feel constrained. After all, how much can you do with this format and the size of the class?

Well, a surprising amount – if you follow the principles above.

The world through the eyes of the individual

I was teaching Management and Organizations. Students simply aren’t interested in perspective of the organization. But if you can think of how they view the organization from the vantage point of their part-time jobs and where their careers are going, then you have their attention.

Give me the whole story at once – circumstances, goal, steps, feedback loops, quirks and fancies

Students aren’t interested in the rules of organizing. No matter how elegant these rules are or how much work we put into thinking them up and trying them out!. They do like case studies, though, where they could follow a story. Then their active intellects take over. They imagine themselves playing a similar role in similar circumstances and start asking probing questions.

Don’t leave me out of the story – let me try out parts of it

Students don’t like being passive. Taking notes is better than sitting still. Solving puzzles is even better. I used questionnaires a lot in which they could see illustrations of concepts and relate them to themselves. Or I used two sets of power point slides – theirs had blank spaces and mine had the answers. In this way, they could anticipate (not just fill in) what I was going to say.

The way I relate to other people is part of the story – I’ll do this with others

Learning is social and students are influenced more by their peers than by us. They like to see and hear what other students think. There is a surprising amount of feedback from the noise and murmuring in a lecture room which is why so many students come to class in the first place! We also took polls often with a show of hands. It is active in an minor way. More importantly, students could see how much opinions varied. Developing a keen acumen of how much we vary in our preferences will be important to them as organizational leaders and influential citizens.

Harvard has a video of 2009 Reith lecturer, Michael Sandel, using the Socratic method with 800 students in one lecture theatre. Our students would have liked that – as long as we were able to be as courteous as Professor Sandel. Students really don’t like being put in the wrong in front of their friends, particularly in such a large room. (Who does?)

There is no journey unless I can take the first step

The jobs my students imagined after graduation were, to my surprise, not particularly ambitious. Though I didn’t fully approve at the time, now I think they had a well developed sense of starting with the ‘ground beneath their feet’ and growing from there.

These students particularly liked techniques that helped them do their jobs better, right now, or helped them put in words something that had puzzled them for some time.

Am I exaggerating the good points and dismissing the weak points?

You might be thinking that this was a University – we set the curriculum and the exams and the students did not have much control.

It is true that we began each year with a ‘classical’ textbook. But we would take topics that students had responded to well and use those as cornerstones to introduce new topics -or extend the conversation, so to speak. Thus as the year proceeded, a theme would emerge that was distinctive for that class.

One year, for example, the refrain became: “I will be me as I am. Not who you want me to be”.

You might recognize this line as coming from the film about Steve Biko, Cry Freedom.

Organizing for  “Me as I am.  Not who you want me to be.”

The challenge of management, as we put it to that class, is to design organizations where each of us can be “Me as I am. Not who you want me to be.”

What do you think?

Can you imagine organizing along these lines? Would you like to give me a case and see if I can rephrase it using Jon’s five principles?

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Learning about leadership from bankers :)

How do you greet a banker?

I did the two-step shuffle down the aisle of the aircraft, muttering apologies here and there, bobbed and weaved like Muhammed Ali  determined to get to my seat quickly, without being run over by bags-on-wheels, or clouted over the head with duty free wine as someone swings it into an overhead locker.

Blessed relief.  My seat!  Unfold the seat belt.  Move the blanket and pillow.  Plop myself down.  Greet my neighor.  Start chatting civilly.

It turn’s out my neighbor is an ex-banker.  I catch my breath for a moment, feel my pupils dilate slightly, and I burst out laughing.  A test of social skills, perhaps?

How do you greet a banker who helped design the Titanic of the UK economy – the ship that would never sink?

He’s a idiot, he’s a fool, he’s knave  .  .  . do I greet him with contempt, anger or curiosity?  Sell him something perhaps. He’s gullible after all.

Behind my impulse to laugh is a mix of embarrassment (for him) and traces of British irony – can’t fix it so you may as well live with it.

The natural born salesman, on the other hand, approaches life differently.  He understands that everyone should take initiative – all the time, every day, where ever we find ourselves.

These three attitudes correspond to three prominent ways of we talk about leadership.


In the heroic idea of leadership, which we often associate with American movies, an individual leader rises to the fore, points to the horizon, and carries us off to our salvation.  It’s deemed hard to do.  That, of course, is just a belief to justify rewarding some people a lot more than others.

We have this idea in British culture too.  In the biography of Winston Churchill, Gathering Storm, it is clear that Winston had strong ideas about saving his country, long before there was any call to do so.

The trouble with heroism is that outside the moment of heroism, we look more than a little batty.


The ironic story line of leadership runs a little differently.  It goes like this.  I tried.  It didn’t work out.  What a plonker I turned out to be.  So I will go back to the status quo.  It is not so bad after all.

We come together at the end of the story in a ‘group hug’, where no one wins or loses, and there is no challenge at all to distribution of rewards.  We celebrate the status quo.  Very British, of course.

Irony is funny when it is done well, and often awesome in its execution.   But it is a form of narcissism.  We do so love preening ourselves in the mirror.  It is such a good excuse to do nothing!


Personal leadership is a new label for understanding leadership in the networked world.  The salesman who promptly sells something to the ex-banker (a new job or a new Caribbean island, perhaps), sees the world as a network where everyone is influencing everyone else in their small way.  Tacky when I talk about a salesman, but very important as the world becomes more networked.

The Hero’s Journey

This genre, with its understated label, is a version of the heroic – where we are each our own hero traveling our own hero’s journey. It’s inspired by author Joseph Campbell, who believed that all good stories have a heroic structure.  We set off on a quest, meet a number of challenges on the way, overcome them, and return home in triumph to a new challenge – how to integrate our new life with the old.

In the cloud

Though this genre is a simple heroic form, and individualistic to boot, it fits neatly into our every increasingly networked world, where each person really does influence the world, and can influence the world.

I imagine Earth from outer space with a blanket of mist around it, cocooned in a mohair mesh of internet messages.  Anyone with an internet has free access to the cloud.  They need skills, but little is stopping them entering, and influencing, that space.

Swirling with others

But, of course, others are doing that too.  At the same time.  So, it is an ever evolving space and requires a new way of thinking.

Life becomes less a matter of right and wrong.  To predict an outcome requires the world to change slowly.  At the minute you believe you are doing the right thing, someone, maybe a ten year old in a rural village in India, does his own thing, and changes conditions and renderes your calculations incorrect.

To play in the new connected world, we have to play.  We have to be ever present. This bothers people who are not used to taking into account what a ten year old is doing in rural India.  It scares the pants off the old guard.

Learning about personal leadership in the cloud

Well, I might be squirming on behalf of the banker sitting next to me.  And maybe he is a fool or knave. But just maybe, he also understands banking sufficiently to see where banking is going.

Maybe, he will straighten out the mess and be our new hero of tomorrow?

Let me ask.

So where is banking going?  Where do you see banks in the future?

[And if he is heading towards his Caribbean island, maybe I can cadge a invitation for a holiday.  Have I lived in England too long?  Well, this will be an interesting flight, anyway.  I always talk to people on planes.]

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Celebrating my supporters

It’s barely daylight

Today, my mobile phone woke me rudely “It is time to get up: it is 5.30”.  Groan.  Another commute.  Another day.

But I didn’t get up.  I’ve stopped doing that.

I don’t want to stagger through life making someone else’s dreams come true.  I want to make my own dreams come true!

Ah, dreams  . .

Is it possible?  For dreams to be not dreams?

Perhaps not in the blink of an eye.  And certainly not if I panic when I look at the gap between where I am now and where I want to be.

But I can ask myself this question:

Who would like to support me in my quest?  Who would take the greatest of pleasure in helping me along the way?

I smile.  And I hope you do too!


Belonging: what was your take on the inauguration?

Yesterday, January 20 2009, was an exciting day, an astounding day.  I watched almost the entire inauguration, from about 11.30 EST, on Sky’s brilliant HD service, thanks to the tipoff from @stewbagz.  At about 10 o’clock American time, I rang up BT to connect my local deli, the famed MuchADo, owned by Brooklyn-lite, Matt, and with a long phone call, they successfully connected us to WiFi.  So if you are driving up (or down) the M1, plan to exit on J14 near Milton Keynes and drop in for brunch, lunch or tea!   The best deli between London and Edinburgh!

Up-and-running, I apologized to other coffee drinkers and offered to turn down the sound, but they elected to watch too!  I later reconnected at home to Sky’s brilliant HD service and watched through to the end of transmission at midnight British time.

For me, I watched the crowd, which was enormous, and seemingly ‘relieved’ and in a gentle mood.   I watched the organization which leaves me gob-smacked in its size, intricacy and well-oiled machinery.  I listed out for the poetry, and of course, for the speech.

When it was all over, I asked myself what did I really feel under this tidal wave of emotion.  What was the key image?

For me, the key image was undoubtedly the dignitaries coming down to the podium, mostly two-by-two and interspersed nicely to give the commentators a chance to do their thing.

Like so many people, for the first time, I felt that the corridors of power were mine, that I was represented there, and that I could be there just as easily as people I was watching.

For the first time, I feel that if I have a complaint, I can do something about it.  Just do something about it.  Not wait and not beg permission.  Simply raise it to the attention of people who need to know and organize a solution.

For the first time, I feel that if I have a plan, I should just lay it out, discuss it with people who care, and do something about it.

And of course, now the corridors of power are ours, the future is entirely what we make of it.

As a non-American, of course, the corridors of power that I saw are not mine in a  literal sense.  But what America achieved today was a sense that democracy belongs to us.  Thank you.

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No 1 Ladies Detective Agency

Map of Botswana
Image via Wikipedia

Have you read The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency?  Or did you see its premiere on BBC1 last Easter Sunday?

The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency is that – the first detective agency run by a woman – and its novelty is that this series of detective stories is set in contemporary Botswana.

The star of the series, Patience Ramotswe is a heroine, with a large heart, but she is no superwoman.   She is famously ‘traditionally built’ and has few pretensions.  She runs her detective agency on the basis of one “how to” book, and has no particularly skills.   She dislikes telephones, and drives with her handbrake on.

Jill Scott’s  plays Patience Ramotswe in the BBC series.  Ian Wylie quotes Scott’s description of her character:

“She believes in justice and she loves her country.   . . She’s a real woman who has experienced the loss of a child, being heartbroken with her first marriage, but decided that life is so much better, that there’s so much more than those particular heartaches.”

The series of books are written by Alexander McCall Snith and are available from a library or book shop near you!  Fabulous reading but do read them in order as the lives of the characters unfold.  No 1 Ladies . .  is the first in the series.

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Be still

Learn to be quiet

Franz Kafka

You need not do anything.
Remain sitting at your table and listen.
You need not even listen, just wait.
You need not even wait,
just learn to be quiet, still and solitary.
And the world will freely offer itself to you unmasked.
It has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.

Joseph Campbell

We must be willing to get rid of the life we planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.

The world is a match for us.  We are a match for the world.

It is all about finding the still point in your mind where commitment drops away.

P.S. Thanks to readers picking up the following post and it appearing in my side bar, I went back to what I had written 9 months ago.  This post on action and stillness has many useful links to the psychological and scientific literature.


Virgin, Martyr, Saint, Witch?

Boys can play too!

Who was it who said that there are no new stories in life, just stories retold in new circumstances?

Yet for each of us, our story is completely unique.  It is still unfolding and perpetually fascinating!

The circumstances of our busy lives of 2008 are different from the lives of our great-grand parents 100 years ago.  Our lives are less scripted.  We can shape them much as we please.

In large part, we write our stories, or at least our treatment of the circumstances that we can come across along the way.


The common stories of the central characters of a story, that is you and I, are called archetypes, I understand.

Woman often rail about the common stories in which we are cast.

One of my pleasures of the last year was discovering the works of Paulo Coelho, the Brazilian writer.   Last week I read The Witch of Portobello.  One of the supporting characters introduces her acquaintance with Athena, the main character, with these words.

We women, when we’re searching for a meaning to our lives or for the path of knowledge, always identify with one of four classic archetypes.

The Virgin (and I’m not speaking here of a sexual virgin) is the one whose search springs from her complete independence, and everything she learns is the fruit of her ability to face challenges alone.

The Martyr finds her way to self-knowledge through pain, surrender and suffering.

The Saint finds her true reason for living in unconditional love and in her ability to give without asking anything in return.

Finally, the Witch justifies her existence by going in search of complete and limitless pleasure.

Normally, a woman has to choose from one of these traditional feminine archetypes, but Athena was all four at once.

Which storyline resonates with you?

Are you torn between two story lines?  Which makes you feel relaxed?  Does knowing the four common story lines help resolve choices?



Is the essence of a happy life a point-of-view?

I read a great post this morning suggesting the Clay Shirky has it wrong.  We don’t really have a cognitive surplus, or we cannot make use of the cognitive surplus, because people prefer desultory entertainment to purposive action.

Positivism vs constructivism

The author writes in a scholarly genre: dealing with facts and evidence in a positivist way.  I almost responded likewise.

What if the author, Steve, looked at the world through other eyes?

What if the mytho-poetic tradition, a la Joseph Campbell and the Hero’s Journey, are correct and we like to hear a narrative?

  • Does that explain why we prefer to watch stories about someone?  Rather than a read explanations of some thing?

What if we like to write stories in a narrative (even though it was beaten out of us at college)?

  • Would we feel more cheerful, me and Steve included, if we were allowed to tell stories about
    • action,
    • purpose,
    • calling,
    • doubt,
    • triumph?
    • All the human attributes banned from psychological reports?

Positive psychology and the narrative

Positive organizational scholarship, for example appreciative inquiry, are quite clear that a positive approach includes social constructionism – in other words, our voice and the voice of others.  The positive principle is expressed not only as something positive and not negative, but as something purposeful, compelling, engaging, enduring, exciting, soothing, validating.

Positive psychologists (as opposed to positive scholars) tend to retreat back to questionnaires to measure their strengths and virtues.  Just as happiness strictly refers to a life well-lived (not a mood, person or moment in time), I suspect someone better read than I can explain why a strength or virtue belongs in a narrative, probably as a ‘calling.’

In short, the Hero’s Journey, or narrative structure is still to be adopted by positive psychologists with vigor.

The essence of positive psychology is a point-of-view

Would I be going too far on this Saturday morning to suggest that the essence of a positive approach is a point-of-view?  We all want to hear who does what, and why.  What was their deep moral case for spending time the way we do.

And is it so wrong to relax by following the moral case of others?

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