My Call to Adventure: A Hero’s Journey

What do Buddha, Moses, Jesus, Dorothy Gale and Luke Skywalker have in common? All of their stories follow what mythologist and writer Joseph Campbell described as “The Hero’s Journey”.

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder, encounters fabulous forces and wins a decisive victory: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to help others.

As humans, we are hardwired to respond, over and over again, to this basic narrative, whether we’re reading about the trials and tribulations of a spiritual leader, watching Dorothy defeat the Wicked Witch of the West or cheering on the Rebel Alliance as it destroys the Death Star.

I find The Hero’s Journey to be a useful metaphor for the experience of leading business transformation. It’s a long, difficult process during which the change leader experiences myriad highs and lows. The battles that must be fought or dragons that must be slain cause even the strongest leaders to question themselves and the ability of the organization to transform.

In this post, I’ll use the steps in The Hero’s Journey – and myself as an example – to illustrate the change leader’s quest.

The Call to Adventure.

Organizations’ transformation journeys begin in many ways.  Sometimes a business environment threat forces an organization to transform itself (for instance, when the telecommunication industry regulations changed in 1996).  Sometimes rapid business growth makes old ways of operating obsolete, and radically new ways of organizing work are needed in order for the organization to grow.

Early in my career as a leader in a pharmaceutical organization, I was a naïve leader. I stepped up to lead a major reengineering effort at a 600-person manufacturing facility. This facility would be shut down unless it could achieve $15 million in annual recurring savings within three years.  Reaching this goal would require letting go hundreds of employees. Not only that, the behaviors of hundreds of survivors would need to change regarding major processes and ways of working. I had heard my call to adventure, step one in The Hero’s Journey.

Crossing the Threshold.

Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, I found myself on a road I had not travelled before to a place I could only imagine existed. This second step in my hero’s journey occurred when I mobilized the manufacturing site leadership team and we put transformation program governance structures in place, formed project teams and engaged a major consulting firm. Off I went down the long twisting yellow brick road of business transformation.

Road of Trials.

This phase was full of all the obstacles, challenges and temptations this classic reengineering journey has to offer. These trials included resistance at multiple levels, short-sighted thinking, fear of telling employees the truth, struggle to get the best talent engaged, consultants to fire.

The Abyss.

The Abyss appeared as long, seemingly unending meetings filled with debate and leaders who openly refuse to change their staff levels to the extent required. Campbell refers to The Abyss as the point at which the hero feels all hope is lost. I knew I was there within the first mile of my drive home at night. At red lights, I would pound on the steering wheel screaming, “I will succeed!” as tears streamed down my face.

These were the moments of my figurative death and rebirth as a leader of this transformation. I experienced the inevitable turning points that come when we stay in the struggle of the abyss, when we refuse to give up. Like Dorothy melting the Wicked Witch of the West in a moment of clarity, my passion to succeed prevailed and what I needed to do became clear.

Of course, I did not find this clarity on my own. Fortunately, I had my share of mentors, helpers and supernatural aid, as is usually the case if the hero is open to recognizing and accepting the support. When I slowed down and allowed myself to be supported, to be curious, to be vulnerable with others, I found tremendous support and renewed passion. I could become aware of my fears or concerns. A courage would then rise inside me. I could stay on the path to achieve our community vision of becoming a lead site in the company’s global network of manufacturing sites.

Transformation.

I feel that my transformation had occurred when I finalized the site operating model changes with the leadership team, honestly communicated the headcount reductions to site employees and enlisted dozens of site employees as subject matter experts or project team members to carry out the changes. At this point I was changed. I was acting as if the future was now. I was walking the talk and had created a guiding coalition of leaders who had also changed their mindsets and ways of being. At this stage in my hero’s journey, I was learning from the trials and able to transform ahead of the organization, which is critical for success.

Healing.

And so began the healing: the intimate discussions with small groups of employees across three shifts, the open expression of sadness over what was being lost, combined with the optimism of what was being made possible, what would come to those willing to embrace the future state.

Crossing Back.

As the site transformed to new ways of working with fewer employees who worked smarter and were more adaptable to change than any before them, I began to Cross Back into a space where I was not accountable for leading the transformation effort. My duties as a transformation leader were transitioning to the line managers and other leaders accountable for the changes. Our transformation program war room gradually emptied, as making the changes became part of everyone’s job. After nearly three years I was crossing back to my individual contributor focus and rediscovering my entrepreneurial urge to work for myself, which I had put aside 14 years earlier to join the organization.

The Return.

I was prepared for this final step in this hero’s journey. When the enlightened hero shares his or her new knowledge with others, this is what makes the journey truly complete and what felt to me like self-actualization. Launching Michael Nagle Consulting Group was my way of sharing this experience with others.

Understanding The Hero’s Journey metaphor can help leaders prepare for and normalize their experience of the trials and triumphs that come with business transformation leadership. MNCG stands beside leaders as a coach and change advisor during business transformation to help navigate the journey to sustainable change. Contact me directly to learn how we can support your business transformation leadership capability.

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