Myth and Leadership

A guest blog by Alan Ashley, The Buddhist Coach who is also known by the Buddhist name Jñānagarbha.  Integration Training offers Leadership training and more details are here

What is myth and why is it important?

It may seem rather strange to link myth with leadership. For most of us the word ‘myth’ conjures up the stories we were told at school about the gods of the ancient Greeks, Romans or Norsemen: surely leaders need to deal with reality, and not old stories that we tell to children. Perhaps the most useful thing to do before going any further will be to explain what is meant by myth in this context, because we are not talking about made-up stories, not even ones about leadership.

Joseph Campbell, the great mythology expert of the 20th century, would half-jokingly describe myths as ‘other people’s religions’, although he would quickly follow this by describing religion as ‘mythology misunderstood’. What he meant by this, is that ‘mythology’ is the term we use to describe the symbolic stories found in world religions, especially when no-one practices the religion any more. We tend not to use the word to describe currently practiced religions for fear of offering offence, but Campbell’s assertion was that the true nature and significance of a religion’s stories is missed when those stories are taken literally.

For example, since Freud we have all been familiar with the way in which the myth of Oedipus throws light on some of the complexities of family relationships. By insisting, for example, that the story of Mary’s virgin birth of the baby Jesus is literally the truth, we may be missing the potential this myth has to shed light on the nature of the human condition, or the role of the leader. Religion is misunderstood when a symbolic story is taken literally.

Joseph Campbell outlined four functions of mythology.

  • The cosmological function
    A culture’s myths provide answers to fundamental questions like ‘how did we get here?’ and ‘why are things the way they are?’ The first function of myth, therefore, is to provide an understanding of where we came from and where we are going. I am sure that you see immediately how this aspect of myth is important within an organisation.
  • The metaphysical function
    Myths also give us a framework for making sense of our experience, providing models of reality. This is the way in which we make sense of the processes and systems that we find ourselves caught up in. In ancient times these myths described such things as the passing of the seasons, the cycles of the moon, and the relationship between earth and sky, land and sea. Perhaps the people who describe and claim to prophesy economic cycles serve a similar purpose today!
  • The sociological function
    As societies became larger, more complex, and socially differentiated myth provided a way for individuals to see how they fitted into the complex whole of their city or state. In this way they were able to make a link between the part of the system that they experienced and the wider whole. Within organisations we have myths of hierarchy, and of how different departments relate to each other, that serve similar purposes.
  • The psychological function
    As our cultures become increasingly complex, including different peoples and religions with diverse and sometimes conflicting mythologies and ideologies, it becomes impossible for one overarching mythology to contain all of our diverse experience. Mythology at the personal level addresses questions such as ‘who am I?’ ‘how do I relate to others?’ and ‘what is my life about?’ In a way these are the same questions addressed above, but now asked at the individual level.

So, we can see myth as a shared story, a story that has a resonance with the processes we find both within ourselves, and in the world. Myths have been used through the history of civilisation to make sense of the world, of nature, of society, and of personal experiences, and now they are used in and by businesses. Carl Jung suggested that psychology did not develop until the turn of the 20th century because its role had previously been fulfilled by mythology. The developments in scientific knowledge that began in the Renaissance and the cultural changes of the industrial revolution, left Europeans with myths that no longer fitted their experience. Telescopes showed the way that the earth moved around the sun along with the other planets, and so a mythology that placed humanity and our planet at the literal centre of the universe was no longer coherent. New myths were needed to make sense of a new world, but no such myths were available and so the psychological sciences developed in response to the confusion and disorientation that this lack created.

Myths are important, whether you are aware of them or not. One of the main tasks of leadership is to make sense of the welter of information that is presented to you, and as we have seen, myths are tools for making sense of the world. It seems that human beings need stories to make sense of our experience, and successful organisations reflect this need by creating brand identities/myths that reinforce the stories we like to tell ourselves. Some brand myths include:

  • if I smoke this brand of cigarettes I will be rugged and masculine;
  • if I wear this scent I will be more attractive to members of the opposite sex;
  • if I use this type of computer I will be stylish and creative

As a leader you will need to find ways of managing meaning-making within your organisation, creating a compelling myth of the kind of organisation it is, where it is going, and how it is going there. You can look at the role of mythology in your psychology: what are the stories you tell yourself about your role as a leader, and in what ways are these helpful or a hindrance to your leadership? It is only by having appropriate personal myths that you will be able to engage your deeper energies in your work. Without such myths, at best you will find you do not have enough energy to continue to lead effectively in the long term, at worst you will sabotage your own leadership.

Recognising Your Myth

Because mythic structures are deep and fundamental aspects of our personalities, they can be difficult to spot. This means that we can use some help to recognise our mythic patterns, and the following exercises, reflections and questions will help you to be clearer. In a similar way to recognising emotions, it is useful to start by learning to recognise some common archetypes and mythic stories.

Some Common Personal Myths

    Which of these do you recognise?

    characteristics: the knight in shining armour who will make it alright for everyone
    advantages: many people want to be rescued – that is, abdicate responsibility for their experience
    disadvantages: it undermines others and slows their development as they don’t have to deal with issues
    comments: this myth is particularly common in the caring professions

      messiah / saviour (a form of rescuer)
      characteristics: believes that only they can save a situation from disaster
      advantages: can give energy when a situation seems overwhelming
      disadvantages: very self referential – “ I am saving this organisation”
      comments: Remember, messiahs can have a tendency to get crucified!

        characteristics: overcomes adversity to gain the prize e.g. gold, princess, knowledge
        advantages: there’s plenty of adversity to be overcome!
        disadvantages: a naïve perspective, likely to be deflated by defeat
        comments: Campbell believed this was the basic mythic story, calling it the monomyth

          characteristics: sees everything as a battle
          advantages: great when there is a battle to be fought
          disadvantages: lousy in peace time, can be very disruptive

            characteristics: seeks harmony and connection in all situations
            advantages: sees the best in everyone and connects easily
            disadvantages: the best is only part of the picture, will struggle to challenge

              characteristics: the wise old man or woman who is able to influence matters subtly and offer wise counsel
              advantages: can nurture the development of others and see through complexity
              disadvantages: may lack energy and be too indirect
              comment: this is generally the role of the external consultant

                characteristics: knows the best way to do it
                advantages: expertise is essential in many areas of business
                disadvantages: struggles to accommodate other’s points of view and to cooperate
                comment: this is a corruption of the magician archetype, and it can be effective for a manager, but it is insufficient for a leader

                  characteristics: it’s my way or the highway
                  advantages: makes it very clear what is and is not acceptable
                  disadvantages: unreceptive and likely to have a high staff turnover
                  comment: it is possible to be a benign despot, and this can be useful in a crisis

                    lone ranger / man with no name / knight errant
                    characteristics: a kind of combination of the rescuer and the hero
                    advantages: can step into responsibility very effectively
                    disadvantages: struggles to cooperate with others

                      detective / scientist
                      characteristics: searching for an answer or the truth
                      advantages: tenacity, curiosity
                      disadvantages: often has a preconceived idea of the outcomes, so misses opportunities

                        quest / journey
                        characteristics: engaged in a lengthy mission in pursuit of a goal
                        advantages: can be quite creative in response to change
                        disadvantages: may avoid completion, as this brings the journey to an end

                          characteristics: seeking retribution for a perceived wrong

                          advantages: may engage the energy of ‘righteous indignation’ effectively
                          disadvantages: psychologically damaging to self and others in the medium to long term

                            the martyr
                            characteristics: I will give myself for the good of the many

                            advantages: sometimes you need someone to go on a suicide mission
                            disadvantages: self destructive and largely insufferable!

                            This is by no means a comprehensive list, and you may be able to think of many more. As Robbie Burns famously commented, it would be a great gift to be able to see ourselves as others see us, so you might find it easier to see such patterns in others than it is to see them in yourself. It can be useful to look at your family and your colleagues, past and present, and notice the patterns and myths that you see.

                            Another useful exercise is to notice which of the myths you have a strong reaction against. This will give you an indication of the myths that you are reluctant to take on, and may offer interesting information about the aspects of yourself with which you are uncomfortable.

                            Explore the kinds of myths and stories that engage your energies

                            • What was your favourite story or character as a child?
                            • What were their strengths and qualities?
                            • Who were their enemies?
                            • What kinds of movies, novels and stories are you attracted to now?
                            • What insight do these offer into how you see yourself and your role as a leader, how you would like to see yourself, or do they compensate for a lack of something in your work experience?

                            Which myths have you habitually taken on?

                            If you look back over your life you might see repeated patterns:

                            • Have you repeatedly stepped in when a situation seemed hopeless, or everyone else has turned away?
                            • Have you often been the scapegoat when things have gone wrong, or got the credit when things go right?
                            • Have you tried to cooperate when you should have competed, or to compete when you should have cooperated?

                            Who are your heroes?

                            If we list a few well known figures, such as Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, Bono, The Duke of Wellington, George Washington, Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi, Che Guevara.

                            Who do you respond to more strongly?

                            • great statesmen or revolutionaries
                            • warriors or men of peace
                            • thinkers or men of great passion

                            What might this tell you about your archetypal image of a leader, and how might this inform your leadership style?

                            Now what?

                            The overall purpose of myth is to help us to make sense of the complexities of the world we inhabit, and to provide us with a way of seeing our experience as part of a greater whole. It also provides a way of engaging our energies with the tasks we face. To be a great leader you will need to respond with energy and creativity, whatever the situation. This means that you will need to be able to step into a wide range of mythic roles: perhaps in the space of one day you might need to be a warrior battling a competitor; provide magician like guidance for a junior, etc. etc. Will you be able to flow easily from one role to another?

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