We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us. (Joseph Campbell)

Tuesday October 14th, 2014 13 comments

It was almost a year ago (late December) when I wished us all a Happy New Year 2014 and expected to see you again by early January. And… my blog remained silent for ten months, until now.

What happened? No terrible drama, no emotional roller coaster… Simply, as Joseph Campbell said it: “I have let go of the life I planned, so as to accept the one that was waiting for me”. This meant that many business challenges had to be addressed, some constructive, some defensive; many private sphere choices had to be dealt with… Life! I just did not have the authentic passion to write and felt that your time was too precious to be wasted by someone thinking that he has to write each week, in order to maintain his presence on the net.

Reflecting on it, I have simply been experiencing another cycle of Joseph Campbell’s universal Myth theory (called Monomyth) and, as times are becoming increasingly challenging for many of us, I chose to remind you some of its main steps as per adapted to the language of Business Leaders by British artist/business philosopher/consultant, David Pearl.

The Call to Adventure: There is no Journey without a solid Call. This call is not attractive and is usually a very disruptive invitation: a divorce, a lay-off, a fatality, the necessity to move away from our habits, home or comfort. In business, this may be an opportunity to change the business but with profound consequences, the necessity to challenge deeply held “orthodoxies”, a threat to our dominance by a sudden change. Heroes and leaders’ initial reaction will be denial and rejection of the Call using all possible logic (even pseudo rationale) they can in order to remain in their comfort zone. And this is the graveyard of many leaders and of the companies that they had been requested to lead to a safe heaven. The recent (and for me emotional as I liked that company, its Ethos and its people very much) and predictable fate of Nokia Mobile Phone comes to mind. When explaining the “Leaders’ Journey” to executives, I frequently use a movie as metaphor. Clint Eastwwod’s “Million Dollar Baby” is one of my favourites: Frank (Clint Eastwood) is a bitter coach, carrying a cross on his shoulder. A young woman, Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) interrupts his daily routine and will challenge his principles, beliefs and the positions he publicly took. Frank rejects five times the “Call to Adventure” that Maggie presents to him. But, little by little, the Call will become intellectually compelling and emotionally engaging. Ignoring it would be worse, when looking at himself in the mirror every morning. And Frank, reluctant but determined, accepts it.

As business leaders, being able to stand, each morning in front of the mirror and feel that we have not avoided our Call to Adventure by fear, conservatism, intellectual laziness, stubbornness or lack of exploration is something fundamental to do.

The Crossing of the Threshold: When we feel that we have done the toughest bit (recognize the Call, overturn our resistance and find the courage to take it), the most painful part of the Journey is awaiting: We are confronted to our inadequacy, to our incompetence in front of the new situation, the disruption created by our acceptance of the Call. The Crossing suggests that we accept to let go of our own, personal “winning formula”. It demands from us to take a hard look at many things we identified with (the image we project for the outside world, the reputation and stories created around us, what led us to success) and accept to challenge ourselves on it. How many leaders do we not see “trying more of the same”, regressing even to their previous winning formula, when they are challenged? And how many of them survived? A very large research (327’000 executives) had been made by Korn Ferry some years ago on what made some executives successful in “climbing the ladder” and why the career of other had suddenly stopped. The key message coming from it was that successful leaders accepted to adapt their style to the new challenge they were facing.

I am moved, each time, by the moment when Johnny Cash and his band finally meet a manager that has accepted to test them. They sing their best Gospel song and the man interrupts them after a moment: “Do you have something else?” In a few seconds, Cash will have to let go of his winning formula (I am a Gospel musician) and find his true Identity (“I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die”)

The Fall and Recovery: When a leader takes on the Call to Adventure and courageously accepts to Cross the Threshold, their mission is not over. Because the challenge is so big, because they have to reinvent themselves, it is to be expected that false steps will happen. They will fall and, if determined, stand up again. We see this so often when organizations engage in massive changes. The temptation is strong to go back to where we were before, back to the haven of apparent safety. Leaders need to know that “the fall is part of the recovery process” as many doctors, treating drug addicts and alcoholics know.

The true story of Muhamad Ali, winning his most important title in Kinshasa, is a great illustration of this: He starts the fight using and abusing his winning formula (provoking, dancing and ridiculing his opponent) but miserably fails. He then realizes he would have to drastically change his strategy but suffers and doubts himself for the first time in his career (“It is the first time I saw fear in Ali’s eyes” says Norman Mailer).

The Deep Intent: So why do we do this to ourselves? Why going through such a risky, demanding and challenging Leadership Journey? I was teaching young Russians adolescents, as part of my charity work. When asking them who represented a Hero in their eyes, one responded: Vladimir Putin. I asked him to explain what made President Putin heroic in his eyes: “Look, when you came to the level of fortune and power that he is at, why on Earth would you want to come back as he did and get yourself in trouble? In my view, he does this by ideal and passion!” I don’t know Mr. Putin but felt that what this young man perceived was making sense, at least from his perspective.

The Deep Intent is what drives us, it is our superior ideal. It is what has helped me throughout the difficult journey I went through. When profound changes are near, we know that we need to help people in an organization, reconnect with their own Deep Intent and connect it with the organization’s new Purpose. This is something way above and beyond a simple communication exercise around a powerpointed Vision.

In the blockbuster, Gladiator, General Maximus is minutes away from engaging his legion in what they all hope to be the last battle that will put an end to years of war. Surprisingly, Maximus isn’t checking an Excel spreadsheet nor powerpointing his general about the strategy they intend to follow: He is reconnecting with his Deep Intent (Going Home) as he knows that he will have to dig into it at the moment that the battle isn’t happening according to plan.

I have been through that journey during those last three years and expect that other calls, other demands to challenge my winning formula, other disappointments and recoveries will take place. But my energy and inspiration are back. I hope to be able to re-engage you in this blog! Have a great week!

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