“The Universal Myth keeps our people engaged through difficult times”


Didier Marlier

November 28, 2009

From Disruption to Engagement

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One of the most powerful ways to engage people through difficult times is by helping them realize that their suffering, doubts and frustrations are legitimate while being authentic in pointing towards the light at the end of the tunnel.

A friend of ours, David Pearl (http://www.pearlgroup.net), introduced me to the work of Joseph Campbell (1904-1987), a respected mythologist, professor and extraordinary cultivated person. David developed a moving metaphor comparing Campbell’s heroic journey to the emotional rollercoaster on which we take place, when dramatic change happens in our private/professional lives.

Simplifying Campbell’s research on myths around the world, one can conclude that all humans, regardless of time, geography, nation or religion agree on what is heroic or non-heroïc behaviour on the change journey. This is universal (the Universal Myth) and has been called the hero’s journey by Campbell.

Leaders who engage their teams on a challenging journey would be well inspired to focus on the critical steps/components of the Myth:

The Call to Adventure: The call never comes when we expect it nor as we would like it to be. Heroes are not brainless adventurers; they will be reluctant to engage until the Call becomes intellectually and emotionally compelling. Remember Clint Eastwood in “Million Dollar baby”. Four times, he refuses the call (personified by Hilary Swank) until he gets “softened” by her determination and shocked to see her thrown on the ring by an unethical trainer. The lesson here is that our people who hesitate to engage into change are not necessarily negative, rebellious or change averse: We need to provide them with an intellectually compelling and emotionally engaging reason to do so!

The Crossing of the Threshold: Taking the call is “uninformed optimism”. However, rapidly comes the stage of “Informed pessimism”.  The Hero comes to the realization that yesterday’s “winning formula” is becoming tomorrow’s reason for failing. In other terms, the critical skill here is to “let go” of some of our beliefs, behaviours and strategic thinking and have the courage to challenge our current “orthodoxy” (without throwing away the baby with the bath water). In the monumental movie, “The Matrix”, this critical moment of choice comes to Neo when Morpheus offers him the choice between blue pill (going back to “business as usual”) or red pill (courageously throwing himself into the unknown). As soon as Neo (Thank God for the movie!) chooses the red, his certainties are challenged, a new world (scary to start with) opens up, with a few allies and enemies. Neo realizes that he will have to let go of many parts of himself. The lesson here is to accompany our people through the “mourning process”. Yes change will be painful, yes our comfort zone will be challenged, no I can’t guarantee you “the land of milk and honey” is on the other side but yes I can guarantee that status quo is not an option…

The Recovery and the Deep Intent: What strikes us all in heroic myths is the capacity of heroes to rebound, stand up, fall back again and get back on their feet. From Ulysses to “Batman begins” the lesson is the same: “Why do we fall Bruce? So that we can learn to pick ourselves up!”. Watching Mohamed Ali accept to go through a long and painful fight against George Foreman in the excellent “When we were Kings”, when both champions were granted the same prize, winner or looser, suggests that there is something very profound that runs into us and motivates us. We call it “The Deep Intent”. It is not “increasing shareholder value” that inspires Maximus (Russel Crowe) at the start of “Gladiator”. We see him daydreaming of his home, his wife and son. The camera shows him “lost in thoughts” still for a moment  and… suddenly “The boss is back”, he is determined. He has re-aligned his deep intent with the work he has got to deliver (ie. defeat the Barbarians who stand between him and his Deep Intent which is to be reunited with his family). I remember working with a football coach who said: “I need each one of my players to be connected with whatever their Deep Intent is. I don’t want to know what it is but I need them to. And when we are 2 goals down fifteen minutes before the end, I want them to access their full potential by connecting to it and win 3-2 by the end”. This is the lesson for us, leaders: During dramatic changes, we need to give time and space for our people to reconnect, or realign their Deep Intent, with the new direction we intend to lead them in.

The Hero’s journey is far more than the sum of humanity’s collective fictions. It is a moving way to engage our people through times of hardship. Look around your professional/private lifeline and you will quickly see the signposts of the Heroic Journey…

Mine will briefly go through Paris next week… I wish you all a good week!


  1. Juan M. Gallego

    Hello Didier,

    Interesting analysis of the triggers of change! In your words, you summarize the sparks that may push different “heroes” to seek change and challenge the status quo.

    One of these incentives, which you slightly touch upon when you referred to the movie “The Million Dollar Baby” and the unethical trainer, is the urge to set things right, to educate and help develop other people in order to get pass the challenge. The urge to coach other people to become more than they really are into what they could become. As a father, I find myself challenging my daughters to seek opportunities to improve themselves in many ways – in sports, in academics, philanthropically, becoming a better friend or family member. At work, I find myself challenging my team to become better at what they do, to see the bigger picture, to learn from the past but focus on the future,…

    Changing and improving people is probably one of the biggest motivators for change itself. Just like your blogs make many of us thing and question ourselves, we seek to have a similar reaction in other people, by either modeling a new behavior we would like them to try or coaching them to reach that certain behavior. Being able to catalyze or precipitate change in other people is probably one of the best motivators for change.


    Juan Mª

  2. Didier Marlier

    Dear Juan Ma,
    Nokia is very fortunate to count on leaders with such a mindset! I like the link you draw between the Call to Adventure and our capacity to challenge ourselves and our people to do better. It is as well a great link with the model shown in the previous post: Challenge AND Support are the two levers getting us to the Performance Zone.
    This being said (as nothing is ever straightforward in our complex world), I don’t know if you had a chance already to see the new “The Soloist” movie? It tells of the real story (happening in 2004/2005) taking place between Steve Lopez a L.A. Times columnist and Nathaniel Ayers, a super gifted but sadly sick (paranoïac schizophrenia) musician who had become a drop out. The story’s key message (for me) was that Steve Lopez wonderful intention to challenge and support Ayers was doomed to fail as Lopez was trying to impose his vision of happyness & success (become the star his talent granted him to be) to Ayers very different one (play for the poor in LA streets). That is why I also like your parallel with our children’s education: they are also here to teach us as I see from my own three 😉 Have a great week in China and thanks for this helpful comment! Didier


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