Let’s start with a story.  This is a Zen parable about a woman staying in a mountainside retreat, located high above her beloved fishing village.  She is staying in a beautiful house she built herself and has decorated over the years.  As she looks out into the ocean, she sees a dangerous oncoming wave. It is some distance from shore, but she can see it.  The people in the village have no idea that they are in peril. There is no time to run down the mountainside to warn them.  They can’t hear her from where she’s at.  They need to evacuate, and time is of the essence.  Our heroine is the only one who knows of the impending disaster.

Let’s leave her there for the moment.

In our work at Vantage, we get to meet some inspiring individuals. We also get to know impressive organizations who overcome challenges and accomplish things they might have once thought to be impossible. This got me thinking: Where do they find the strength to persist in the face of adverse circumstances? What is the source of their commitment to their mission? And, most importantly, how do they overcome self-doubt?  I realized the most dynamic individuals and organizations fit the archetype of the hero.

The Hero

One of the most beloved stories in all of literature is the hero’s journey. This tale is told over and over again in mythology, sacred writings, and both great and popular literature, featuring protagonists as diverse as Harry Potter, Neo, Hercules, King Arthur, Anne Frank, Abraham Lincoln, Jesus, Superman, and Davy Crockett.  Some of these figures are mythological, legendary; others are real.  But, despite differing in scope, their stories all share the same formula.

  1. Heroes are born in humble settings, and their birth is often marked by special circumstances (sometimes a near brush with death).
  2. They show early promise.
  3. They leave home on a noble quest in search of something of importance.
  4. On their quest, they encounter great challenges.
  5. They overcome the challenges and achieve their goal.

How Organizations Practice Heroism

One thing I know for sure is that organizations and the people within them experience – or at least have the opportunity to experience – the heroic.  Every organization has a story, which means there is always the opportunity to tap into the energy of the hero’s journey.

I recall observing an orientation program for new employees of a telephone company. At one point, several retirees told their “war stories,” particularly about how they and their co-workers would rise to the occasion to restore service after a storm. Their anecdotes spoke of long hours, days away from home, danger, ingenuity and perseverance. One said, “You are starting a job and joining a company, but in a larger sense you are part of a continuing story. You will learn how people in this company look out for one another; how we do whatever it takes to take care of our community; and how hard work under difficult circumstances strengthens a person.” He did not use the word “hero,” but every person there knew what he was talking about and wanted to be a part of it.

A heroic perseverance can also be seen in budding entrepreneurs. The popular podcast “How I Built This” recounts some of the most fascinating journeys people have taken in founding companies. Jim Koch started a microbrewery phenomenon with Sam Adams. Sara Blakely reinvented shapewear with Spanx. In both these cases (and many others), aspects of the hero archetype are evident: humble beginnings, early promise, a quest filled with setbacks, and ultimately, success.

So how do you define a hero?

Decisive, Thoughtful Action

Back to our heroine and the endangered village.  What does she do? She decides to set her home on fire. Those in the village see the smoke and run to her aid, thereby saving themselves from the oncoming wave.  The moral of this story?  There is no substitute for action.  Heroes are not hand-wringers.  Starting on the heroic quest is about taking irrecoverable action: leaving all that which is familiar and comfortable, and stepping into an uncertain future.  The parable is also about sacrifice – the willingness to give up what one has for a better purpose.  In a way, it is also about trust that others will recognize the step that has been taken and join the effort.

The Real Test

The challenge the hero faces on the quest, whether it is a dragon to be slain, an ogre blocking the road, or facing Lord Voldemort, is often presented as a physical test.  It is really a test of the spirit.  The hero must find within him- or herself the strength to face their own fear. So the real challenge to the organization which aspires to be heroic is not the uncertainty of the marketplace, but fear of failure and self-doubt. Action in and of itself is only part of the story. What makes the action truly heroic is that it occurs in spite of fear.

The Value of Quiet Persistence

The hero does not act once and then rest on his or her laurels; the hero persists.  This is especially true in organizational life. “Persisting” as a concept does not sound heroic. I sometimes think that organizations can develop a fascination with crises not because they are emergencies, but because when the disaster occurs it reveals to the members how much they are needed.  Be careful – this is an addiction which can be hard to kick. Many businesses were once enamored with the FedEx story of the delivery man who rented a helicopter to get a late package to its destination on time. FedEx says they do not want that kind of heroism. They want to extol the employees who work so consistently that they never have to hire a helicopter. The Zen maxim for this is “Chop wood, carry water”: the need to do the little, necessary things each day. The wisdom of substituting methodical discipline for the mighty effort.

Cultivating Inspiration

The hero also inspires those around him or her to lay claim to their own heroic potential. Lately, I have seen the emergence of collective leadership, something which many organizations wish for, but few actually achieve.  It is expressed in the shared responsibility for the mission and the goals of the organization, in the substitution of “we” and “us” for “I” and “me.” It is identifiable in the unfailing willingness to roll up the sleeves and pitch in.  Collective leadership offers people a chance to make a difference not as junior partners, but as full partners.  This is how the heroic dimension of the organization meets the heroic aspirations of individuals, resulting in the opportunity for everyone to be a real part of the action.

The Paradox of the Hero

The final aspect of the hero’s story is the classic outcome: an even greater discovery than the hero could have originally predicted. The hero begins the quest with a goal in mind – often a sacred, prized object which has magical properties: the Golden Fleece, the Holy Grail, or the Ark of the Covenant. In the end, however, the hero realizes that the real prize is not the object, but the transformation of his or her spirit which has occurred: the revelation of the hero’s true self. What we have then is the paradox of the hero – the reward is within the sacrifice; the destination is the quest itself.

Bringing Heroism to Leadership

At Vantage we focus on leadership – how to identify leadership potential and how to accelerate its development. In talking with really effective leaders, it becomes clear that they have learned how to tap into the archetype of the hero. They may not use that language, but when they call on individuals and the organization to serve customers with integrity, push boundaries to develop products, and achieve extraordinary levels of excellence, they aren’t just asking people to put in hours – they’re asking them to join a heroic quest.