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Great Leaders: What do Star Wars, Harry Potter and You Have in Common?

(posted: April 25th, 2016)

We love stories about heroic quests.

We thrill to tales of heroes setting out on epic adventures that eventually change their lives, and the lives of everyone around them.

You may only have a vague memory of Homer's "Odyssey" from your school days, but think about Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and the Harry Potter series.

These are all modern tales that use the hero's journey structure to tell their stories.

The hero in these stories is compelled to go on an adventure involving many challenges and ends up saving the world, rescuing humanity from evil, or saving his people from subjugation.

Also known as the monomyth, this story structure was identified and studied by Joseph Campbell, though it has been used to tell stories since ancient times.

In its full form the hero's journey, or the heroic quest, is a sweeping, epic story with 12 parts. It's long, engrossing, entertaining, and impossible to use in business storytelling.

Or is it?

Your teams are busy, you are busy, and you don't have the time to construct an epic story for the workplace. However, you can use parts of the hero's journey, or a condensed version of it, in your work. Leaders, in particular, can use it to inspire action and loyalty and to paint a bold, sweeping picture of the future.

Leading With the Heroic Quest

Often in business we use stories to explain what has happened in the past, which is an effective way to energize people when they face similar challenges, or we use stories in marketing and branding to engage emotions and improve understanding. But stories can also be used to shape the future and to guide teams through change.

Leaders are visionaries, tasked with inspiring their teams to successfully achieve their plans for their organization. Great leaders instinctively know that tapping into emotions and painting a picture of how the future could be is critical. They frame their vision as an adventure for all involved, and inspire everyone to jump in and work hard to make it a reality. They shift their teams' perspective on change and challenges by casting them as necessary elements on the journey towards a noble goal.

They tell a story about the future using the heroic quest story structure.

In his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell summarizes the hero's journey this way:

"A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder; fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won; the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man."

While there are 12 parts to the full hero's journey structure, in simple terms it involves a sympathetic character being compelled to accept the call to adventure, overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and finally triumphing, achieving his or her desire.

In business, the journey towards a goal can be quite similar to the hero's journey:

  • In the beginning, there is an idea that is promising, or a change that's desired, or that can't be avoided.
  • The middle is filled with obstacles, as teams work hard to make the idea a reality; their progress gets bogged down, then they solve a problem and surge forward.
  • In the end, the project succeeds (or fails, in a tragedy).

When you are in the middle of this, though, it feels like anything but an exciting adventure tale. We don't see in these everyday events the same story style that we easily recognize in movies and books.

That's why great leaders are often great storytellers. They can see the new project as an epic tale with triumphant peaks and moments of defeat, and can craft it into a compelling story for the rest of us.

The Heroic Quest for All

The best storytellers, and successful leaders, learn as much as they can about what their audience knows already and how they view the subject. Listening carefully to your people, you can determine what your teams need to hear to continue on (or join) your quest.

Here are a few questions I use in workshops and with clients to get them thinking about stories:

  • Think back over your work and life over the last 3 to 4 years; what really stands out?
  • What is the last thing you or your team were really exited or angered by?
  • What are 2 or 3 things you've done (or your team has done) that you are proud of?
  • When was the last time you were in conversation and someone said something that is interesting?

With this information, craft stories that are meaningful to your people and that will motivate and inspire them to stick it out and keep moving towards the goal.

Heroic journeys don't have to be epic. You can turn lesser accomplishments and victories into steps on the journey. If the audience for your story tends to be prosaic and practical, tone down the flights of fancy or hyperbole. Make it grand, challenging, epic, and exciting, but on their terms.

Perhaps most importantly, make your team (or your company or your customers) the heroes of your story, collectively, so that they feel that it's their story too.

Challenge Yourself
  • What is coming up for your company or team where a heroic quest story might be useful?
  • How have you used stories to inspire or energize your team or organization?
  • Share an example of a leader you've worked with who used stories to engage you and your colleagues. What was this leader's favorite storytelling style?

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