American author Joseph Campbell influenced generations of writers and artists with his narratology philosophy, popularly known as the Hero's Journey. George Lucas's Star Wars saga, Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club and countless creators ranging from writers like Alan Watts to singers like Jim Morrison were inspired by Campbell's template describing the arc of a protagonist.
Simply put, it begins with the 'hero' leading a carefree life in his current world until an untoward event destroys the status quo. Confronted with a challenge beyond his or her capabilities, the hero is compelled to leave, often going into ignominious exile, a journey to an unknown realm. There s/he encounters tribulations, meets mentors and learns. Strengthened with knowledge, experience and introspective growth, the hero returns to face his or her original challenge. This time, the hero emerges victorious and, in the process, undergoes a transformation. This framework underpins countless stories, including our own epics like the Mahabharata and Ramayana.
Leaders across organizations follow growth journeys through four stages: Tactical, Operational, Strategic and Doctrinal. Leaders (or heroes, since every individual is the protagonist of one's own life) begin their journey at the tactical stage. This is usually the first 5-10 years of their career where the key success components are basic knowledge of their professional domains, a high degree of positive energy and a can-do attitude. At tactical levels, the idea is to forge ahead under guidance and figure out a path along the way.
Once leaders transition to the operational stage, their role requires an ability to create collaborative alliances. They must recognize that ostensibly adversarial attitudes within the same organisation are required for robust growth. Departments seemingly at loggerheads with each other (like marketing versus finance or sales versus audit) are all part of the overall governance and assurance structures. At this stage, leaders must mature beyond narrow departmental loyalties and pursue the organization's common purpose.
At strategic levels, the primary role of leaders is capacity building for the future. A leader must have a view of 'over the horizon' events and discern sense from feeble signals heralding changes in the environment. This differs from a more effective execution of 'business as usual'. Instead, the leader must capacitize, institutionalize and solve challenges with structural changes, rather than throwing more resources at the problem. And like a chess grandmaster who leverages experiential knowledge of millions of moves learnt over decades, an intuitive algorithm of decision-making comes into play. This is also the stage where the leader starts preparing for the painful task of letting go. Delegating responsibility while holding accountability, and mentoring the next generation of leaders are key.
At the doctrinal stage, the leader attains the altitude and influence to be able to shape the environment in terms of guiding policies, mediating intractable short versus long-term choices, navigating contradictory asks and also advocating orbit-shifting ideas.
While there is a broad recognition of these four levels in most organizations, few appreciate the need of a structured transition between each stage.
And that is where Campbell's Hero's Journey could be an inspiration. The stages of the Hero's Journey offer a perfect metaphor for a leader's journey as well.
In the beginning, a planned or unforeseen disturbance jolts the leader out of a comfort zone. S/he is 'exiled' into an unknown and hostile environment away from the safe and familiar. There the leader is subjected to humbling experiences. For instance, it was during the exile of the Pandavas in the Mahabharats that the strongest among them, Bhim, was unable to lift a monkey's tail. And while the leader is subject to trauma, there are strong mentors and guides, like Yoda was to Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, who handhold and provide physical, emotional and psychological support. The ordeal teaches and toughens the leader, who returns to defeat once-steep challenges. In the process, both the leader and his or her mentors undergo a life-altering transformation.
The reason for the ubiquity of the Hero's Journey in global storytelling is that it resonates with us deeply. We root for the ordinary person who discovers unimagined strength and reserves. We cheer the David who takes on a Goliath. Spiderman's franchise grosses more than Superman's, although technically the latter is 'more qualified' in every way. We hail the underdog because we identify with this condition. Deep down, we might all believe that one day we will go away from the current world into a self-imposed exile, only to gain the strength and tools to return victorious. There is, however, a chasm we need to cross first.
The Hero's Journey has ten stages. It begins with the protagonist being confronted with a challenge that alters his or her state of comfort. At that point, the hero's first instinct is to refuse the trial and acquiesce to the deteriorated status quo. However, the hero conquers the fear of travails and chooses to accept exile and the initial trauma it brings, in order to attain the gift waiting at the other end. And that is the stage at which a true leader's journey begins.
Raghu Raman Is former CEO of the National Intelligence Grid, distinguished fellow at Observer Research Foundation and author of 'Everyman's War'