The stage is set, the skies are dark, and a leader emerges, ready to do battle and become victorious, despite all the odds and with the help of unnatural forces. It is the hero’s journey. Not all leaders get referred to as heroes and likely few think of themselves as one. Whether you do or do not, borrowing the term from literature, every leader does go through a journey perceived by many to be like that of the hero in any story. The hero’s journey, as described by Wikipedia, is the story writing template that involves a hero who goes on an adventure, and in a decisive crisis wins a victory, and then comes home changed or transformed. This narrative pattern, found in movies, animation, novels, and even sit-coms, is so common we hold ourselves to it as a standard. We look for the transformation, we strive to be in a better state of development, and if it doesn’t happen quickly, we get disappointed. Add the pressure of how most heroes are to experience their journey, shared in 1949 by Campbell, when he said:
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
and you’ll find the makings of why so many leaders suffer from incredible insecurity. Ever wonder why you second guess your decisions? Ever find yourself being mad at the speed of your accomplishments or progress? Ever given up on an area of improvement because the first or second attempt didn’t work? Today’s Monday Moment explores why that might be happening, how to increase your confidence, and how you can, once and for all, become the hero of your own leadership journey.
You certainly don’t have to be a literary expert or even avid reader to know that every leader who is first promoted, is venturing forth into new, sometimes uncharted territory. When that same leader is promoted, but not really prepared, or given limited instruction on what the change means or how to navigate the transition, that venturing forth is quite scary. The new faces, new names, changed expectations and unwritten rules can all appear to be forces of supernatural wonder, as Campbell describes, but the reality is they are more likely just scary. They cause us to stress. The stress creates a natural reaction to mitigate the stress. That reaction might get us called difficult. But, and here is where our journey can slip off the tracks, others rarely give us any credit for having the courage to have ventured forth into the journey. Leaders who grew up on books and film replete with the heroes journey believe the hero will always be victorious and thus can act a bit entitled about behavior for which they assume they will be forgiven. Keep your wits about you Skywalker, Obi-Wan would always advise in one way or another. Keep your wits about you and your humility in tact, and for heavens sake, give yourself permission to get credit for just having stepped into the arena to begin the journey. And by the way, George Lucas mentions being heavily influenced by Campbell’s book: The Hero with a Thousand Faces. He gets to set the stage with every Star Wars movie over two generations, but we have no Obi-Wan or Yoda in most offices to keep our head on straight.
If we can keep our courage up, give ourselves a tiny bit of credit, and learn the skills we need in the new or changed role of leadership, our next challenge is to ride out the crises or adventures we’re bound to experience. Of course, the expectation is not merely to ride them out but to be victorious, as defined by a dichotomous winner and loser culture. First, it’s a reorganization. Then it’s a freeze on hiring. Next, it’s a merger. Or maybe it all stays fairly benign and small and we just have to learn a new software system. No big deal. That’s not life threatening and relatively small in reality. But each event can be a crisis for those in leadership. With no guidance on how to change your navigation, alter your or their expectations, or give new directions, leaders are left to figure out how to handle every team members’ varying emotional reaction and resistance to change. And, it must be clear and decisive that the leader made it through the battle, won against all the evil forces, and came out victorious. It’s why we were all bummed when Russell Crowe died in Gladiator. It’s why we all root for the squirrel to get the stupid acorn in any version of Ice Age. Its why leaders suffer damage to their confidence when the outcome of their efforts does not equal or match the picture they have of victorious success. Learning what not to do next time isn’t considered success. Getting demoted instead of fired is not looked upon as a victory. Having two low performing or slow to adopt team members, instead of ten, is not considered winning in the effort to reach the decisive victory. The pressure is on and will eat you alive if you let it.
For leaders who learn and who do battle, figuratively in most offices, the key is to transform not only at the end, but throughout the entire process. While the hero of epic films and great novels may not experience much mental progress or growth in their own personal and professional leadership until they’re on the way home beaten and battered, a true leader in today’s environment must be as nimble at learning and changing as knights once were in swordsmanship. The hero leader’s journey is one that commences the moment you accept the position. The transformation begins as you transition from being their buddy to being their boss, manager, or leader. The transformation occurs when you modify your expectations for each person’s capabilities and share those with them individually. The transformation happens when you take responsibility for the performance of others even when you can’t control their every action. The transformation of any leader is one that can build or break confidence and one that is always happening.
As a leader subject to the comparison of how well you fare in your hero’s journey and the expectations of those who promoted you, the key to keeping your insecurities minimal is to focus on being your own best mentor. Give yourself credit for how far you know you’ve come. Forgive yourself for mistakes you made because you didn’t know any better. Praise your small steps and celebrate your big leaps. Stay true to who you are instead of aspiring to be the hero only found in movies who likely couldn’t do what you’re doing daily, even with an agent and crew for make-up. Lead yourself to transform in every step of your journey and be aware of the pressure for it to be perfect, while reminding yourself that while it may happen in fiction or movies, perfect is not reality. The point of the journey is to become the hero of your own story.
Monica Wofford, CSP is a leadership development specialist and professional speaker. Her coaching, books, and skill based training programs are requested internationally. Monica is the CEO of www.ContagiousCompanies.com and a candidate for the Florida House of Representatives. She may be reached at 1-866-382-0121. To learn more about the CORE Profile® or to complete the abbreviated, free, CORE Snapshot™, follow this link.