Q. Leadership: Whose journey is it, anyway?
A. I often look back at my 25-plus years as a consultant and the scores of organizations I’ve worked with during that time. And it always startles me when I realize just how few good leaders or managers I’ve come across in all those years — especially knowing the impact leadership has on organizational culture, employee morale and overall brand reputation.
Then I read Joseph Campell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces in which Campbell, a mythology scholar, describes “the hero’s journey.” In this journey ordinary people endure extraordinary hardships, become transformed in the process and achieve the status of hero.
According to Campbell, this story is so fundamental to human existence that it predates Greek mythology and to this day continues to be told again and again. Think of movies like Rocky, Star Wars, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as examples of fictional hero’s journeys that have made their way into our cultural subconscious.
Because Campbell’s description of this journey is so accurate and appealing, all kinds of leadership forums, self-help groups and others have adopted his 12-step model to meet their respective needs, including those that target corporate executives, managers, sales representatives, teachers, coaches and others. Most “leaders” attend with the attitude that they are the heroes; therefore, it is their journey.
In my opinion, nothing could be further from the truth.
I contend that a truly good leader not only maps out a course for him or herself, but knows how to chart a hero’s journey for those he or she seeks to lead.
What follows is a real-life personal story that I hope makes my case.
He clearly stated our goal
“It needs to be unloaded by the end of the day!”
We all looked at each other, five young transport company yard hands assigned to unload a gargantuan boxcar filled with 40-pound sacks of flour. I overheard one of my co-workers mumble, “He must be joking!”
It was one of those dog days of summer, with the temperature and humidity both in the 90s. We all knew that inside the 50-foot long metal boxcar the temperature would be well over 100 miserable, sweaty degrees. No one even dared to venture a guess on how many sacks of flour the boxcar contained.
“All right, gentlemen, we’re going to do this is in bucket-brigade fashion,” said Mac, our new gang boss, a stocky, ruddy-faced, barrel-chested Scot who none of us knew very well.
He stood beside us
As we grumbled and slowly lined up to form our bucket brigade, Mac did an astonishing thing. Instead of assigning himself to some sanitized, rah-rah leadership role, he took off his shirt, climbed into the super-heated boxcar and started passing sacks of flour to the next man in line.
There was no “bully management” going on here. In fact, Mac never belittled any of us for our initial grumbling. He recognized that what we were all about to do was going to be hard work.
And no coaxing or cajoling was necessary. We all knew what we had to do. Mac simply set an expectation by clearly defining our goal right from the start and worked alongside us the entire time, until we got the job done.
He took care of us
Over the next several hours Mac rotated us so that no one was in the boxcar for more than 15 or 20 minutes. He also made sure we took several breaks and drank plenty of water so we wouldn’t get dehydrated, which sent the message that he was looking out for us.
He made it fun
Mac’s energy, quick wit and humor made us all laugh and joke. After a while, we even broke into song — despite the fact that flour seeping from some of the burlap sacks and mixing with the perspiration on our shirtless bodies was turning us into white, ghoulish-looking creatures. But we simply considered it part of the job. In fact, our pasty appearance served to bond us together, identified us as a unit — especially during breaks, when we mingled with those who were not assigned to our gang.
He made us a team
Intentionally or not, Mac had effectively transported us psychologically from what we considered our daily routine task of mindless lifting and toting to something that resembled a meaningful endeavor.
Soon we were no longer passing sacks of flour to each other — but tossing them. We were no longer a pack of disgruntled yard hands eagerly awaiting the workday’s end, but rather a team working together on a mission toward a common goal.
He appreciated us
We unloaded that boxcar in record time. After we had accomplished our goal, Mac thanked us and bought us soft drinks to slake our thirst as we laughingly shared stories of the day.
I doubt any of our fellow yard hands worked as hard as we did that day, certainly none looked as ghastly — and I dare say, none felt as engaged or had the same sense of ownership in their work.
I went to sleep that night with a profound sense of satisfaction and accomplishment — and with a lesson in leadership that I remember to this day, more than 30 years later.
Mac successfully mapped out a hero’s journey for a bunch of unmotivated, minimum-wage, twentysomething yard hands tasked with unloading sacks of flour on a scorchingly hot summer’s day — and we responded. As leaders, just imagine what you could do!