That’s My Story, Part II

Last time I wrote about personal stories. This time, we are traveling to the other end of the spectrum, to the realm of mythology.

Why is it that some stories are almost ubiquitous, pervasive through many cultures and eras? While millions of stories come into being, only a few last through centuries. Some, such as the Arthurian Grail myths even appear in multiple cultures at the same time. Such powerful myths are not sustained because they are stories we tell ourselves, like the personal stories I wrote about last time. The big stories remain with us over generations because they are the stories we need. In fact, anthropologists argue that myths are invented by people to help them make sense of their lives.

If a story survived centuries, it is because it continues to impart wisdom and practical knowledge to us. We just need the patience and courage to fully explore the stories. Last year, Joseph Badaracco, a business ethics professor at Harvard University, published a book using great literature to teach lessons of leadership. If literature by writers in the last 100 years contains wisdom for modern leaders, then what else could we expect from a story that has lasted for centuries?

I am currently coaching a team of financial services executives in the New York City area. I asked them to read a condensed version of Homer’s “Odyssey” in preparation for a quarterly leadership retreat.

My bankers did not warm to the topic immediately. There was polite silence and conversation about how interesting it was to reread a classic. I was beginning to plan my own retreat — from the room. Finally, one executive offered the opinion that Odysseus was to blame for his troubles. “If he had told his crew what was in the bag he carried away from the Isle of Winds, he would have been home decades sooner.” Another executive countered, “No, his troubles started before that. His crew was never a disciplined team, and he was off fighting someone else’s war to begin with.”

The following hour was spent exploring how to determine the level of trust to have within an organization about the details of strategy. Once the bankers became engaged, the exploration continued over two full days as they let Homer help them rethink the context of their own business decisions.

We work in a business environment that wants easy answers. You can see it in the shelves of any bookstore’s business section. Even the titles broadcast formulas and rules. Authors seem to say, “Just do these five things and everything will be fine.”

But our business challenges are not so formulaic. They ask harder questions and demand more than the short attention span needed to learn the “Five Rules.” Stories of heroic journeys — either out into the world, up to the seat of gods or down to the afterlife — have endured because they allow us to learn from the struggles. And because they generally do not preach or pretend to offer easy answers, we must work harder to mine what is there for us in the way of leadership wisdom.

It took a while for a group of hot-shot bankers to warm to epic poetry that is 30 centuries old, but what they took from their discussions will outlast many of the simpler tactics offered up in the latest business best seller.

Since that meeting, I have had groups choose to work with a wide range of stories from an even wider range of cultures. Different stories resonate with different groups, even if they do not know why when the conversation begins. However, there is one thing that you can trust about the big stories. If there is a heroic myth that has captured your imagination since you first heard it, that story holds wisdom for you to explore.

Next quarter, my bankers are taking on Orpheus and Sisyphus. So, what’s your story?

Originally published in Arkansas Business, February 26, 2007.