Throughout the ages mankind has invented stories. Some of these stories have endured to become myths and legends. And great thinkers throughout time have wondered why such stories endure.
What makes a great story?
Aristotle was the first to make a study of what makes a story memorable. Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell asked the same question and, more recently, Hollywood screenwriting gurus like Robert McGee, Syd Field, and Christopher Vogler have studied successful feature films and TV dramas to try to understand what makes a story work. They all came to the same conclusion:
A story works because, at some deep level, it resonates with our individual experience of life.
I may not know what it’s like to be a Chinese emperor, a WW2 fighter pilot, or a kid home alone, but the situations, challenges, fears, conflicts, triumphs and set-backs, that they experience have a grain of familiarity that draws me into their world. I enjoy what Chris Vogler called ‘the glorious joy of recognition’ that allows me to suffer with them, to laugh with them, to feel their fear and, ultimately, against all that their hostile world throws at them, against all the odds, to relish their hard won victories.
Those who have studied what makes a compelling story, from Aristotle onwards, have identified a story structure that appears to be the most compelling; it is best described as ‘the journey structure’. All enduring stories from ancient myths, fairy stories, Shakespearian plays, operas and ballets, narrative poems, video games, feature films and TV dramas follow this basic narrative structure.
What has all this to do with leadership?
If stories resonate with our experiences in life, especially those experiences that are uncharted and challenging, then clearly the experience of leadership, with its inevitable conflicts, anxieties, triumphs and legacies, will contain the same elements that are represented within the narrative story structure.
In the course of my research I conducted interviews with successful business leaders and was able to map their individual experiences with the stages of the journey. Furthermore, it became evident that all the character archetypes represented in the journey narrative were evident throughout the lives of these successful leaders.
The stages of the journey
The protagonist, referred to as the Hero, wants something really badly. He exists in his ordinary world, when something happens that foretells the adventure ahead. Initially he resists this ‘call to adventure’ but eventually a dramatic incident provokes him to accept the challenge. Having ‘crossed the threshold’ he enters the world of adventure, stopping off at ‘the watering hole’ to gather his allies and formulate a plan of action.
He then fights many battles, winning and losing, as his fortunes change. Eventually he realises that to achieve his goal he has to undergo a personal transformation. He enters the ‘inmost cave’ and does battle with his inner demons. Triumphant, he ‘seizes the sword’ and returns home stronger and wiser to undergo one final test. Has he truly transformed?
The outer journey and the inner journey
The definition of story is:
An engaging character battles against overwhelming odds in pursuit of a compelling goal
However, the most compelling stories – and all Oscar nominated films – contain two journeys: the outer journey and the inner journey.
The outer journey is the thing that the hero wants at a superficial level. He knows that he wants it, and does battle to get it. However true heroes are flawed, and they have the potential for transformation and healing. Eventually they are confronted by their inner demons as they enter the inmost cave. Often, they don’t achieve what they were pursuing at a superficial level but learn valuable lessons about themselves and fulfil their inner journey.
Many of the successful business leaders I interviewed had experienced ‘moments of truth’ when their core values were tested and they momentarily lost sight of who they were and what they stood for; only to triumph in the face of obstacle and emerge stronger and wiser.
In this series of Lessons from Hollywood I will be sharing with you some of the experiences that business leaders shared with me that closely map the plot points of Hollywood films and TV drama and some of the characters they met on their journeys.
Hollywood Lessons in Leadership™ – Lesson #1 of 6
© 2016 Anne Oberon, http://www.oberonconsultants.com