Leadership and Mythology#1: Purpose of myth

by Gary Monti on May 11, 2010

An earlier Change Leadership blog asked if you have an internal compass.  Later, a Leadership Cancer blog asked you to list your tribes and associated role in each. These are part of a broader, critical question, “What is your personal mythology?” This new series will explore this question and how various answers impact us, people around us, and our business.

The importance of this question in everyday life was explored by the American mythologist, Joseph Campbell, who saw 4 distinct aspects to it:

  • The mystical
  • The physical
  • The sociological
  • The psychological

Mythology – What It Is And Isn’t

Before jumping into the 4 levels, lets try to understand what mythology is. We all go through dramatic, catastrophic periods in life, e.g., birth, death, marriage, parenting, establishing careers, etc., and have a desire to make sense of it all. This is what myth is – sense-making. We enter the world of mythology when we develop stories about our experiences. When there is a collective, tribal effort to develop one story combining all the truths presented the mythology takes shape by transcending the individual story.

So, mythology is simultaneously personal and communal. Teams work well when they share a common mythology and can tell stories that have powerful, emotional truth. Leaders excel when they can tap into these myths and awaken the team into seeing how moving forward with the project is in the individual and collective interest.

As used here mythology is a desire to find a simple narrative in the chaos of life. This is in contrast to “myth” being used negatively as a way to spin a situation, which is essentially distorting the context for personal gain (lying). Even at that, though, by looking beneath the spin a leader can see the mythology that provoked the distortion. This is very valuable information to have in capitalizing on opportunity, holding a team together, dealing with conflict, and responding to adversaries. When we understand the myth behind a statement we give ourselves a chance to let go of emotional reactivity and moral judgments and can respond in our best interest.

Mythology – Who Needs It? Why Bother?

Let’s bring this down to earth. Try this. Ask someone, “Would you give me an update on your project (or work)?” Sit back and listen. Later, come back and ask the same person, “Would you describe the best day you’ve ever had on this project (or at work)?” When they have finished ask, “Would you describe the worst day you ever had on this project (or at work)?”

Contrast the two methods: the progress report versus best/worst narrative. Which has more information? Which has more meaning? Which will convey a richer context? Which will give you a better sense of how the project is faring and what it is really about?

Don’t get me wrong. I am a huge believer in earned value and other methods that provide succinct accurate information. I also believe, though, that those reporting methods get meaning from the mythology that underpins them. That is why risk management is so important. It gets the story out. But I digress.

In the next blog we will start looking at those 4 levels of myth and why they are important to a businessman or -woman.

Share you comments! I’d like to know what you think. In addition to commenting on this blog you can also send a response via e-mail to gwmonti@mac.com or visit www.ctrchg.com.

Gary Monti PMI presentation croppedThrough his firm, Center for Managing Change, Gary Monti has over 30 years experience providing change- and project management services internationally. He works at the nexus between strategy, business case, project-, process-, and people management. Service modalities include consulting, teaching, mentoring, and speaking. Credentials include PMP number 14 (Project Management Institute®), Myers-Briggs Type Indicator certification, and accreditation in the Cynefin methodology. Gary can be reached at gwmonti@mac.com or through Twitter at @garymonti
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