The Voyage of the Leader-Hero

Hero-leaders use the Underworld stage as a personal springboard to pave the way for a true change in outlook and actions.

The best leaders are heroes. They are seemingly able to conjure unexpected, almost magical results, priming and then transforming a company and culture from being subpar or an also-ran into a force for productivity, engagement, and safety.

It's easy to write off such superleaders as somehow serendipitously bestowed with special powers, as if "charisma" (from the Greek khárisma, "gift of grace") were a present bequeathed by fate only upon highly selected individuals. While this may be the case for some, I've met a wide range of master leaders who cultivate sterling results without standout charisma. Such leader-heroes have developed the persistence, patience, and skills critical to performing organizational sublimation, moving quickly from a lower state to a more energized one. They've mostly accomplished this through the hard work of looking clearly and honestly at their own attributes and limitations, then making a series of needed adjustments.

In his "The Hero with a Thousand Faces," eminent mythologist Joseph Campbell explains that heroes are those who achieve great deeds for their group or community. They exist in every culture and time; though sprung from different beginnings, such individuals seem to follow a similar progression in their personal paths to success.

Master teacher David Sikking has refined Campbell's work into eight evolutionary stages that closely apply to anyone dedicated to becoming a leader-hero in his/her organization.

1. Birth. The idea first comes to the budding leader that he/she has the potential to make improvements in an imperfect world/organization. Though a leader's "birthing" may occur at any age, often he/she somehow embraces a wakeup call to work toward making changes for the better. He/she comes to realize and deeply embrace what Joseph Campbell wrote: "A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself."

2. Childhood. The would-be leader makes first forays into becoming a change agent. Often these initial steps are stumblingly inefficient. Typically, the leader-hero becomes head-scratchingly frustrated when trying to mimic another's methods or style that don't exactly fit.

3. Preparation, meditation, refusal. Experiencing disappointing results leads the leader toward reflection. This is a critical stage; the temptation is to blame others or circumstances for things not working out rather than the leader questioning his/her part or approach. Those who aren't willing and ready to look at themselves don't progress into the next stage of hero-leadership, rather, they languish, doomed to repeat the same errors, akin to pushing a large rock up a hill only to have it roll back down (remember the Greek myth of Sisyphus?) Though it would be easy to give in to the temptation of blaming others--and many do--hero-leaders develop the internal strength to be OK with the discomfort of honestly assessing themselves.

4. Quest. The leader either carves out or is given a project that pushes his/her limits. Here hero-leaders distinguish themselves by their determination to continue on an arduously long and sometimes thankless journey. When traversing through the deserts of disillusionment and the forests of frustration, hero-leaders typically have to overcome fatigue, anger, and lack of sufficient support.

5. Death. Despite expending serious effort, the hero experiences defeat, the "death" of his/her project or ideals. Hopefully, this is a temporary stage. Ultimately, this "death" stage is an ending of old ways, a "passing away" of hitherto-assumed hard and fast rules. Feelings of inadequacy or embarrassment can dominate, and credibility may feel clipped.

Often this phase hits hardest those who take a strong-minded command-and-control approach and others who believe all they have to do is try hard or those who attempt to coast on their charisma without getting others personally committed and involved.

6. Underworld. The hero-leader dwells in the depths of despair, tending to focus on his/her inability to fulfill the mission. Oftentimes, things have to hit bottom before a hero-leader is able to swing up. The Underworld stage can serve as a personal wakeup call, what leadership guru Warren Bennis terms a “crucible experience.” This is the genesis of the hero-leader’s realizing that he/she doesn’t have to be stuck in the quicksands of past actions and culture.

While some aren't able to emerge from this depression (and either mark time in place or leave for less burnt-out pastures), hero-leaders use the Underworld stage as a personal springboard to pave the way for a true change in outlook and actions.

7. Resurrection. This is the stage of renewal, a second lease on life, where the hero-leader shrugs off fears of inadequacy and past mistakes, then applies new-found commitment and knowledge toward catalyzing significant change. Hope rises, tempered with sharpened perceptions of surrounding forces in play.

8. Apotheosis. The hero-leader is victorious and acknowledged as such, often hailed as an "instant success" (while ironically remembering personal travails and hardships in the quest).

In essence, Campbell contends the potential to become a hero is hardwired into every person. But too many get stuck in one of these stages. The only leaders who complete their quest are those who are both tenacious and self-honest, who don't allow either times of discouragement or overinflated egotism to derail moving onward in their leadership journey. As Campbell wrote, "When we quit thinking primarily about ourselves and our own self-preservation, we undergo a truly heroic transformation of consciousness. The big question is whether you are going to be able to say a hearty yes to your adventure."

So here's the question I continually ask myself and invite you to consider, as well: "Do I have the courage and tenacity to become the hero-leader of my own life, organization, and community?"

This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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