The Hero is Dead! Long Live the Hero!

Going Beyond What We Conventionally Think A “Hero” Means

In researching Vertical Development over the past decade, I’ve realized how Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey is a perfect metaphor for it because it embodies the psychological journey necessary for the individual to “heroically” level up and transform the way they look at themselves and their world. 

Yet at the same time, I’ve increasingly seen more and more people using the word “hero” with disdain, with some authors like Richard Wilson of OSCA even entitling his amazing book on leadership Anti Hero. Why was this I thought? Why do I see a “hero” as something to be strived for and embodied, while others see it as something to be avoided? Clueing in, I finally realized it was because the word “hero” means different things to different people. 

As I noted above, a “hero” to me, based upon Joseph Campbell’s work, is someone who undergoes a transformation that changes the way they look at the world and themselves. In other words, the person experiences a paradigm shift in their life and does a complete U-turn in the way they think and act (mirroring the arc of the Hero’s Journey), broadening their perception in the process.

Yet in looking at people who dislike the word “hero”, it’s almost as though their meaning is the exact opposite of what I just described. For example, Richard Wilson describes “heroic leaders” as problematic because of their “inflexible” single-minded nature, as noted below. 

Anti Hero argues that the modern challenges we face have fundamentally changed what we need from our leaders, requiring a shift from Heroic to Antiheroic leadership. The Heroic leaders who dominate our institutions today have four fatal flaws. First, they tend to be over-confident in their opinions. Secondly, they tend to lack empathy towards others. Thirdly, they tend to be inflexible. And finally, they tend to deny the existence of uncertainty. These are the four pillars of the Heroic leader. This isn’t, though, the fault of the leaders themselves; most of our leaders are the victims of outdated systems of leadership that were built for simpler times. Indeed, our leaders are very often doing their best in very difficult circumstances.

Richard Wilson, Anti Hero

When reflecting upon these words, what immediately came to mind was “heroic” images of John Wayne in the movies of the sixties and the accompanying expression of “stick to your guns“. In effect, a “hero” back then was was cultivated as someone who was steadfast and resolute. They stuck to their beliefs and in doing so, persevered and overcame their problems. So no wonder people hate the word “hero” today, especially if that’s what they think it means, because we need people who can be flexible and adaptable, not rigid and unchanging.

“Never apologize Mister. It’s a sign of weakness.” — John Wayne

All that said though, people need to realize that their conventional definition of a “hero” isn’t truly what a hero is from a mythological standpoint, as per Joseph Campbell’s work. A true hero is someone who is flexible and adaptable, who is continually broadening their perception of their world and themselves, which is what makes them heroic in the first place, because that requires a monumental psychological leap to be able to do so.

Finally, we are in an age where the meaning of everything is being redefined. Words like management and leadership have been stigmatized as well, associated with an elite few who seem to only care about themselves. But these words are being redefined, applied to every individual, as they gain the opportunity and potential to take management and leadership of their own lives in a completely new way (which requires a heroic leap in itself). So if we can redefine these words, why can’t we redefine the word hero as well and bring it back to its rightful meaning.

In closing, below is The Hero Path described by Joseph Campbell. Note the second paragraph where it describes “we shall slay ourselves”. This embodies the metaphorical death and resurrection the hero undertakes which is a letting go of one’s existing limited sense of self, so that a broader one can emerge. This often requires slaying one’s “dragons” which represents your older beliefs which are standing in your way and preventing you from unfolding into who you truly are.

The Hero Path

We have not even to risk the adventure alone
for the heroes of all time have gone before us.
The labyrinth is thoroughly known …
we have only to follow the thread of the hero path.
And where we had thought to find an abomination
we shall find a God.

And where we had thought to slay another
we shall slay ourselves.
Where we had thought to travel outwards
we shall come to the center of our own existence.
And where we had thought to be alone
we shall be with all the world.

Joseph Campbell


Pioneer or Barbarian? It’s All Relative

How Social Innovators Seem Like Destroyers of The Old World

In Margaret Wheatley’s book Who Do We Choose To Be?, she talks about Sir John Glubb’s work in revealing the six stages of a civilization’s decline, from an Age of Pioneers to an Age of Decadence. In reading the characteristics of these stages in detail, I noticed something particularly interesting.

In the final stage, the Age of Decadence, she talks about how things typically become weakened and diluted, thus ripe for the plucking from external forces (i.e. Roman Empire attacked by barbarians). She even indicates how our society is at this stage, as “we are a civilization in collapse and the barbarians have moved in on us.”

In the first stage though, the Age of Pioneers, the way she describes these pioneers, it almost sounds like she’s describing barbarians based upon their characteristics, as noted below. So it seems like they are metaphorically one in the same but they just seem different because from the old pioneer’s relative perspective in their now state of decadence, the new pioneers storming and overrunning their defensive walls seem like violent, raiding barbarians.

Fearless initiative, energy, and courage / practical and experimental, action is their solution to every problem / optimism, confidence, devotion to duty, shared purpose / poor, hardy, enterprising, aggressive / They seem to appear out of nowhere surprising the dominate civilization / sacrifice and service are guiding values / strong values of shared purpose, honour, and a strict moral code bind them

Margaret even confirms this by describing how the perception of her own work is seen differently by different people based upon their relative perspective of it. For example, she indicates how we need peaceful warriors for our time, needing “only two weapons: compassion and insight,” and that they vow to “never use aggression or fear to accomplish their ends.” Yet in doing this peaceful work, she indicates how you will often be seen as a threat by others.

Now, everyone who takes a stand for something good receives far worse than slander: they can expect death threats and hate hurled at them through the Internet, and whole social media campaigns mobilized against them. If you’re lucky, you don’t become part of a conspiracy theory that twists your intentions into something diabolic.

In this current environment, it is faith that provides the deeper ground for our actions. We can expect to be misunderstood and victimized for our good efforts. If we’re lucky, we just get ignored, left to ourselves, below the radar. This is a real blessing — although it requires giving up any needs for approval and recognition. But if we do get on the radar, in this climate of careless fear mongering and hate, we have to be prepared for unjust and possibly insane reactions to our work.

Margaret Wheatley, Who Do We Choose To Be?

A Life Cycle of Change…

Two Loops Model: Berkana Institute’s Theory of Change

What’s remarkable about this, is that if you look at the earlier work of Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze at The Berkana Institute, particularly their Two Loops Model first mentioned within their paper Using Emergence to Take Social Innovations to Scale, you can see this same pattern of social innovators being perceived as dangerously “rocking the boat” of the status quo, which is why they’re often cast out of or left out of the dominant system because they don’t fit in to it. Chris Corrigan in his own talk on the Two Loop Theory of Change, describes this perfectly as follows (and it reminds me of why I’ve never really fit into most conventional organizations myself).

So the innovators are either out there because they’ve walked out and they’re practicing differently or the innovators have always been left out. They’ve always been at the margins. They’ve never been a part of the privilege that the system has been able to do. And so you often get some fascinating combinations when innovators begin to run into each other, here at the margins between those that have walked out and those who have been left out.”

Chris Corrigan, Two Loop Theory of Change

…And How It Affects Us All Societally

In HBO’s documentary The Soul of America, based off of the best-selling book by John Meacham, we see this same pattern again. People marginalized at the fringes of a system, and thus rarely benefiting from the privileges of it, decide to come together and take a stand, advocating for change so that the system can help all people equally, rather than just an elite few. But again as history has shown, these social innovators, regardless of the peaceful measures they have taken, are often seen as violently threatening the existing status quo by those who are still benefiting from the exploitive privileges of the older, outdated system.

HBO The Soul of America: Official Trailer

What’s becoming more and more apparent to me is that we can no longer fight these differing societal inequalities by themselves anymore because they really aren’t separate. When we bring up race, gender, age, class and sexual orientation inequalities within our world today, what we are really talking about collectively are basic human needs that every human being should be entitled to for their mental health and a sense of well-being but often aren’t because we are often blindly perpetuating inequalities ourselves.

As The Soul of America documentary showed, using the Suffragette Movement as an example, you can actually have one group fighting for inequalities in one area, such as women fighting for gender inequality and the right to vote, but promoting inequalities in other areas at the exact same time, such as not permitting African American women to walk publicly alongside white women in their parades.

Stepping Into The Present Unknown…

Today our world is changing more rapidly than many of us can comprehend, with boundaries blurring and disappearing. What used to be black and white is now just a fuzzy, blurry grey because we haven’t caught up to making sense of the meaning of everything we’re encountering yet. Thus without this meaning and understanding, a lot of these newer things may seem unfamiliar, scary, and even threatening to us.

For example, transgender inequalities are on the forefront of many headlines today. While I myself am still trying to learn as much as I can about it, I can still have an incredibly deep sense of empathy and understanding for the basic human need to be accepted as I am rather than as I am expected to be. So if I would like this basic human need for myself, I should be willing to broaden my mindset and be willing to give it to others in turn.

…And Into A Forgotten, Known Past

And I think that when we do open ourselves up to newer ways of being human, we’ll often discover that these “newer ways” aren’t so new after all. They’ve just been forgotten to us over time and we just need to be reminded of them again.

For example, my wife is a teacher and she often shares First Nations knowledge within her classes. Recently she mentioned to me about “Two-Spirit” people in First Nations history “who were gifted among all beings because they carried two spirits: that of male and female.” These people were often “honoured and revered” and seen as “visionaries, the healers and medicine people.”

Unfortunately the traditional role of Two-Spirit people has been forgotten over time by many Native People because of the “colonizing forces” which forced them to assimilate and thus lose a lot of there identity and creativity as a people in the process. However, today these traditional roles are being remembered and relearnt, helping people to not only be accepted by others but more importantly helping them to accept themselves as they are as well.

Delving Deeper Into Our Psyche…

Which leads us to what I believe is the most important point in this entire article. That being that we need to go beyond just realizing that we can be seen as a threatening, violent “barbarian” to others when trying to bring about positive social change within our society but that we can even be seen as a threatening, violent “barbarian” to ourselves when trying to bring about positive social change within our very sense of self.

In effect, we are now living with a societal system that is marginalizing so many of its people that it is actually psychologically alienating and dehumanizing them without them even realizing it. For example, psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s research in the 1940’s studied children’s attitude about race using doll experiments (with many current versions of it on YouTube) and it showed how feelings of inferiority about themselves can be culturally instilled at a young age.

This perception of ourselves as being “bad” has been elevated to a whole other level today with most marketing focusing on something being “wrong” with you and how their product can miraculously “fix” you, just to sell a product. Things like this have become so ingrained in our culture today that Robert Thurman, a Professor of Buddhist Studies at Columbia University, stated in the documentary CRAZYWISE that our society has actually become “psychotic” and thus “out of touch with reality”.

Official CRAZYWISE Trailer

…And Remembering Our Humanity

In the same documentary, it describes how indigenous communities around the world often help their people turn “their psychological crisis into a positive transformative experience”, helping them to understand their sensitivities and the meaning of the transformative experience they are going through, even helping some of them to become healers and shamans for their communities.

I think this is something we all have to reflect upon and become aware of, the more our world rapidly changes around us. In effect, many of us will no longer feel like we “fit” into this world and are being ejected “outside” of its norms, thus we may feel like we are lost and alone. Yet at the same time, we’re craving this sense of belonging to something larger than ourselves, even though it could be killing us to continue trying to conform to a society that’s dehumanizing us in the process, thus leading to a potential psychotic break within us.

But it doesn’t have to be this way, if we realize that there are larger and broader ways of being human beyond what we conventionally know. We just have to realize that what we are going through right now isn’t abnormal but instead a normal, natural process of our body and mind telling us that something is wrong and we just need to stop and listen to ourselves to understand the meaning of it. When we do so and share our stories with others in the process, we may realize that we aren’t so alone after all and there is a much larger world awaiting us out there and a much larger sense of identity awaiting within us.

The Final Frontier is Our Soul

In closing off this article, I’d like to reference a couple of amazing quotes from the documentary Woman In Motion about Nichelle Nichols amazing life so far because I believe it encapsulates the Hero’s Journey that we will all be called to take in the years ahead.

“Woman in Motion” Official Trailer

Simply put, a lot of the most difficult challenges before us will not require just technical innovations but will more importantly require monumental social innovations that will challenge the very way we perceive our world and our selves within it. Nichelle Nichols experienced this herself. After creating and playing the role of Uhura on Star Trek, she challenged NASA to embody the diversity seen in Star Trek and they accepted her challenge, challenging her in turn to improve their recruiting process for the Challenger astronaut program.

In effect, unlike previous generations who were the explorers, navigators, and storytellers of the physical world outside of us, future generations will more than likely be explorers, navigators, and storytellers of the psychological world within us first and foremost. Yet to achieve this, we have to realize that we are not losing and destroying who we used to be, like barbarians storming and destroying the defensive walls of our known sense of self, but are instead pioneering a much larger unknown sense of self, both individually as a person and collectively as a society, like Nichelle did.

Space is not the final frontier. The final frontier is the human soul.

David Gerrold, Screenwriter & Novelist

And to know that I have really touched the future by changing the present by just believing and being me…

Nichelle Nichols

The Adventure of Your Life

Understanding The Hero’s Journey Towards The Future of Work

Two decades ago I started researching The Future of Work because I felt like the conventional concept of work wasn’t working for me anymore (and so did many others uniting around The Cluetrain Manifesto). This evolved into researching Social Innovation and understanding what we call The Future of Work as just the next step in our collective evolution and growth. It wasn’t until I began researching Social Creativity though that I realized it is what makes this innovative journey possible from our Old World of limitations to this New World of possibilities.

No matter how hard I tried to encapsulate everything I was learning though and share it with others, nothing really felt right to me. I realized the reason for this was because my identity felt out of sync, as my background was in building online communities around video games but then I had made what might have seemed like a radical pivot to researching Creativity, Social Innovation, and The Future of Work. Yet from my own perspective, it had felt like a completely natural progression because I had realized culture was the primary reason for my communities being so successful in the past and culture was also going to be critical in evolving our organizations into communities of practice and inquiry within The Future of Work.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast.

Peter Drucker

What finally helped everything coalesce together though and bridge my past and present identity into one integrated whole was realizing that Joseph Campbell’s Hero Journey is a metaphor for the psychological journey that will be required of each of us to step into The Future of Work. Because of this realization, I was now able to bring all of my past experiences playing MMORPGs like the World of Warcraft and use them as a familiar metaphorical language to understand The Future of Work as an “adventure” which requires us all to be heroic explorers, navigators, and storytellers of our own lives.

In effect, just like I experienced two decades ago, many others are also now receiving the same “call to adventure” today and beginning to question their world as the once stable foundations of it begin to crumble around them. This questioning will in turn lead them on a quest which will take them psychologically off the edge of the world they believe they know and into an unknown wilderness of uncertainty. Within this liminal space, they will encounter their fears as monsters blocking their way and overcome them, levelling up in the process and discovering treasures about themselves that will eventually help them help others in turn, especially in relation to the wicked problems arising in our world today.

Belonging so fully to yourself that you’re willing to stand alone is a wilderness — an untamed, unpredictable place of solitude and searching. It is a place as dangerous as it is breathtaking, a place as sought after as it is feared. The wilderness can often feel unholy because we can’t control it, or what people think about our choice of whether to venture into that vastness or not. But it turns out to be the place of true belonging, and it’s the bravest and most sacred place you will ever stand.

Brené BrownBraving The Wilderness

In closing, I’d like to relay something I wrote back in June 2011 that profoundly altered the trajectory of my research, as well as my own growth and development. At the time, I don’t think I really understood the true depth of what I wrote, as it kind of flowed out of me as if written by someone else. Over time though, these words have revealed and relayed the deeper wisdom of the problems we face today, in that they often aren’t being caused by “someone else over there” that we can simply blame but are instead often systemic in nature being created unknowingly in the shadows of our own collective actions.

There is an epic struggle going on, a war if you will. This is no typical enemy though. We need to be real creative in fighting it. Why? Because this enemy can’t be seen. It lies within us, fighting for the very control of our hearts and minds.

We are our own worst enemies. We are our own heroic liberators. Action or inaction will determine our fate. The choice lies with us and is our responsibility alone, whether we like it or not. 

Nollind Whachell