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The Big Themes

Another entry from the “Way Back Machine.”  This was first published in October of 2002


I’m ready to charge forth in pursuit of my mythic destiny and I can’t even get time off from work to do it.


I’m no expert here, but it seems to me that the pursuit of a mythic destiny isn’t something that you need to get off a $7 an hour job in order to do.

From the movie, Tin Cup

I have filled much of the last twenty years [now 35 and counting]  thinking about four questions in different forms:

  • What makes a great seller great?
  • What makes a great service provider great?
  • What makes a great leader great?
  • What makes a great organization great?

Thinking about these questions puts me solidly in the company of about a zillion other people, which suggests that I’m either not a terribly original thinker, or that these are big questions. Actually, if you wipe out the words “seller” and “service provider” you’ve now got an even simpler question: what makes a person great? Now you’ve got THE QUESTION.

Over the past six months or so I’ve become obsessed with the concept of the journey, more specifically the Heroic Journey as articulated most eloquently by Joseph Campbell. Here again, my new found interest puts me smack dab in the middle of a theme others have been thinking about for the last ten thousand years or so. I guess I should be asking myself what took me so long, but that’s another line of thinking.

As it turns out, “Journey” is a popular word in contemporary business discourse, as in “customer experience is a journey, not a destination.” Or “Our vision is to be nothing less than the premier provider of snorfblats; it’s a journey, not a destination.” Or any number of other lofty sounding proclamations that are intended to do one of three things:

  • Absolve the speaker/writer of the need to actually achieve results in any reasonable time frame.
  • Give weight and moment to an otherwise pedestrian objective.
  • Acknowledge the underlying truth that anything worth doing will bring us face to face with hidden truths, profound meaning, uncomfortable realizations, vexing trials, and ultimately great victories, even if the journey appears to start out innocently enough.

I’d dearly like to think that those of us in business who use the word “journey” use it in the last sense, but that’s probably hoping for too much.

It is Campbell’s sense that mythic journeys are voyages of self-discovery. The epic tales that anchor every culture serve many purposes, the most important being a signal to us of what we ultimately need to do, and what to expect once we get at it.

We Use The Word, But What Does It Mean?

With that said, I’m convinced that the concept of The Journey in all its parts is a completely relevant framework for thinking about businesses, which after all are made up of people who are on their own journeys of self discovery, selling to customers who are also on their own journeys of self discovery.

In fact, I think it’s useful to think about how to intertwine what I call the “Four Journeys”: those of the organization, leadership, employees, and customers. The organization doesn’t really go on a journey because it has no soul or corpus independent of the people, just like a tribe doesn’t go on a journey. But the firm or tribe is the bounding structure and entity and brings all those people together. To the extent that the individuals return to the whole with new insights and blessings from their own journeys, the collective whole journeys as well.  So let’s include it.

The classic heroic journey contains these components:

  • Hero/Heroine: The person doesn’t start out as a hero (even if he’s already a king). He or she is just sitting around doing the daily do, reading the paper, tending the fields, whatever. It’s the journey that does it. It’s the journey that makes the hero heroic.
  • Ordinary World: The familiar surroundings, conventions, and behaviors of the every day world you live and work in.
  • The Call to Adventure: You’re challenged by something; the challenge means something is going to have to change. The call establishes the stakes of the game as well as the ultimate goal. The ordinary world just won’t do it anymore.
  • Refusal of the Call: It’s not uncommon for the initiate to do whatever it takes to avoid the call, ignore the frog in the well, wave off the gnarly old crone by the wayside, or follow habit and pattern when something odd crops up. And why not? The unknown is scary. Don’t want to go. It’s warm inside.
  • Allies: Anyone or anything that pulls you through the refusal of the call and gets you started on the journey.
  • Separation: Making the decision and committing your energies to the journey. In mythic terms, this is often expressed in terms of crossing a river, entering a forest, getting in a boat, or some other imagery that indicates that you’re not in Kansas anymore.
  • Challenges: The parts that make the journey worth taking—that make it heroic—are the challenges that pop up to test your seriousness about making the journey and fetching the prize. The first one usually shows up right after you make your first commitment to the journey.
  • Return: Coming back can be as hard as going out. Some heroes never come back. Some make it back and the ordinary world just doesn’t do the trick anymore. Some return only to find that the folks back home really aren’t interested in this great new discovery the hero has dragged back. A few make it back and stand astride the world of the ordinary and the extraordinary. It is at that point that the heroic journey becomes the tribal journey in that the boon or blessing brought back moves the world of the ordinary a bit closer to some super ordinate goal or state of being.

Still want to use the word “journey” to talk about your organization and its over-the-horizon objectives? The calculus is pretty simple. A “journeying” organization is one that is culturally tuned to encourage people to step up to opportunities to separate from the world of the ordinary, find some new boon or blessing, and bring it back to the hosannas of an adoring throng.

Those journeys can go on down in finance, over in the call center, up in engineering, out in manufacturing, and most especially when and where the customer touches your organization. They go on anywhere you have engaged people who can and do heed the call to put the known, the routine, and the accepted practices aside to do what intuitively seems right, even if nobody understands why at the time. It is out of those intuitive leaps that greatness arises.

Boons? Blessings? Adoring throngs? If that’s not the environment you’re creating, if that’s not what it feels like when someone steps out and shows some initiative, you need to put that journey language back in the bag or risk the opprobrium reserved for yet another out of touch leader or hollowed out vision statement. There is no in between.

It is ultimately our individual destiny to journey. If you don’t make a place in your company for people to journey, they’ll do it elsewhere. All that brainpower, self-motivation, and meaning-seeking will leave the building at 5:00 and your organization won’t be the better for it. Without the individuals’ willingness to intertwine their journeys with that of the whole, there is not organizational journey.

From Good to Great. From Ordinary to Significant

This brings us to a second but related line of thinking. Journeying organizations are great organizations. Here again, the word “great” is thrown around all too easily. Who doesn’t want greatness? Actually, that’s a trick question. Who among us doesn’t say we want greatness?

But saying it and paying the price to get there are two different things. One small example. The NBA employs about 500 of what are presumably the finest basketball players on the planet, but only a handful at best can truly be described as great. And it’s not athletic talent that separates the great ones from the rest. The same is true anywhere you look.

In business, there’s more to greatness than whatever metric those shining examples of moral rectitude, the Wall Street Analysts, are currently tracking. This isn’t to suggest that turning in a “great” financial performance isn’t good or necessary. I’m a business person and I’m as interested in making money as the next person. I’m a shareholder and I’m keen on owning companies that produce real revenues, have real cash flows, and that have real balance sheets. But we’re talking about greatness here. We’re talking about something ineffable. We’re talking about something more.

Greatness in the highest sense is transcendence. It’s the journey and the result of the journey wrapped together. Greatness in the context of an economic entity like a company comes from fusing the transcendent qualities that come forward out of the individuals with solid business outcomes to create a “self-confident organization” that thrills customers, operates efficiently and effectively, and delivers the brand promise.

An environment that encourages journeying is an environment that promotes greatness. Self-confident, journeying organizations put blue water between them and the competition because the merely good never fully engage the creative energies of the people that make them. That is what makes them great.

There Is No Journey, There Is No Greatness, Without a Decision

Journeys begin with a decision and keep going through thick and thin because the hero decides again and again to persist. Or to put it another way, journeys, and by extension greatness, are built on the quality of the decisions that initiate and sustain them. So what is a quality decision?

To answer that question, it’s important to understand that there is a difference between quality outcomes and quality decisions. For example, you could drink like a fish and then drive home at 2:30 in the morning and get there alive. That would presumably be a quality outcome, but not a quality decision.

Disciplined, dynamic, journeying organizations make good decisions. Usually the outcomes are good as well, but if they’re not, two things are true: 1) there is no second guessing the decision because it was well made; and 2) it’s possible to now make better decisions because the process promotes learning. The factors that support decision quality are as follows:

  • An appropriately framed decision. What are you deciding and why? What shouldn’t you be deciding and why?
  • Creative, doable alternatives. Are they real alternatives or just the same old, same old? This is where you want to raise constructive conflict.
  • Meaningful and reliable information. What you want is insight that will be meaningful and relevant in judging alternatives.
  • Clear values and tradeoffs. Values define our preferences among outcomes. Values can be expressed by “attributes.”   Attributes are characteristics of the outcomes that we find desirable or undesirable. They typically occur over time and may have some degree of uncertainty associated with them. These are the standards by which you’re going to resolve the conflicts.
  • Correct Reasoning. Reasoning is how you combine your alternatives, information, and values to arrive at a decision. Good reasoning requires an explanation, or rationale. This is where you actually resolve the conflicts.
  • Commitment to Action. A decision without action is futile. Commitment to action means that you are set to act and have the ability to direct your action in a purposeful manner. This is where you want no conflict.

You can’t make quality decisions if you don’t do those six things. This is true for individuals and it’s true for organizations in the sense that great, self-confident organizations are built on distributed decision-making. Up and down, side to side, and front to back, people in great organizations make quality decisions. It’s part of the greatness. What makes that possible is first and foremost a shared set of values: not the kind that get stuck on a wall somewhere but the heart-beating sense of collective purpose that comes alive in the brand promise and the daily actions and decisions your people make.

Second, but no less important, what makes distributed quality decision making possible is “trust.” Customers need to believe in and trust the brand promise. Employees need to trust the values and leadership. Leadership needs to trust employees to live the values and make good decisions. The organization needs to collectively trust itself that it will carry out its grand intentions. It’s a big circle.

Values, trust, and quality decision making, make up the planks in the boat that takes an organization from good to great.

There Is No Quality Where There Is No Diversity

The concept of “alternatives” that is so important to decision quality hints at a larger issue, that of diversity. Diversity is a word that has become a politically correct term for employing people of color and making sure that women get promoted to executive jobs. While those are clearly worthy objectives, this line of thinking completely misses the larger point, which is that diversity and heterogeneity are the order of the universe everywhere other than in most companies.

Healthy ecosystems are messy, unruly, and diverse, and as a result, they are robust and healthy. Start pulling out species or in any other way diminishing the diversity of the ecosystem, and the health of the ecosystem decreases proportionately and then exponentially. There is no example in nature of a healthy ecosystem that is not a diverse ecosystem.

Without diversity, you die.

Too many leaders of companies fail to grasp the importance of this point. The words are often there, but where and how big decisions are made is usually remarkably homogenous and free of diversity: in ideas, in people, in points of view, in life experiences, in almost anything you care to name.

Patrick Goldstein gets at this point in a piece he wrote on George Lucas on the eve of his latest Star Wars movie (Seclusion has left Lucas out of touch, LA Times, May 21, 2002). Without putting too fine a point on it, Goldstein thinks the movie is a creative bust. The predisposing cause? Lucas is out of touch, or to stay with my theme, Lucas has cut himself off from diversity.

It’s what happens when an artist works in creative isolation. Success is often the worst thing that can happen to a filmmaker. The brash self-confidence that artists use for emotional support often mutates into an arrogance that cuts them off from their audience–and themselves.

He goes on to say that . . .

. . . the differences between the ways Lucas and Pixar pursue ideas are striking. At Pixar, collaboration and self-criticism are an integral part of the process. On several Pixar movies, including “Toy Story 2,” the company stopped the projects in mid-development, throwing out huge chunks of story lines and fixing other elements before forging ahead.

Lucas works in seclusion. Whatever feedback he receives is from friends and underlings, not peers. No one seems to deliver bad news. He told reporters recently that problems with “Phantom Menace” were “totally in the media [and] not based on fact…. I wouldn’t change anything about it.”

Presidents and corporate tycoons lose touch with reality just as often as filmmakers. But it’s especially painful to watch artists who were once so plugged into the culture fall so out of touch. It’s happened to Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese, two cinema gods whose recent movies have been woefully self-absorbed and emotionally stunted.

I would actually quibble with Goldstein on his charming sense of pathos when it comes to the “emotionally stunted” giants of the entertainment myth machine. Are we better or worse off as a people because the latest Lucas piece loses sight of the heroic journey qualities that made the first trilogy so engaging? Will western civilization be any worse off if Woody Allen makes yet another movie about exactly the same themes as all the other movies he’s ever made?

I actually think that insularity with what Goldstein calls “the presidents and corporate tycoons” is more common, more costly, and ultimately far sadder than a cinematic flop or a crummy CD.

During the recent boom times, the lack of diversity (using this term broadly) in the executive suite seemed to matter not at all assuming the only relevant scorecard was stock market performance. But when reality stuck its slimy snout into the tent, I believe that same lack of richness in world view, diversity of life experience, and variegated point of view became the weeds of corporate self-destruction.

I can think of many companies, the one I most recently worked for being one, that are sliding into oblivion due in large part to the self-reinforcing bunker mentality that causes people to seek comfort in whom and what they know at the expense of the kind of diverse inputs that would jump start a new journey and lead to organizational salvation. You’d think that’s what the board is for, but given the makeup of most, that seems far too much to hope for.

This tunnel mentality appears in a larger context as something called “social proof.” In times of uncertainty, we seek clues from the people around as to tell us what to do. You start to get a sense of the disastrous consequences that arise when social proof meets a complete lack of diverse and outside input when you examine the grisly tale of Jim Jones, The People’s Temple, and the so-called “Jonestown Massacre” that occurred in 1978.

In his outstanding book, “Influence, The Psychology of Persuasion,” Robert Cialdini writes:

One especially revealing question gives us a clue: “If the community had remained in San Francisco, would Rev. Jim Jones’s suicide command have been obeyed?” A highly speculative question to be sure, but the expert most familiar with the People’s Temple has not doubt about the answer. Dr. Louis Jolyon West, chairman of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA and director of its neuropsychiatric unit, is an authority on cults who had observed the People’s Temple for eight years prior to the Jonestown deaths. When interviewed in the immediate aftermath, he made what strikes me as an inordinately instructive statement: “This wouldn’t have happened in California. But they lived in total alienation from the rest of the world in a jungle situation in a hostile country.

Although lost in the welter of commentary following the tragedy, Dr. West’s observation, together with what we know about the principle of social proof, seems to me quite important to a satisfactory understanding of the compliant suicides. To my mind, the single act in the history of the People’s Temple that most contributed to the member’s mindless compliance that day occurred a year earlier with the relocation of the Temple to a jungle country of unfamiliar customs and strange people. . . All at once, they found themselves in a place they knew nothing about. South America, and the rain forests of Guyana, especially, were unlike anything they had experienced in San Francisco. The country—both physical and social—into which they were dropped must have seemed dreadfully uncertain.

Ah, uncertainty—the right-hand man of the principle of social proof. We have already seen that when people are uncertain, they look to the actions of others to guide their own actions. In the alien, Guyanese environment, then, Temple members were very ready to follow the lead of others. But as we have also seen, it is others of a special kind whose behavior will be most unquestioningly followed—similar others. . . . In a country like Guyana, there were no similar others for a Jonestown resident but the people of Jonestown itself.”  (Page 154-155.)

It’s an extreme example of a statement I made earlier: without diversity you die. It no doubt makes you uncomfortable or even mad that someone would suggest any sort of linkage between Jim Jones and what goes on in a modern corporation. But that doesn’t make the point wrong. Great organizations are diverse organizations, because diversity, while not guaranteeing quality decisions, at least makes them possible. Insularity and homogeneity yield the opposite, ultimately fueling journeys of creative failure, financial failure, and in extreme cases, moral and spiritual failure.

If You Don’t Like Paradox, Get Off the Road

To journey is to deal with paradox. Where there is good, there is bad. Where there is growth, there is decay. Where there is success, there is failure. Where there is journeying, there is also stasis. Where there is greatness, there are the seeds for the fall to ordinary or beyond.

Great leaders understand that to accomplish something significant means dealing with a constant stream of paradox. For example, consider the point I’ve just been ranting about: diversity. Obviously you can make an equally strong case for unanimity of purpose and point of view. After all, how can you create a branded customer experience across a large scale enterprise without large amounts of standardization across every dimension of the business?

Fair point. But nobody said it was easy. We like to pretend that we can make clean choices between extremes (quality vs. quantity; have your cake and eat it too, etc.) when in fact we can’t. Life is an endless stream of paradoxes. F. Scott Fitzgerald is purported to have said that, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is being able to hold two contrary ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Great leaders understand that it can’t be either/or. It has to be “and.”

Great leaders, great journeyers, find ways to shoot the middle on all the paradoxes that life presents. When dealing with people and points of view, great leaders understand how to balance diversity (in all its manifestations) with a sense of focus and purpose that are so important to getting a mob of employees and customers to head in more or less the same direction. As a result, they’re able to get all four journeys (company, leaders, people, and customers) headed in the same direction, bounded by the principles of the mission, vision, and brand promise, without losing the richness and unruliness–and the creativity and greatness–that goes along with a passionately involved, diverse group of people that see meaning in joining their journey with that of the others.

Journey, greatness, diversity, and paradox. These are the big themes that leaders need to be wrestling with. This is not the same world we grew up in. It’s certainly not the same world our parents grew up in. We as people need more heart, soul, meaning, and journey in our lives. Our organizations need to aspire to something more than creating short-term gains at the expense of our ethics and morals. Our world needs more of what’s best in all of us.

The fact that none of this is easy is simply a signal that it’s a journey worth taking. To quote the immortal philosopher Jimmy Dugan, the stumble down drunk who finds meaning coaching women’s baseball in A League of Their Own . . .


Quitting. You’ll regret it for the rest of your life . . . Baseball is what gets inside you. It’s what lights you up. You can’t deny that.


It just got too hard


It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great