Moses, Dorothy, and the Hero’s journey
We have been focusing on leaders’ deep systemic stories–how they were formed, how they shape your leadership behavior, and how you can learn to see, and if you desire, change them. In this post, we will look at the larger cultural context for our individual stories.
Making Meaning through Stories
We as human beings are meaning making creatures. One of the ways we make meaning for ourselves as individuals is through our own systemic stories. One of the ways we make meaning of our larger world and our place in it is through the stories we create about life and about our relationships with each other, with our planet, and with the heavens. Examples of these cultural stories include creation stories; flood stories; Eden stories; stories of exodus and deliverance; wandering in the wilderness; stories of light and hope; fairy tales; and stories about birth, death, and regeneration.
Our individual stories are narratives we have told ourselves about our own experiences in our life journeys. Our larger cultural stories are narratives we have created about our broader human experience. All of these stories, our personal ones and our larger myths, are interconnected. Understanding one group of stories helps us learn from the others.
Where do our stories come from?
What are our broader cultural myths really about? Where do they come from? I suggested above that they are about our human experience and our desire to make meaning of that experience. Specifically, I believe our cultural myths emerge from three interrelated arenas:
- Our cycle of life from birth through childhood, adulthood, mid-life, maturity, and death.
- Our relationship with the earth and the seasons
- Our relationships with others—our parents, our families, our friends, and our larger communities.
The Hero’s Journey
Joseph Campbell found that, while there are indeed differences, there are also remarkable parallels among the archetypal stories, or myths, across all cultures. These parallels reflect commonalities in the human condition.
Campbell also indentified a powerful prototypical story he called The Hero’s Journey. Hero’s journey stories appear in all cultures, and their underlying structures are much the same. The basic sequence of a hero’s journey story is:
- The hero begins in a “stable” state.
- Something breaks her loose.
- He goes into a difficult period, the pit, a trauma.
- She emerges from that dark night of the soul and goes on a journey, a quest to accomplish some great thing, meet some great challenge, and/or get to a desired place.
- The hero experiences several tests along the way
- If the hero is successful in his journey, he achieves his goal, meets his great challenge, and reaches his desired destination.
Moses and the Exodus
The account of Moses and the Exodus is a mid-life hero’s journey. Moses left Egypt as a young man and for many years had a stable life and family in the desert. The burning bush experience—through which he was commissioned by Yahweh to lead his people to freedom and into the Promised Land–broke him loose from that comfortable place. He re-entered Egypt and faced the threat of the Pharaoh and his minions. He became the vehicle for the plagues visited upon Egypt. He led the Children of Israel through the climactic trauma of crossing the Red Sea, the closing of which destroyed Pharaoh’s pursuing armies. Moses then led his people in a 40-year journey through the desert looking for the Promised Land.
Dorothy and the Yellow Brick Road
The story of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz is a coming of age hero’s journey. Though the content is totally different, there are many thematic similarities to Moses’ story. Dorothy was in Kansas on the farm (a stable place). The cyclone broke her loose from that space, and she experienced the storm’s powerful trauma. As Moses had Pharaoh as a nemesis, Dorothy had the Wicked Witches. As going through the Red Sea destroyed Pharaoh’s armies, when Dorothy came through the tornado, the house she was in killed the Wicked Witch of the East. Moses and the Children of Israel came through the Red Sea to a strange desert with a long journey and desired destination ahead of them. Dorothy came through the tornado, landed in the strange Land of Oz, and soon began her journey back home. On his journey, Moses experienced many tests—tests of his leadership; a sometimes rebellious, idolatrous group of followers; the lack of food; and the summons to Mount Sinai. Dorothy was also tested—the plants that made her and her friends fall asleep; getting access to the Wizard; the castle of the Wicked Witch of the West; the fact that the Wizard was hokum. To pass these tests, both Moses and Dorothy needed to use the best resources of their hearts, their minds, and their courage.
Your own Hero’s Journey
With careful examination, you will find that your story is also a quest that has a sequence similar to Moses’ and Dorothy’s. We start in what we initially experience as a safe protected place, at home with our parents. We feel loved. Over time, we learn that our situation, and the love we receive are not perfect (not necessarily due to the fact that anyone is s bad person—most often simply due to the imperfection of the human condition). We experience our first great test, the first great question of life: “Am I worthy, am I loved? Am I loveable?” We begin our life journey in search of the answer to that question and in search of the love we believe we have lost.
Our next test comes in young adulthood, when we find ourselves answering the second great question of life: “What am I going to do with my life on the planet? Who is the best person I can be in the world?”
During mid-life we face our third great challenge. We look back on our lives, and ask ourselves the third great question: “Have I been the best person I can be?” Have I led a life of worth and meaning?”
And finally, in maturity, we experience our fourth great test. We look both backward and forward and ask ourselves, “How can I leave the planet a better place than I found it? What is the legacy I want to leave behind?”
If we answer these four great questions of life successfully, we reach our “promised land”—the knowledge that we have led a life of worth and meaning.
The Tapestry of Life
Your leadership journey, your overall life journey, and your journey in your current phase of life are intricately intertwined. They are all variations of your own hero’s journey. You reach a plateau and are comfortable there—for a while. Something occurs to break you loose. You are no longer as comfortable; you experience a period of transition. You set out on the next phase of your journey to achieve a certain goal and reach a desired point—to become a powerful leader, to guide your organization through a period of major change, to make your mark, or to establish your legacy–to show yourself, others, and your world that you ARE worthy, loved, loveable, and successful, that you are indeed a good human being. Such is the nature of your life journey; such is your hero’s journey; such is your leadership story; and such is the human condition. They are all part of one whole cloth.
What you can do
To help yourself learn your own present and desired story, ask yourself, “Where am I in my life journey, right now? What was my last plateau? What shook me loose? What is my destination, my goal? And, how do I proceed effectively and humanely to achieve my goal?” The answers to these questions will begin paint the picture of your own hero’s journey.
Where do we go from here?
My next post will the last in this series on Unleashing the Power of your Story. I will end the series by summarizing the steps you can take, the specific questions you can ask and answer for yourself, to identify your present and desired leadership stories and take the steps to move yourself powerfully from one to the other.
Meanwhile, Good Journey…
If you would like to learn more about story work and/or consider story coaching, feel free to call or email me at:
Steven P. Ober EdD
President: Chrysalis Executive Coaching & Consulting
Partner: Systems Perspectives, LLC
Office: PO Box 278, Oakham, MA 01068
Home: 278 Crocker Nye Rd., Oakham, MA 01068
O: 508.882.1025 M: 978.590.4219
Steve is a senior executive coach and consultant. He has developed and successfully uses a powerful approach to leadership coaching, Creating your Leadership Story, which enables leaders to make deep, lasting improvements in their leadership effectives in short periods of time. He and a group of partners have created a breakthrough educational program, Coaching from a Systems Perspective, in which you can significantly enhance your abilities as a systemic leadership coach. See http://SystemsPerspectivesLLC.com.