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To be a leader, you don't have to be a superhero

As much as I love stories, the hero’s journey narrative arc never really felt like it was quite the right fit for me. Too self-aggrandizing. Too super-heroic. Too one-person-saves-the-world. Too in-the-spotlight. That’s why the women’s leadership retreat I’m creating with Tutti is called the HEROINE’S Journey. There’s an alternative narrative arc for leaders to follow if the hero’s path isn’t right for you.

For those that aren’t familiar with the hero’s journey, this is how Joseph Campbell describes it: “There is a general pattern to the hero journey––the quest of the hero into unknown realms, the powers that he meets there and overcomes, the stages of his crises of victory, and his return, then, with some boon that he gained, for the founding of a city, religion, dynasty, or whatnot; or, on the other hand, his failure and destruction.” Consider the first Star Wars movie: Luke Skywalker is called to adventure, and after an initial refusal, he answers. He leaves Tatooine, learns the ways of the Force with Obi Wan and Yoda. He transforms from a whiny moisture farmer into a Jedi as he faces one trial after the other, finds a lieutenant or two on the way, and ultimately saves the universe from the powers of darkness.

The hero’s journey correlates well with certain leadership styles — for instance the top-down commander (Winston Churchill) or the charismatic visionary (Nelson Mandela) or the situational problem solver (MacGyver). If your style connects well with the hero’s journey, that’s fantastic! Please, go save the world and make it a better place.

But many leaders don’t see themselves within a hero’s storyline. What about those of us who don’t choose adventure but find it thrust upon us? What about those of us who don’t want to shoulder the burden of leadership alone? What about those of us who aren’t born with the kinds of superpowers the marketplace seems to value most?

What if there were a different narrative?

In contrast, author and writer Gail Carriger offers a different narrative, a heroine’s journey, drawn from a different style of myth, story and legend. Instead of Luke Skywalker, think Dorthy Gale (Wizard of Oz) or Harry Potter. In these stories, a heroine like Dorothy doesn’t choose adventure, she literally gets swept up in a tornado that’s not under her control. Leadership and adventure are thrust upon her. The way she approaches and completes her quest also differs from that of a hero. Rather than the “superhero finds his power and single handedly saves the day” story, a heroine’s journey is a “heroine finds her tribe and they forge a new vision ogether”. Dorothy finds companions who share a common vision. They rely on one another to navigate the challenges in front of them, each one getting a chance to use their unique strengths to shine. And Dorothy develops a leadership style that’s far more team based and wholehearted. It’s a style known in the business world as servant leadership, collaborative leadership, or authentic leadership.

Important Note: the heroine’s journey isn’t just for women. Men often identify more with this collective, team-based narrative than a hero’s path. Take Harry Potter. He couldn’t succeed without the varied gifts of his friends Ron, Hermione, Neville, Luna, and many others. He is motivated by love for those he is fighting for, not power, revenge, or glory. In fact, he intentionally throws away the artifacts that would give him the most power. Though he learns to use magic, the most important skills he learns are how to build community, delegate, trust, and gather information.

Take this definition of servant leadership from SHRM: “these leaders possess a serve-first mindset, and they are focused on empowering and uplifting those who work for them. They are serving instead of commanding, showing humility instead of brandishing authority, and always looking to enhance the development of their staff members in ways that unlock potential, creativity and sense of purpose.” Most interestingly, the research suggests that those organizations that can successfully create a servant led culture thrive.

If this is more your style, there’s lots of resources out there to help shift the culture of your organization to become more bottom-up. At one point, I helped co-author a Collaborative Leadership guide for schools who might wish to enhance or create a more collaborative, bottom-up culture. But there’s many other resources as well (see below under Read More)

The take home message: though the hero’s journey is perhaps the most common, it’s not the only narrative. The heroine’s journey offers a different model for leadership. Or write your own. Find the narrative that’s right for you and know that it’s okay to forge a different path.

Read More

Obviously you can read Gail Carrian’s book. It’s a fast, interesting read full of stories, though written for writers, not leaders.

I love this article breaking down different leadership styles from Tony Robbins. Although many organizations have historically favored the hero’s path, You don’t have to force a square peg into a round hole. There’s different narratives out there. Find the one that feels right to you.

Consider these guides, books, and talks to learn more about servant and collaborative leadership:

  • Collaborative Leadership for Thriving Teams by me and a team of other school leaders in partnership with Education Evolving. In that publication, we offer reflection questions for leaders, conversation starters for teams, and tips & tricks to avoid the most common challenges. Although it was written specifically for schools and their leaders, if you substitute the word “leader” for “administrator”, “employee” for “teacher”, and “client” for “student” the guide is readily adaptable to most organizations.

  • Servant Leadership by Robert Greenleaf. This is considered the “definitive” guide to servant leadership.

  • The Servant Leader by Kenneth Blanchard. I find Ken Blanchard’s writing more easily digestible. If you want something super short by him, consider the One-Minute Manager.

  • A Guide to Collaborative Leadership by Lorna Davis. In her TED talk, she does a fantastic job contrasting collaborative leadership from the classic “heroic” leadership style we see more often.

Going Further

Seek your own authentic leadership style among the redwoods of Mendocino this Memorial Day. Experience a true heroine’s journey custom designed just for you and a carefully curated tribe of other women. Forge a new vision together with us.

And if you are interested in continuing support on your journey, my practice is currently full but I can support one new private client starting in mid-May. Let’s start a conversation soon to see if I am the right guide for you, and if not, I’ll help connect you to the right resources or people to support you.

Finally, my business only grows through word of mouth and referral. Please consider sharing this article or my blog page with a leader in your life who might appreciate it.

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