parting-red-sea

Leaders as myth-makers

Published as ‘Promised Land’ in Corporate Dossier (Economic Times) on Friday 27 July 2007

Visualize this. A slave in Egypt in 1500 BCE (Before Common Era, formerly known as BC or before the birth of Christ). He hears a man, once a prince, now an outlaw, declare that God has instructed him to take all the slaves to a Promised Land which where they can be free. He watches this man do powerful things – draw swarms of locusts and predict deadly plagues. Everyone around him is impressed. They start believing in what is being said:  man is the chosen one by God to be their deliverer. Slowly, the slave lets himself dream of a Promised Land. Finally, he decides to follow the chosen one, out of familiar slavery to an unfamiliar future that holds the promise of freedom. The man he followed is known to us as Moses. And out of his vision was born the nation of Israel that till today forms the cornerstone of Jewish belief.

Now visualize this. A bonded labourer in India 1930 CE (Common Era, formerly known as AD or since the birth of Christ). He hears a man, an educated householder who looks like an ascetic, telling him to fight oppression not with violence but with the sheer belief in the truth. He watches this frail old man do powerful things – shake the mighty British Raj by simply picking up salt, anger the white sahibs by simply wearing white cotton cloth spun by himself. Everyone around him is impressed. They start believing in what is being said: it is possible to change the world by having faith in the truth. Perhaps this man is what they say he is, a Mahatma, a great soul. Slowly, the bonded labourer lets himself dream of freedom. He decides to follow the ascetic. Walk with him, fast with him, follow him till the British are driven out and a new nation state is born, India, where there is hope of freedom for the smallest and simplest of men.

Both these are stories of leaders. Moses and Gandhi. One comes from a religious tradition and the other from a political tradition. One draws strength from God, the other from truth. Both are able to communicate their vision to the people so effectively that soon they have hordes of followers. But is the vision real? In hindsight, it is. The followers of Moses did find the Promised Land and the followers of Gandhi did free India. But when it was being communicated, it was just a vision, a dream, a dream the leader first believed in, and which, eventually, the followers believed in too. This belief made the vision real. In other words belief transformed the vision into a subjective truth: a truth that had no evidence but was very real for both the leader and the follower, defining and driving them in life. This subjective truth, this believed vision, is called a myth.

Every culture, every organization, every community is bound together by a myth, which seems absurd, even false, to the outsiders. The myth emerges from the mouth of an individual. And when successfully transmitted (even though not realized) transforms the individual into a leader. If not transmitted, you remain a dreamer, possibly even a lunatic.

If you believe you are a leader, what is your myth? What is your subjective truth that defines and drives you? What is it that defines and drives your organization? What is your Promised Land?

Leaders have to create something out of nothing. They have to take people from the known to the unknown. But to do so they need something that will generate belief – in themselves and their vision. It is not easy motivating a person out of his comfort zone. Slaves get so used to slavery that they do not want freedom, especially when there is no guarantee. People are usually cynical. Bonded labourers know that there is no freedom from bondage – only the master changes, once he was brown then he became white. To shatter complacency and cynicism, to generate fire in the belly, leaders need a powerful force that makes people want to follow them. Leaders need myth.

Myth unfortunately is not a positive word. Conventionally, it is taken to mean falsehood. But actually it means something that is not logical. If an idea was logical, everyone would have done it. Leaders exist because they can see things beyond logic. They change the prevalent paradigm and create new parameters of perfection and possibility. They shake things up. They make people sit up and take notice. Leaders need a myth just as magicians need a magic wand. Myth is the philosopher’s stone which can turn lead into gold.

But myth is intangible. To make myth tangible one needs stories, symbols and rituals, which become the mythology of the myth, the vehicle of the idea. Moses, for example, established the practice of circumcision amongst his followers. This was meant to distinguish his followers from other people. It was done to establish the covenant with God. To make a man, above the ordinary – one of the chosen tribe. It gave the slave in Egypt dignity, a belief that he mattered, that he had a direct connection with God. Gandhi used the symbol of salt to establish his political ideology. He knew that salt had a close association with truth across India. The concept of namak-haram (betrayed by one who has eaten my salt) and namak-halal (loyalty of one who had eaten my salt) was popular amongst Hindus and Muslims. It is a matter of debate whether Moses or Gandhi used these rituals and symbols strategically or intuitively.  But the fact is in either case, the ritual and the symbol drove home the leader’s vision. What is the story, symbol and ritual that drives your myth? Do you have a mythology that embodies your vision?

Next time you look at a mission statement or a vision statement, observe how unrealistic and idealistic it all sounds. There is the constant use of superlatives. There is this deep desire to change the way people think and behave. It is almost like the construction of Arthur’s Camelot. A place of perfection. Now imagine a world without such statements. And you will realize the power of myth.