I’ll confess I’ve never been an early adopter of popular trends. Growing up, there were no boyband posters in my room, I only recently discovered a fondness for Taylor Swift, and Michael Keaton is still who I think of when someone says “Batman.” I never jumped on the superhero bandwagon, and aside from recognizing popular characters (who the heck is the Blue Beetle?!), my knowledge of masked crusaders is woefully limited. Although I admittedly lack heroic exposure, I certainly get the appeal.
Superhero films represent idealized versions of who we hope to be when the chips are down, inspiring us with the hope that we too can triumph when all seems lost.
Superhero movies provide an archetype that reinforces essential values like courage and heroism, and offer a blueprint for becoming heroes in our own lives. In his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces Joseph Campbell explores the common threads that weave through diverse cultural hero stories, from Odysseus to Luke Skywalker, and identifies a universal pattern he calls The Hero’s Journey. Reading Campbell’s book made me reflect on the heroes I’ve had the privilege of knowing. While Iron Man and Deadpool are undoubtedly impressive, the heroes in my world are leaders.
A leader is anyone “who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes and has the courage to develop that potential“ (Thank you, Brené Brown!). The word “courage” is particularly meaningful in this definition, as effective leadership demands the willingness to shoulder responsibility, take risks, and expose oneself to uncontrollable factors. On some level, we understand that it takes bravery and guts to be a good leader. Yet, I wonder what would happen if leaders took a page from the Hero’s Journey and applied the same path exemplified by those in the superhero realm to become truly heroic.
What could it mean for the everyday professional to embrace a heroic journey, full of trials, tribulations, and setbacks, to ultimately define success as showing up for others?
Steps to Becoming a Heroic Leader
1. The Ordinary World: The wouldbe hero starts their journey within the confines of everyday life. Early in their career, budding leaders join organizations, striving to excel within established norms, and receiving standard rewards we associate with success, like promotions and pay raises.
2. Call to Adventure: At some point, our leadership hero faces a challenge or opportunity that represents a big departure from the norm. This could be a difficult project, promotion, or professional growth opportunity we feel unprepared to receive.
3. Refusal of the Call: Initially, our hero may resist the call to take on new responsibilities, often due to shadows of self-doubt. This is the stage where insecurities and imposter syndrome rear their heads, attempting to deter a future hero from seizing a growth opportunity. Although the temptation to resist the call for growth is great, the hero understands refusal isn't really an option.
4. Meeting the Mentor: Along comes a sage mentor (or Executive Coach as the case may be 😊), offering guidance, wisdom, and encouragement to unlock professional potential. The mentor nudges our intrepid leader to embrace their strengths and focus on what's achievable.
5. Crossing the Threshold: The leadership hero decides embrace the call and leave their comfort zone behind, stepping into a new role or significant challenge. They take a leap of faith into the unknown, embracing a world of uncertainty where success is no longer easy, predictable, or guaranteed.
6. Tests, Allies, and Enemies: Adversaries are a staple of every hero's journey. They provide opportunities to reveal one's true character in the face of adversity. Adversaries push us to our limits, testing our ability to navigate complexity while adhering to our values. While enemies can bring out the worst in us, they are often our greatest teachers. Successful leaders need challenging partnerships with certain colleagues that help them to define who they really are and where their values lie.
7. Approach the Inmost Cave: This represents a pivotal decision point in the journey, often rife with even greater risk and uncertainty, but offering the only path forward. Here, our hero must pause, dig deep to reflect on options, and think carefully about assuming the risk of a major decision to wade even deeper into the unknown. The hero knows that once this decision is made, there is no turning back, so they must turn inward to muster the courage to take the leap. This is where a leader finally decides to believe in themselves despite the odds.
8. The Ordeal: Heroes must endure a severe test or crisis that prompts second-guessing their Inmost Cave decision. Although they might wish to revert to the safety of the past, they must persevere, realizing that confronting the crisis is the only way forward. Ordeals are how leaders develop the strength they need to achieve greatness. Without the difficult moments in our professional lives, we never fully realize what we are capable of achieving.
9. Seizing the Sword: Bruised and scarred, our leader ultimately emerges from the ordeal. They gain spoils of survival, including knowledge, experience, and a fresh perspective. This wisdom fuels professional growth and bolsters their confidence. They know with certainty they can do hard things, and they finally accept the difficulties that come along with leadership.
10. The Road Back: Heroes return to the ordinary world they once knew but with a new outlook forged through their arduous journey. They contemplate how to apply their newfound knowledge and insights to enhance leadership competency, and to benefit of the teams and organizations they serve.
11. Resurrection: The hero confronts one final test, requiring them to use all they've learned to create positive outcomes. The temptation to approach this challenge as they would have in the ordinary world is strong, but our fearless leader resists, drawing on wisdom gained from surviving The Ordeal. Resurection is the first step toward establishing a new normal based on everything learned.
12. Return with the Elixir: The most gratifying part of any hero's journey is living in the ordinary world with newfound wisdom to share with others. By mentoring those on their own journey, the hero concludes their quest of self-discovery with a meaningful act of contribution to the development of others. Heroic leaders reach a point where their own success is almost solely defined by the success of those around them.
It's a part of the human experience to face adversity and question the worlds we inhabit. Professional challenges often lead to frustrations, self-doubt and a deep sense of inadequacy. These crises can be overwhelming, making us contemplate giving up instead of persevering. Initial reactions to these difficulties are entirely human, but our chosen responses can be nothing short of heroic. The Hero's Journey offers a compelling framework to perceive professional challenges from a different perspective.
What if the pressures of modern work life are there to mold us into something extraordinary? What if your challenges exist to empower you rather than hinder you? What if your most fierce adversaries are your best teachers? And what if today's crises are designed to bestow the confidence and wisdom to help others tomorrow? From this standpoint, the greater the challenge, the more heroic the leader can become.
This Leadership Lesson aims to provide a new perspective and inspire a renewed professional relationship with adversity. When viewed through a heroic lens, hardships become a necessary facet of our growth and development. Our leadership abilities, attitudes, and choices must be tested periodically to evolve into true expertise, and we should meet this growth process with determination instead of self-defeating thoughts about its implications. Adversity serves as a catalyst for the kind of greatness that sets the good apart from the great. The true leadership heroes comprehend that professional challenges offer an opportunity to make a profound statement about their character and resilience, and they never miss a chance to set a positive example of growth through adversity. They are also brave enough to share lessons from their journey to inspire and save others from a similar fate.
Experinced leaders may reflect on multiple heroic journeys over the course of their careers. As we return to the ordinary world armed with the wisdom we've accumulated, life signals that it's time for another transformation, and the cycle begins anew. It's this ongoing journey that shapes us into the individuals we are destined to be. Be the kind of leader who welcomes opportunities to disrupt the ordinary world and returns with the wisdom gained through challenging experiences to benefit those around you. Who knows, they might just make a movie about you one day.
Danielle Terranova is the voice behind Leadership Lessons with Danielle.
She has been an executive coach since 2015 and owner of Terranova Consulting, LLC since 2019.