Heroes and magic

Every office has its king, warrior, guide and fool, writes Rachelle Thackray. The ancient myths can remind us that people come before processes
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The Independent Online
AFTER a trying day in the office, battling with truculent secretaries, bludgeoning intractable workmates and placating irascible superiors, you might feel a hero to have made it through alive with all your limbs intact. But did you realise that the heroes of old - Hercules, Odysseus and the rest of the gang - were the pioneers when it came to good management?

In Greek myth, for example, Prometheus attempts to persuade Zeus, king of the gods, to instigate change. Failing to convince the ruler by rational means, he resorts to stealing the fire of the gods. Two parts of Aeschylus's ancient Prometheus trilogy are lost, but Sandy Dunlop, author of Business Heroes: Making Corporate Renewal Your Personal Crusade, believes that the remnant shows how conflict is a necessary part of any management strategy.

"Prometheus Bound might be the basis for a modern management lecture. The dramatic message is that it is important to take on Zeus (established order) and do the equivalent of stealing the fire of the gods. Vengeance is inevitable, but victory will come in the end," says Dunlop, whose consultancy business uses academics from the fields of anthropology, literature and philosophy, and who helps companies innovate by drawing on techniques from myth, ritual and storytelling. He is one of several gurus who are pointing bewildered executives to the reason why company initiatives often fail: because they put processes ahead of people.

"It is people of a very particular type who are actually at the heart of successful innovation... it is their passion for 'what does not yet exist' and about that which is not yet proven, tried and tested that is the energy at the heart of real success. People are the magic ingredient. And they usually have a tough time in the modern corporation," he asserts.

The modern-day hero, in much the same way as the ancients, may begin a journey of discovery and change because of an explicit threat or loss, such as job security. He or she may not start out heroic; in fact, it is often a tough ride which brings out latent heroic qualities. The journey back - integrating change - can be, according to Dunlop, the most difficult part.

"We use the hero's journey as a model in change programmes. Young, enthusiastic heroes are sent off on an adventure, but the company fails to look after them when they come back. You end up, in a lot of companies, with a litany of half-completed change programmes and a lot of people really pissed off."

Dunlop identifies archetypes - king, warrior, guide and fool - who can still be seen playing their roles, in various guises, in today's office. And he draws parallels between the universal hero's journey and that of the modern urban quest. "Many of the tasks facing the hero are impossible at first sight. It is often more important to be smart than to be strong. One recurrent motif is the need for the hero to search in the most unlikely places. And again and again, the myths suggest to us that to be successful in navigating the obstacles on his journey, the hero must avoid extremes," writes Dunlop, who has been a consultant to companies such as Unilever and Mars.

He argues that you don't need to take myth literally; the modern employee can learn simply from the principles. "Ever since the Enlightenment, myth has been dismissed as a lot of nonsense by science and history. My argument is that there is still a value in myth.

"The stories have lasted for thousands of years. If you look at what moves people, it is not a set of facts; it is not an authoritative assertion; it is a good story."

'Business Heroes: Making Corporate Renewal Your Personal Odyssey' is one of the Odyssey series published by Capstone at pounds 12.99. The other titles are 'Sacred Business', by David Firth and Heather Campbell, and 'Working From Your Core', by Sharon Seivert. You can enter into a discussion with the authors by e-mailing: capstone_publishing@msn.com, or telephone: 01865 798623.