Living the Myth

Once you have your founding myth, what do you do with it? You can’t exactly distribute an epic poem to your people. Do you have to update your internal training materials?

Fortunately, this isn’t necessary. Most of ancient Rome couldn’t even read, but that didn’t mean they didn’t identify themselves with the founding story of Romulus and Remus.

Your founding myth will become the centerpoint of your shared identity, but it should become a story your people tell intuitively, not because they’ve memorized it off a sheet of paper. Many cultures tell their myths through holidays and religious practices–but another way of looking at it is that the myth is told through the activities that establish the culture’s identity. What activities that establish your organization’s identity?

If your response is, “Almost everything my organization does,” you’re starting to get the idea. The story is told every time two or more people assemble in the name of the organization. So the challenging process is not in telling the story at all, but in changing the story that’s being told.

  1. Believe the myth. Have you created something you believe, or is it something you wish were true? If it’s the latter, you’d better head back to the drawing board. There has never been a story that existed outside of a human mind. The founding myth must be believed into existence–by way of its influence over actions and motivations. But the founding myth is not magic. It will help to guide decisions and create community, and it will help the culture of your organization to hold together and move in the same direction. But it will only work if it’s based in reality, and it is genuinely believed by the people in the organization. Belief starts with you.
  2. Share your beliefs. If you believe the myth, you will find it working itself into your everyday language. The ideas and beliefs will be embodied in your presentations, your conversations, the way you lead your meetings. You will reference your shared past, call upon your shared values, and look forward to your shared destiny, sure as a Pentecostal preacher on a Sunday morning.
  3. Pay attention to the response. How your people receive and react to the story you’re telling will indicate changes you may need to make. You may have blind spots where the facts as you see them don’t match up with the experience of others, and have to revise your myth. You may have pain points where you will have to change the way your organization operates in order to align with your myth. Do people disagree with the conclusions you reach? Do you experience resistance to initiatives? Do people seem like they’re going through the motions without really understanding the purpose? If your myth is told well and aligns with what everyone is doing, your people will act with purpose; if your myth isn’t aligned with reality, your people will be annoyed at being asked to keep up a compulsory fiction.
  4. Revise. Pay attention to the way people respond, and you’ll start to see where you might have to make changes to your myth, and where you might have to make changes to your business. In all likelihood, you will need to do both. How will you know the difference? There aren’t any hard-and-fast rules, but as a general rule of thumb, if the negative or lackluster response is widespread, you probably need to revise your myth. If the poor response is concentrated in the core areas of your business–the people who best know your organization’s purpose–you probably need to revise your myth.
  5. Keep it up. Don’t let growing pains get you down; there will be people who don’t agree with your vision exactly, and while you should listen to them, you shouldn’t always revise your myth to please them. If you have a consensus within your organization–not just at the executive level (if applicable), but the organization as a whole, including all major divisions–then you will simply have to accept the fact that some people will take more time to get on board, and some people will never get on board and probably need to find a different community.

You will notice that both the story and the business will have to change. (I hope you are expecting for your business to change, since it’s the whole point of this exercise.) But after a few iterations, you should find a comfortable guiding myth.

And then you will have the privilege of encountering the great truth, “It works until it doesn’t.”

What I’ve written this week could be the content of an entire set of books, but these principles should at least give you some ideas about how to approach the enhancement of your organization’s story and the development of its community. And if not, I’m always willing to be wrong. I look forward to hearing your observations and experiences in the comments.

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