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.

Writing Your Founding Myth

Yesterday we examined the existing story of your organization. Today we’re going to explore how we can nudge that story into place to create a founding myth–the story that underlies the identity of any company, nation, team, or collective.

As much as Americans may disagree about the particulars, most of us have a shared respect for our founders and place emphasis on the values of liberty and equality. Today, this story includes the long fight to end slavery and grant equal rights to minorities. This is our founding myth: a particular telling of our history, with emphasis on the values that form our identity and the heroes who championed those values.

A large chunk of the Hebrew Bible contains what could be called Davidic mythology: from foretelling David’s kingship long before his birth, to calling upon his bloodline well after his death. The patron, YHWH, brought the people out of Egypt and into a new land, established the identity and values of the culture, and provided a model and hero in the form of King David. This myth sustained the identity of Israel and the Jewish people through multiple exiles, through Greek and then Roman occupations.

As you can tell from my short telling of these two stories, founding myths have important characteristics that help to shape a community:

  1. Shared origins. Your shared origins might stretch back to the founding of the organization, particularly if it was founded last week or last year. Or it might only stretch back to a particular turn in the organization’s history. I began working at KPMG in 2005, shortly after a tax-shelter scandal that resulted in a deferred prosecution agreement with the government. The narrative at the time hinged on that event: we were going to become the firm with the most integrity and the highest-quality work. Sure, we could have traced our origins to the 1800s and the four partners that make up the letters of the name, but that wasn’t the story we were telling; that wasn’t the firm we were trying to be. Our story was of a new beginning, of a murky past and a better future.
  2. Shared values. It’s no coincidence that the greatest philosophers, scholars, and scientists of ancient Greece lived and worked in Athens, the city of Athena. Out of all possible patron gods, its founders chose the goddess of wisdom–not the god of war to have a powerful military, the goddess of fertility to have abundant farmland, or the god of the forge to have unparalleled industry. The story of Athens defined the city’s key value, and elevated that value above many other perfectly good values. If you lead an organization, I urge you to pick one value above all others that is of special importance to this group of people. Then make sure it is embodied in your founding myth.
  3. Shared destiny. It’s never enough to simply share a past. In order to build a community, people have to believe in a shared future that follows from that past. Your shared destiny is the natural result of the values that call you out of your origins; the message is that all that is needed for you to go from where you were to this bright future is to embody your values. Often this destiny is something you know can be achieved because in your founding myth it has been achieved before: George Washington’s presidency, David’s kingship, Steve Jobs’ release of the iPhone. But if your organization is too new to have past successes, or if you’re overseeing a major shift in culture and values, focus on the promise of the future you are trying to achieve.

Through all of these, the operative word is “shared.” You can’t dictate a new future from on high; it has to be something that each person in your organization can believe, a destiny and a set of values that each individual wants to execute. Be aware that this may also be a way to cull your membership; those who aren’t interested in being a part of your shared story may not belong in your community.

Of course, the one thing this story is missing is a character. The character is a champion. The story isn’t about the champion–not really–but the champion breathes life into the ideas. She emerges from the shared past (like everyone else), embodies the shared values (like everyone can), and creates a shared destiny (by virtue of her embodiment of those values).

George Washington was a simple land owner who embodied the values of liberty and equality, led the military forces of rebellion, and eventually became the first President of the United States. David was a humble shepherd who embodied the values of piety and wisdom, overcame both the Philistines and the forces of Saul, and became the first in a long line of kings. Neither of these men were perfect even in the myths–in fact, being an ordinary, flawed human being is important. But because they embodied the shared values, they brought about a bright destiny for all their people.

You might in fact be the champion of your organization’s founding myth, like Jack Welch was at GE. But the myth isn’t about you, it’s about the collective identity.

Once you’ve laid out what you want your founding myth to be, you will need people to buy into it. But recognize that your founding myth is what the people in your organization believe it is. It’s the story they tell, not the story you tell. The closer your myth is to the story people are already telling, the better you will be able to convince them. But remain open to the possibility that your story will need to go through several revisions before everyone’s on the same page.