From myth and the first recorded stories in ancient history to present-day movie blockbusters, humans appear to be obsessed with the idea of the hero. The “hero’s journey” narrative pops up with many common elements, across cultures and across time. Most famously Carl Jung (and in later times Joseph Campbell) propounded the theory that this story actually lay deep within our psyche as part of a collective consciousness shared by all humans.
The instinctive desire to romanticise a hero and to feel like we need one to save us can be a powerful influence on our thinking and how we see the world around us. The seemingly endless Hollywood obsession with superheroes and various permutations of good versus bad capitalise on this ingrained need for this timeless compelling narrative.
But the need for a hero also arguably manifests itself in more insidious ways when we choose our political leaders. The recent growth of populism is fueled by the desire to believe in a strong and sage savior, proven in “battle”, overcoming adversity to make the radical change that is desperately needed.
However, this sometimes misleads us into seeking the hero that simply has the shiniest amour, or is the most irreverent, or who challenges the status quo. In truth, the hero’s story is about facing up to weakness, meeting challenges and authentically effecting change.
The financial services industry is facing a challenge in the form of the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry. People are looking for someone they can trust, and they desperately want to believe a hero can emerge.
There is a hero’s journey story to tell here. The path to real change and redemption is long, but the story of the journey contains a number of lessons for businesses about making big changes and making a better future for good.
The 12 steps of the Hero’s Journey
Step 1: Limited awareness of problems (Living in the ordinary world)
• At the start of the hero’s journey, the protagonist is safe and blissfully unaware of the turmoil and challenges to come.
• In financial services, it was largely business as usual before scandals broke out that began to attract public attention and led to Kenneth Hayne and the Royal Commission putting the spotlight on misconduct.
Step 2: Increased awareness of impending change (Call to adventure)
• The hero receives a call to action that threatens security and disrupts comfortable existence.
• As scrutiny of the financial services industry and its actions intensified, an awareness began to grow that something was amiss, and that the industry’s comfortable existence may be under threat.
Step 3: Fear and resistance to change (Refusal of call)
• The hero faces personal doubts whether the call is real and if they’re up to the challenge, leading to pressure.
• Resistance to the need for an inquiry – particularly a royal commission – was loud and vociferous in the industry and in certain political quarters.
Step 4: Overcoming fear (Meeting the mentor)
• The hero reaches a crucial turning point, where insight and guidance into the dilemma faced is desperately needed, leading a search for sage advice, practical training or building confidence around a plan.
• Financial services organisations undergo Internal soul searching and seeking external support/insight into facing challenge from public relations firms, corporate strategists and market research agencies
Step 5: Committing to change (Crossing the threshold)
• The hero commits to the journey ahead and embraces the need for change.
• The financial services organisation company internalises the cultural aspects of a new path forward and commits to new processes or rules.
Step 6: Experimenting with new conditions (The road of trials)
• The hero is drawn out of the comfort zone of their previous existence into an environment where old habits are tested with an escalating series of challenges. The hero must find allies with aligned goals they can trust to navigate their journey.
• The financial services business executes the new vision and finds its feet in the new reality – a new “promise” is being tested. Third party partners are sought to support the journey.
Step 7: Preparing for major change (Meeting the gods)
• A major challenge lies ahead for the hero, prompting reflection on fears and doubts but leading to resolved courage and preparation for change. The hero faces temptations, often of a physical or pleasurable nature, that may lead them to abandon or stray from the quest.
• The financial services business races reality – internal pushback and undermining due to fear of the change ahead. This internal resistance must be overcome in order to move forward effectively from the old ways of doing things.
Step 8: Attempting to overcome challenge (Ordeal, death and rebirth)
• The hero faces the ultimate test, facing their greatest fears or foe, and demanding the use of new skills. The change through success is so great the hero is reborn, with greater insight and capabilities to fulfil their destiny.
• The company must now follow through in its new commitments and transcend lip service. The penultimate proof of successfully overcoming change where ‘hero’ status is authentically earned.
Step 9: Consequence of attempt leading to a new reality (Reward)
• The hero’s transition is complete, and success leads to new rewards.
• The financial services business gains momentum around demonstrable success and begins to build internally and become noticed externally. The transformation of the business is authentic – now drawing recognition and acknowledged differentiation from competitors. Brand equity and growth rewards follow.
Step 10: New challenge and rededication (The road back)
• The Hero’s Journey is not yet over, and one final challenge must be faced before returning to the ordinary world. Often the hero must weigh personal objectives against a higher cause. Having found bliss and enlightenment in the other world, the hero may not want to return to the ordinary world to share the benefits with others.
• The financial services business’s commitment to this new path is tested further. Now efforts must shift from managing a “project” (a quest) to cementing the change as business as usual, and subject to continual improvement. This can also be a point where individual internal champions of change move up or out to follow their own destinies leaving a leadership/energy vacuum.
Step 11: Final challenge and danger (Resurrection)
• The Hero’s Journey reaches its climax and a final test back in the ordinary world, which sees the emergence of a “complete” hero who can transcend the special world and bring back change to the ordinary world.
• The business faces a test of will and determination when competitive forces threaten, or critical incidents inevitably test, the resolve and effectiveness of the new reality.
Step 12: Mastery of problem (Return with elixir)
• In the last step of the Hero’s Journey, the protagonist returns home to the ordinary world as a wiser and stronger individual, and able to give hope that things can be better. The circle of challenge, change and success is complete, and things will never be the same again.
• The company has effectively managed to sustainably overcome the challenges it faced and win back the public’s trust through a demonstrated authentic transformation.
“The hero is the champion of things becoming, not of things become,” Campbell said. “He does not mistake apparent changelessness in time for the permanence of Being, nor is he fearful of the next moment (or of the “other thing”), as destroying the permanent with its change.”
The narrative of a hero’s journey is formed from facing challenges; responding to those challenges with courage, cunning and wisdom; and emerging cleansed and stronger for the tribulations faced. It is a story of self-reflection, of acknowledging past mistakes and weaknesses, adapting to a changing environment and embracing a cause that is higher than mere personal objectives.
Facing up to weaknesses and turning experience into future strengths is what ultimately leads to authentic hero status.
The Royal Commission has painted the industry with broad strokes. With plenty of open blue space beyond the inquiry and its final recommendations, the hero’s journey is there to be undertaken.
Who will emerge as the hero we all seek?