Leadership Purpose: Are You In Tune with Your Boon?
Can we be fully in tune with our ‘boon’ – our unique gifts and our sweat-honed genius – in the face of inevitable doubts, fears and above all shame – whilst battling the resistance of the system to truly social…
Can we be fully in tune with our ‘boon’ – our unique gifts and our sweat-honed genius – in the face of inevitable doubts, fears and above all shame – whilst battling the resistance of the system to truly social enterprise…?
As I sit overlooking the majestic mountains (and wild woods) of Western Massachusetts – that I was told yesterday by a wise woman is the only range in the entire North American land mass that runs from East to West – I am reflecting on the zigs and zags of my own life story that have brought me to this small yet handsome college town to run a series of workshops for aspiring social entrepreneurs on storytelling, resilient leadership and brand strategy.
Joseph Campbell, he of the Hero’s Journey, has brought sharply to my attention the mysterious yet powerful idea of a ‘boon’ – the discovery we make about ourselves that in turn becomes the unique gift we have to give to the world. Almost every movie, and most every myth, involves a hero who is called to journey into the unknown. He or she must answer the call, enter the crazy world of the adventure, and return triumphantly having killed the dragon or the demon and received the boon as reward. This boon often appears at first glance as an object or artefact – the golden fleece, the elixir of immortality, or the holy grail. However this invariably has a deeper meaning, symbolizing some part of the self that was unrealized, latent, undiscovered – and that through the adventure the hero has brought to the surface so he can offer it back to the world. The reason we are called to the journey is that the world needs this boon. What the world lacks we are called to discover. If it didn’t, there would be no call. So our job is to delve deep inside ourselves, into the murky mist of our deepest unconscious, and have the tenacity and courage to accept whatever we encounter, and with love and curiosity turn our shadow – our fears, traumas, patterns – into talent.
The adventure of becoming – and then remaining – a social or ethical entrepreneur / intrapraneur could not be a more archetypal hero’s journey. Perhaps it is the definitive hero’s journey of our age. Ravaged by the dragons and demons of rapacious capitalism and rampant cynicism, the land and her people are in trouble. The previous knights who have gone in search of the truth, whether that of variously; revealed religion (Sir John the Baptist); of communism (Lord Karl Bolshevik); or the counter-culture (Lady Summer of the Haight) have tried and failed to bring social equity and environmental balance to the kingdom. Capitalism has not been beaten by these frontal attacks. And indeed, why would we want to kill off entirely a vehicle for so much creativity and ingenuity, conviction and inspiration? Yet as the vast majority of the population of our planet suffer, the neural pathways of compassion and empathy flash in a frenzy, demanding we sally forth to rescue the world from the pain of the purely profit motive. Can we hitch the wagon of freedom and justice to the engine of enterprise? Can we add intention to innovation and create intentional enterprises that use the mechanics of the market to move beyond profit and deliver a tangible social or ecological benefit to the world? And can we do all this whilst remaining resilient, vibrantly alive and solvent ourselves?
These are questions worth asking. For I sense they are critical to all our futures. No matter the much lauded employment-creating and GDP-raising benefits of commercial capitalism, innovation not driven by a positive social or environmental intent will always succumb to its hard-wiring to metamorphose into the Fiery Dragon and put the world to flame in an attempt to extract value, and ultimately values, from communities and habitats in order to provide a decent return on investment for the very very few. As soon as Big Facebook begins to sell ads or Big Pharma begins to create anxiety diseases, enterprise becomes part of the problem, and therefore – no matter how much collateral benefit – cannot be part of the solution. The social, ethical or intentional entrepreneur then is literally the vanguard of the movement to rewrite the story of modernity, recalibrating capitalism away from its more pernicious instances to become a force of collective creativity for the common good. Instead of TV shows and school programs teaching the inspired to become conventional entrepreneurs (whilst we continue to export this now redundant form of enterprise to the developing world), it is vital that we empower those across the globe to become the heroes and heroines in the story of how we collectively overcame our greedy instincts and extractive urges and used the vehicle of free enterprise to liberate the planet from pain, poverty, suffering and sadness.
Thus the would-be social entrepreneur (or social intrapraneur) must begin their descent into their unconscious, and the unconscious of the world around us. They explore the needs and problems of those they care most about, reflecting on how their compassion and creative capacities could respond or resonate most. They analyze why those problems persist in the face of aid, trade, regulation and medication. With fortitude they penetrate into the hidden order of things, exposing the beliefs and assumptions that throw billions into poverty whilst 500 people own more than half the world does. They fearlessly uncover the emotional, psychological and spiritual blockages that have us walk out of a yoga studio discussing the bliss of samadhi whilst ignoring the homeless guy who trips us up as we reach for the car keys. And with heart, with true coeur-age, they journey deep into their own past, their formative years and epiphanic experiences, to identify what their gifts and talents truly are, and how they can then connect those to the social problems that touch and trouble them the most. Finally, armed with their hard won boon, they ready themselves to re-enter the kingdom and set up their enterprise, sure that the world is waiting eagerly for this reunion.
However now comes the bit that the movies rarely show you. The heroine begins to share her insights and ideas, exuberant and excited, and people return her radiant gaze with looks of apathy, disbelief or concern. Her parents worry for her, as without that medical degree or law practice, how will she survive in this tough and scary world? Her lover freaks out with the cost of nappies and holidays that she mway not be able to contribute to. Her friends think she is endearingly crazy, embarking on yet another mad-cap scheme sure to return back to the fold of safe jobs and husband-catching. If her idea is bold enough, likely to transform the world in a significant way, funders and donors will surely not understand it and will be loathe to investment in the kinds of risks that all big ideas necessitate. Investors, more naturally inclined to take risks for the reward of profitable innovation, will not understand why profit comes second to purpose and therefore find the whole concept suspect. Even social investors – emphatically searching for the such entrepreneurial brilliance – will predictably only want to invest in projects that show sure and sexy impact, and thus will reject her vision of changes to the core narrative of the the world story – meta-innovations that restructure the root causes at the heart of our more persistent and pernicious social problems. Thus begins her ‘long walk back home’ (see my colleague and friend’s wonderful publication on storytelling, Believe Me for more) where, alone and abandoned by her companions, she drags her now unwieldy boon back across the desert of disbelief.
The great sage Campbell writes in Pathways to Bliss, that ‘there are three possible reactions when you come to the return threshold, carrying your boon to for the world. The first is that there is no reception at all. No one care about this great treasure you have brought.’ At this point the social entrepreneur raises two fingers to the world, withdraws sure of their genius, to watch on as twenty years on somebody else has the same idea and this time the world is ready for it. ‘The second way is to say, ‘What do they want?’ Now you have got a skill you can give ‘em what they’re asking for. This is what is known as commercial art. You keep saying ‘When I get enough money, I’m going to stop and do my big thing.’’ Here the social entrepreneur gradually removes the social from their work, following the money, which invariably means following the whims of the wealthy. Before you know it they are back as a cog in the machinery of the old story, the story that is no longer working. But they have a job, a career, and their children can have the decent education that all deserve. ‘The third possibility is to try to find some aspect of… the domain into which you have come that can receive some little portion of what you have to give. This is the pedagogical attitude of helping them to realize the need, what you needed and have got to give. Those are the only possibilities’. The social entrepreneur who makes the latter decision must necessarily expect an exhausting, almost endless, walk home – whose length is in direct proportion to the transformative power of their idea.
On this road rarely travelled we must practice a form of leadership that is unusual to say the least. This is where my own boon comes into play. For on this journey we have no choice but to continuously bridge the inner world with the outer, cycling through a myriad of miniature hero’s journeys as we struggle to engage the world in a process of education. We must turn our fear into surrender and our worry into certitude. We must transform the constant, chilling ‘No!’ from others into an ‘On!’ inside us (see Peter Gruber’s very useful but ever-so-slightly manipulative Tell to Win). We must magic the desperation and terror of our loved ones into compassionate resilience that can only come from inside (although I cannot praise nor thank enough my peer coaches across the world – Rohan, Richard, Scott, Michael, Tom, Alison, Keen and all the others – whose support breathes life into my flame when it darn near gone out). We must learn to release all the limiting ideas and beliefs inside us as we endeavour to become our potential as change-makers in the external world. And perhaps above all, we have to trust that it will all work out, listening out with gratitude for the little helpers – the mythical elves and wizards – put there to encourage us onwards and provide us with the magic potions and invisible cloaks that we need to continue our journey. On that note, thank you to the immigration official at Boston airport two days ago who, on asking the nature of my work for my O1 visa (they roast the O1s more fiercely than most), reminded me emphatically how lucky I was doing something I love (even if I no longer get to travel in business class or stay in the boutique hotels I relished of old).
As a young lady I taught yesterday heroically shared with the larger group, when we discover our boon those around us, well-meaning as they are, often unwittingly abuse us, prompting floods of shame to well up in the very hollow in our core where our boon can be found. Her words resonated profoundly with me, realizing myself that my gifts and talents were not, and perhaps are still not, fully appreciated and welcomed by my own loved ones. From an early age I knew I was an avatar of one of the core archetypes called The Alchemist or The Magician. A transformer of people with wisdom and imagination. A messenger from the inner world to the outer world. Hermes Thrice Great. But my self-awareness of being a shamen was crushed by shame. It took me almost thirty long and painful years to fully come to understand my boon, to live with it without that shame. To inhabit it fully. To come alive with it. To put it to work in the world. To finally to be in tune with it. Relevant words of wisdom for all aspiring change-makers, comes from Howard Thurman. “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” This is a great way of tempering the Mission Delusion (see my post about Tolstoy and his) that is ready to trap all do-gooders, myself I am sure more than most.
The same young lady is caught in a double bind that Campbell reminds us that we must all face to some degree or other, even if her’s was unusually harsh. Do we live out our lives as a cameo role in the story of our parents, by becoming the doctor; a bit part in the story of our teachers, by agreeing that we are ‘bad’ at art; or a walk-on in the story of the world, following the well-worn path to fame and fortune in Goldman Sachs or Silicon Valley? Or do we cast of the shame and shambles of these old stories to forge our own, risking abandonment, abject poverty and abuse as we tread where no-one can ever have trodden? The latter is anything but easy. Yet did anyone say it would be? It is not called the Hero’s Journey for nothing. But the former path, although convenient and comfortable, brings with it the most excruciating suffering a human being can know – to refuse the call, to ignore our intuition, to live a lie instead of our truth. Millions do it, drowning the laments of our inner God or Goddess in booze, bonking or beautiful ski lodges. If we recognize that a definition of eternal hell is not brimstone and fury but simply meeting the person we could have become, then do we really have an option? The design is simple. We don’t get to choose our boon. But we do get to choose what we do with it.
Back to Mr. Campbell;
What I think is that a good life is one hero journey after another. Over and over again, you are called to the realm of adventure, you are called to new horizons. Each time, there is the same problem: do I dare? And then if you do dare, the dangers are there, and the help also, and the fulfillment or the fiasco. There’s always the possibility of fiasco.
But there’s also the possibility of bliss.