From Hero’s Journey to Leader’s Arc

The hero’s journey would have remained obscure except that it became the template a young George Lucas used for Star Wars. The success of that movie, and other stories based on the template, made storytellers around the world produce courses, seminars, and books about this new way of telling a story. Management books caught up in the 90s, with almost all of them telling stories of entrepreneurs, CEOs, or great managers, all storyboarded on the hero’s journey template. Around the same time, a few corporate trainers began offering courses in companies for managers to write their own hero’s journey.

So what’s the problem with all this? It’s that the hero’s journey produces a hero, not a leader. In terms of Tribal Leadership (see the table below), the hero’s journey topples a person posturing at Stage Three – “I’m Great,” down to Stage Two – “My Life Sucks,” and back to up Stage Three—this time owning the “I’m great” zone. It never advances the person to Stage Four or beyond.


 Cultural Map


The following chart lays out the major elements of the hero’s journey, using Neo from the first The Matrix movie as our guide. The right column shows how the hero-in-the-making never gets past Stage Three.

Story Plot Point Example from The Matrix Tribal Stage
A person lives an ordinary and boring life. Neo, making money but waiting, and he’s not sure for what. 2 (“my life sucks”) posing as
3 (“I’m great”). The person talks like “I’m great” but deep down, something is wrong.
There is a call to an adventure. Trinity talks to Neo for the first time. 2 posing as 3.
The person rejects the call to adventure. Neo refuses to crawl around the building and instead is captured by the agents. 2 posing as 3.
The person meets a wise and powerful person who will be a teacher/mentor. Neo meets Morpheus. The interaction takes the person to
stage 2, revealing the person’s false façade.
The person has no choice to accept/or accepts. Neo swallows the blue pill and learns the truth. 2.
The person meets new friends, including one who will betray him. Neo meets the crew, including Cypher, who ultimately betrays him. 2—the hero is disconnected and none of his former skills are helpful now. He is powerless and knows it.
The person learns and has some victories showing his potential. Neo learns to fight, and the crew remarks at his speed. Late 2, with hope for 3, but he realizes there is still much to learn.
A major setback occurs, and all appears lost. The hero has failed to learn the most important lesson. Morpheus is taken hostage, and Neo believes he is not the One. 2.
The road of hardships and trials begins, with the person learning to be great. Neo grows in stature with the crew, and he and Trinity plan a rescue of Morpheus. The cause is hopeless (2), but the personal conviction appears to be 3.
The final battle begins. The agent (Smith) prevents Neo’s escape, and the two fight. Glimmers of 3.
The hero is injured, and may appear dead. Neo is killed. 2 or even 1.
The hero recovers, using what the teacher has tried to explain but that he could not understand until now. Neo recovers, accepts that he is the One. 3.
The hero is victorious. Neo kills all the agents. 3.
The hero returns to the world he left, now changed—wiser and more powerful. Neo enters in the Matrix, threatens it, and flies. 3, with foreshadowing of later stages.

Going back to Star Wars, there’s a subtlety most people have missed that shows how the hero just might become a leader. After the first three movies (the Luke Skywalker saga), the hero had defeated evil with the death of the emperor. In the second three movies (the prequel), the real hero was Luke’s father, and his call to adventure was actually moving to the dark side.

Seen in perspective, the entire six movies aren’t about defeating evil, but about integrating it. The Jedi had become weak, easily killed by ordinary soldiers when the order was given. Even the Jedi masters were killed or driven into exile, unable to withstand the power of the “dark side.” In the end, it wasn’t Luke who killed the emperor, but his father Darth Vader—the only one powerful enough to do so. The last scene of the entire saga shows Luke, now clearly at the end of the hero’s journey, with the spirits of his mentors, including his father, now redeemed.

If Lucas ever writes another movie, the interesting question will be: How will the Jedi have transformed? Will they be the celibate, impotent, weak force that they were? The Leader’s Arc (the process of moving from Stage Three to Four to Five) would say no. Luke will become a new kind of tribal leader, building a new Jedi that will fully human and alive, drawing on the full power of the force but without being overwhelmed by the dark side. The new Jedi will have to hold the tension of the light and dark side, always careful and vigilant, and now much more powerful. Only a fully functioning tribe of leaders can harness this power without being destroyed by it.

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