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Leadership: It's Everyone's Journey!

In his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the renowned mythology scholar Joseph Campbell describes "the hero's journey," whereby an ordinary person endures extraordinary hardships, becomes transformed in the process, and achieves the status of hero.

According to Campbell, this story is so fundamental to human existence that it pre-dates Greek mythology and to this day continues to be told again and again. Think of movies such as Rocky, Star Wars, The Wizard of Oz, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as examples of fictional heroes' journeys that have made their way into our cultural subconscious.

Because Campbell's description of this journey is so appealing, all kinds of leadership forums, self-help groups, and others have adopted his 12-step model to assist executives, managers, sales representatives, teachers, coaches, and others in identifying and embarking on his or her own hero's journey.

All well and good. But I contend that a truly good leader not only maps out a course for him- or herself but knows how to chart a hero's journey for those he or she seeks to lead.

What follows is a real-life personal story that I hope makes my case.

He Clearly Stated Our Goal

"It needs to be unloaded by the end of the day!"

We all looked at each other, five young transport company yard hands assigned to unload a gargantuan boxcar filled with 40-pound sacks of flour. I overheard one of my coworkers mumble, "He must be joking!"

It was one of those dog days of summer, with the temperature and humidity both in the 90s. We all knew that inside the 50-foot-long metal boxcar the temperature would be well over 100 miserable, sweaty degrees. No one even dared to venture a guess on how many sacks of flour the boxcar contained.

"All right, gentlemen, we're going to do this is in bucket-brigade fashion," said Mac, our new gang boss, a stocky, ruddy-faced, barrel-chested Scot whom none of us knew very well.

He Stood Beside Us

As we grumbled and slowly lined up to form our bucket brigade, Mac did an astonishing thing. Instead of assigning himself to some sanitized, rah-rah leadership role, he took off his shirt, climbed into the super-heated boxcar, and started passing sacks of flour to the next man in line.

There was no "bully management" going on here. In fact, Mac never belittled any of us for our initial grumbling. He recognized that what we were all about to do was going to be hard work.

And no coaxing or cajoling was necessary. We all knew what we had to do. Mac simply set an expectation by clearly defining our goal right from the start and worked alongside us the entire time, until we got the job done.

He Took Care of Us

Over the next several hours Mac rotated us so that no one was in the boxcar for more than 15 or 20 minutes. He also made sure we took several breaks and drank plenty of water so we wouldn't get dehydrated, which sent the message that he was looking out for us.

He Made It Fun

Mac's energy, quick wit, and humor made us all laugh and joke. After a while, we even broke into song—despite the fact that flour seeping from some of the burlap sacks and mixing with the perspiration on our shirtless bodies was turning us into white, ghoulish-looking creatures. But we simply considered it part of the job. In fact, our pasty appearance served to bond us together, identified us as a unit—especially during breaks, when we mingled with those who were not assigned to our gang.

He Made Us a Team

Intentionally or not, Mac had effectively transported us psychologically from what we considered our daily routine task of mindless lifting and toting to something that resembled a meaningful endeavor.

Soon we were no longer passing sacks of flour to each other—but tossing them. We were no longer a pack of disgruntled yard hands eagerly awaiting the workday's end, but rather a team working together on a mission toward a common goal.

He Appreciated Us

We unloaded that boxcar in record time. After we had accomplished our goal, Mac thanked us and bought us soft drinks to slake our thirsts as we laughingly shared stories of the day.

I doubt any of our fellow yard hands worked as hard as we did that day, certainly none looked as ghastly—and I dare say, none felt as engaged or had the same sense of ownership in his work.

I went to sleep that night with a profound sense of satisfaction and accomplishment—and with a lesson in leadership that I remember to this day, more than 30 years later.

Mac successfully mapped out a hero's journey for a bunch of unmotivated, minimum-wage, twenty-something yard hands tasked with unloading sacks of flour on a scorchingly hot summer's day—and we responded. As leaders, just imagine what you could do!

Larry Checco, Checco Communications
© 2008, Larry Checco

Larry Checco is president of Checco Communications and author of Branding for Success: A Roadmap for Raising the Visibility and Value of Your Nonprofit Organization. Larry is a nationally recognized public speaker, workshop presenter, and consultant on branding. To learn more, log on to www.checcocomm.net or contact Larry at larry.checco@verizon.net.
Topics: Nonprofit Leadership and Practice