By Vanessa Gavan
The path to the top has an essential detour: why disrupting leaders from their ordinary world is so important.
The journey of any successful leader will be like Homer’s Odyssey. That sounds melodramatic, but bear with me. The concept of ‘The Hero’s Journey’ comes from American anthropologist and mythologist Joseph Campbell, who studied hundreds of folktales and legends to map the trajectory of purposeful self-discovery.
Star War creator George Lucas has long credited Campbell’s work as a key influence, as has Christopher Vogler, who used it as the basis of his 2007 work The Writer’s Journey, which is now something of a bible for Hollywood screenwriters.
The hero’s journey involves heeding the call of adventure to embark on a journey through challenges and discomforts to ultimately vanquish an enemy and gain knowledge. The travails of the journey equip the hero to triumph.
Likewise, I believe that disrupting leaders from their ordinary world is essential to ensuring they have the mindset and capabilities to transition from leading, say, a business unit to joining the executive leadership team or running an entire organisation. Make no mistake: these are massive moves to make in your career and unfortunately, they are often made without the essential psychological preparation that positions you for success once you are there.
Your approach as an ordinary-world manager must be completely disrupted. That very process may lead you to the realisation that high-level leadership is not right for you, something that it’s much better to discover before you’ve won the top job, only to find that for you it’s a corner rather than a pinnacle. Whether you’re transforming your capabilities or facing up to the fact that you are better off honing your skills in other directions, it’s all part of the journey.
There are three vital shifts for any leader intent on advancing to the C-Suite
1. Mindset and appetite
The accountability for enterprise leaders is a completely different world to the decisions you face when you are managing a business unit – there are enormous expectations of your judgement. Situations are complex, stakes are high, and the impact of a wrong call is immense: you may be front-page news.There’s a reason that there are only a few people in these top positions; even those who are capable may not be psychologically prepared to make the choices required to be there. You must apply brutal honesty to understand your own motivations.Yes, the C-Suite is a mark of achievement, but how will you cope when you’re there? Do you have the stomach for it?
2. Super skills
Your laser-focused decisions must be commercially minded for the future of the entire company, not just one division’s quarterly report. You are not only an exemplar of your organisation’s purpose, you are advancing it by being confident across the maelstrom of disruption swirling about you.On top of that, you’re working in a globalised world and you need a holistic perspective of how your decisions impact the supply chain.
To attain and retain the expertise and deep understanding to stay on top of it all, you must be prepared to invest time and energy, personally and professionally. Yes, it’s a lot, but your employees, shareholders, customers and your board expect it of you.
3. A multifocal horizon
Perhaps the biggest challenge for executive leaders in a business ecosystem obsessed with quarterly results is that they must also focus on far horizons, setting up their organisation for longevity by being equipped to imagine and articulate a vision for the company three, five and 10 years ahead.But of course, the reality is no-one survives unless they can stand and deliver on short-term success, too. Essentially, when you become an enterprise-wide leader you must learn to be a diplomat, a visionary and a juggler, balancing shaping the future with the here-and-now expectations of multiple stakeholders.
When you disrupt yourself from your ordinary world, you deliberately break out of the operational day-to-day cycle and develop the core capabilities that enable you to think, act and lead differently. In the face of the high rate of executive failure, think of such disruption as psychological due diligence, leading you on the hero’s journey to become a successful leader.