URGENT: We Need to Change Our Core Leadership Myth

URGENT: We Need to Change Our Core Leadership Myth

Each human being makes sense of reality using what anthropologists and philosophers call ‘myths’. Myths, however, are not lies or fairy tales. As British philosopher Mary Midgley writes, they are ‘imaginative patterns, networks of powerful symbols that suggest particular ways of interpreting the world’. Myths are deep stories and images that shape the meaning of the world, or what anthropologist Stephen Pepper calls ‘root metaphors of the world’ (Pepper, 1942). According to Pepper, people globally use only two types of root metaphors (or myths) to make sense of the world – mechanistic (i.e. the world is like a machine) or organic (the world is like a living thing).

Now, this may seem all too theoretical, but understanding the nature of myths is vital for each of us – for our myths drive our thoughts and language. The Western world’s core myth about the world is a mechanistic one – we subconsciously believe that the universe and everything in it is like a machine, a mechanism of sorts. This mechanistic imagery, which began to influence our thinking in the seventeenth century, is still powerful today. And it transfers from our understanding of the universe to our understanding of man – we ‘often tend to see ourselves, and the living things around us, as pieces of clockwork: items of a kind that we ourselves could make, and might decide to remake if it suits us better. Hence the confident language of ‘genetic engineering’ and ‘the building-blocks of life’. (Midgley…). 

The same mechanistic language can be easily discovered in leadership and management – we want to ‘fix the issues’ in our team, ‘optimize’ performance or ‘repair’ relationships. Which clearly shows us that the core leadership myth about man is (unsurprisingly) not different from the pervading cultural metaphor – business leaders in the West, just like the societies to which they belong, have subconsciously accepted the myth that man is a machine.

But why is that a problem? 

We need to realize that myths are powerful stuff – our myths drive our actions, we act according to our understanding of how the world is. And here begins the problem: If we think of man as a machine, we treat man as a machine – we ‘propose biochemical solutions to today’s social and psychological problems, offering each citizen more and better Prozac rather than asking what made them unhappy in the first place’. (Midgley), 

The same can be seen in business: If we believe man is a machine, we try to propose mechanistic answers to human questions – we want to find the ‘grease’ to make all ‘parts’ of the team work with less ‘friction’, or the ‘glue’ that makes all ‘components’ stick together. When a person (i.e. a mechanism) ‘burns-out’, we advise them to ‘disconnect’ for a while, in order to ‘recharge’ (the irony is easy to catch, for even real machines don’t recharge by disconnecting but by connecting to a power source). When an employee’s or a team’s ‘performance’ decreases, we call for external experts to ‘fix’ it. And we expect that it can be done just like fixing a machine – by pressing a ‘button’ here and there, and meddling a bit with the ‘software’ in order to find the ‘bug in the system’ and remove it. And at the end of the day, if a person does not ‘fit’ or does not ‘function’ correctly, we ‘replace’ them with a different ‘part’. 

The real issue with this is that the mechanistic myth does not correspond to the full reality of what a human being is. Man is not just a machine – man is a complex living organism. With the advance of science we realise that reality is much more complex than the mechanistic myth has the potential to explain, especially the reality of complex living beings. And one of the very important next scientific steps that humankind needs to make is to try and explain living organisms in their full complexity. In order to do that we need to discover new root metaphors of the world (or re-discover very old ones) – and if they are going to make sense of living systems, they better be organic, and not mechanistic ones..

The same is true for the world of business. Treating people as machines leads leaders and organizations to a shipwreck in the underwater rocks of reality – Which explains the attempts of many businesses in the past several decades to become more ‘people-friendly’ or ‘human-centered’, But this cannot be done effectively without changing the underlying myth, the root metaphor of what man is, from a mechanical to an organic one.

But what can such an organic metaphor be? What is man if not a machine? At Culture & People we have the root metaphor of the tree – we believe the human being is like a tree. Now, this might seem a bit strange or even ridiculous at first, because we are not used to it. But why should comparing a man to a tree be more ridiculous than comparing a man to a machine? It is not – actually it is a much deeper and more powerful metaphor that makes greater sense of the actual reality of what a human being is like. It is a myth that actually works because it corresponds to reality more – simply put, people are more like trees than they are like machines because trees are living systems, and machines are not. 

And if we think about a person through the metaphor of a tree, we immediately discover several important ideas about leadership that strike us with their clarity, explanation power and change potential: 

  • First, each tree needs constant and careful care if it is to bear fruit – it needs to be watered, protected, and cleaned. And this redefines management and leadership role in a powerful way – leaders are not like machine operators, pressing buttons and replacing parts, but they are more like gardeners – looking after the trees and making sure they are healthy. 
  • Second, each tree bears fruit in a natural way – trees don’t ‘work’ to bear fruit, they just do. In the same way, if human beings are in a healthy environment looked after by skillful gardeners, their do not strive to be productive, they just are – and this is the most natural thing in the world.
  • Third, trees bear fruit in their season. No gardener in their sound mind expects apples in winter (unless, of course, it is a winter sort of apples). It is the same with human beings – we cannot be productive at our maximum all the time. And while having such expectations is normal for a machine (it was built to produce all the time, and if it is not – something’s wrong), it is absolutely unnatural to have them for any living organism that needs cycles of rest and bearing fruit. 
  • Fourth, trees grow in gardens – complex ecosystems that provide trees with everything needed to bear fruit. And if the soil is fertile, the light is plenty, the irrigation system is top-notch, and the right fertilizers are used, one can have multiple yields in one year. What would happen if a board of directors decides to rethink its root metaphors and start thinking of the organization as a garden instead of a machine? Well, they will start asking a whole different set of questions – and they will find answers that are much more suitable to the reality of human beings. 

This is the power of the myth – by giving us a root metaphor, it pre defines our questions and the possible answers we can get to. And even if you disagree with our tree metaphor, we advise you to revisit your leadership and corporate root metaphors if you want to be asking the right questions about man and the world. Because, if we accept C.S.Lewis’ idea that our myths are like maps of the world, the wrong myth (just like the wrong map) will lead our fleet to a shipwreck. And only by powerful myths corresponding to reality can we sail successfully into the more and more unpredictable future that lies ahead of our organizations and our world.