The book 'The Leader's JourneyTM' is in development - allegedly. To give you a taster here is an extract from the opening chapter.
‘Beam me up Scotty’
James T. Kirk – Captain of the star ship Enterprise - his mission - to boldly go where no man has gone before. His travels have taken him and his crew to a far distant planet where the inhabitants appear surprisingly human ‘cept for a give away scaly patch of flesh behind each ear. The leader of this alien race is a stunningly attractive female warrior. She and the Captain have been liaising over heavyweight, inter-galactic matters for a number of days, during which time Jim has become enchanted by this space age temptress, wrestling with his all-too-human desire for female solace.
A stolen moment of recreation presents itself. Jim and his seductive companion relax in an enchanted, semi-tropical garden. They sip foaming purple liquid from implausible drinking vessels. Sweet aromas waft through the misty atmosphere – cue romantic music. Their eyes meet - cue soft focus - hold gaze, move closer, closer. Their lips meet. Suddenly the Captain pulls back in horror as the alien creature transmutes into a hideous, slimy green creature; “Beam me up Scotty.”
This is a graphic example of a character archetype which film makers call ‘the Shapeshifter’.
(You may be amused to hear that whenever I relate this story in a group workshop there is invariably one young man who groans that he’s been on a painfully similar date at some time in the past.)
A Shapeshifter, as the name implies, refers to something that isn’t what it seams to be. It appears to be one thing and then changes into something different. Science fiction stories lend themselves to a literal expression of this archetype; a creature physically changes from one thing to another. However, in other genres it often appears metaphorically. A character is presented with certain qualities or affiliations and then changes his tune - an apparently loyal ally caves in under pressure and sides with the enemy. Perhaps he was on the side of the enemy all along? He hasn’t in fact changed his tune but his apparent shift in allegiance has presented a shape-shifting predicament for the protagonist. The protagonist thought he could rely on him and now he discovers he can’t.
Sometimes the Shapeshifter is not represented by an actual character. It may show up as a situation that suddenly changes; a change in fortune perhaps. In Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’ Antonio is confident that his friend’s ship, full of riches, is nearing the harbour. Suddenly the story take a dramatic turn when he hears, to his horror, that the ship has sunk and he cannot repay his debt to Shylock, who will now claim his pound of flesh.
The Shapeshifter is one of a number of character archetypes that are represented in stories old and new, throughout all ages and in all cultures.
The reason we regard it as an archetype is that it is symbolic of a universal human experience. None of us has ever been on a star ship or dined with an alien (although a surprisingly large number of people report differently apparently) but we have all had the experience of being in a situation where something changes beyond our control. We can all relate to the feelings of betrayal, hurt, fear, foolishness perhaps, that this situation evokes. It is this resonance, this moment of familiarity – what Christopher Vogler calls “the pleasurable shock of recognition” - which allows us to engage with the story. And we enjoy watching our hero overcome the predicament.
Now consider this real life situation experienced by a young director, new to a senior post.
Adam had recently been elected to a newly created post of IT Director to a growing logistics business. He was keen to take on the role as it was clear that the entire IT strategy needed reviewing and he was looking forward to the challenge. However he recognised that his fellow directors were unlikely to agree to a total update as the cost would hit too hard. Instead he decided to go for a quick win and propose a medium spend solution on the most problematic part of the system leaving open the opportunity for further investment as they began to see the benefits.
With the help of his coach, Adam had become skilled at building relationships and had taken time to establish a good rapport with the other directors of the business. Before making his proposal he had tested out his ideas and sought the advocacy of Bob, one of the senior directors, who had generously agreed to be Adam’s mentor throughout his transition period. The time had come for Adam to present his recommendations to the management board.
He skilfully outlined his proposal. They listened politely then summarily dismissed his proposal on the grounds of cost. It was clear that Adam had misjudged the strength of resistance to spending cash on IT. He protested his case and looked to his ally for support. Bob stared awkwardly at the ceiling, round the room, at the floor - to his credit had the good grace to display guilt. None-the-less he said nothing to support Adams proposal.
Adam left the meeting furious
He managed to control his anger but at his next meeting with his coach he spewed venomous outrage at the stupidity of the board and the betrayal of his “so called” mentor. He was also annoyed with himself for not reading the situation better. And for good measure, the coach also got a dose of bile for “allowing him to make a fool of himself”.
He was clear that he could no longer trust Bob and he no longer wanted to work in such a “Luddite” business …….
Now it so happened that Adam was a science fiction buff. The coach used the Star Treck example to explain the universal nature of the Shapeshifter. It appears in a variety of forms in all cultural myths. Ever since man began to make sense of his world he has used the Shapeshifter archetype to express his frustration at the apparent injustice of the human predicament. In the Garden of Eden Satan appeared to Eve in the form of a serpent. It would appear that since the dawn of time characters have changed their appearance to frustrate the weary traveller.
The point is it’s not personal. It may feel personal, and yes it definitely hurts, and yes there may be a conversation to be had and some stuff to deal with, but it is simply part of the journey. People have trod this journey many, many times before and they all met the Shapeshifter in one form or another. You can be assured that if it wasn’t Bob it would be someone else, if not this occasion then some other. And if you switched to another company this ubiquitous travelling companion would surely show up there sooner or late.
Consider that if you haven’t met the Shapeshifter you’re not on a worthwhile journey.
Now here’s the crux of the matter. Dealing with the Shapeshifter requires a great deal of skill, restraint, level-headedness, creativity and forbearance and the one thing guaranteed to destroy all of these leadership qualities is upset.
Can you imagine Captain Kirk throwing his handset across the flight deck saying, “That’s not fair, she tricked me. I’m not doing this episode. You’d better re-write the script.” Of course not. There’d be no potential for victory, no opportunity for our hero to hone his skill and demonstrate his leadership prowess.
Adam and his coach worked on ways to overcome the anger and outrage but the key to his mastery over his debilitating emotions was the recognition that he had a choice. He could allow himself to be de-railed by his upset or he could, like Captain Kirk, focus on what he needed to do to overcome the predicament. The next time Adam met with his coach he had created a screen saver with a scene from Start Treck in the background and the words “The upset is optional” moving slowly across the screen. Adam had got the message.
We’ll be meeting the Shapeshifter and other archetypical characters throughout the rest of The Leader’s Journey. I will also be giving examples of how successful business leaders have encountered shapeshifting predicaments and how they have triumphed. The point I want to make here is that fore-warned is fore-armed.
If you know in advance that the Shapeshifter, along with various other characters, is an inevitable part of the journey then, when it shows up, you don’t get hooked by unproductive outrage. You realise that you have the option of stepping outside the situation and saying;
“Aha! A Shapeshifter. I wondered when he would show up.”
And although it feels personal, and make no mistake it can really sting when a trusted ally lets you down, never-the-less you can give yourself the option on saying;
“Yes this hurts and it feels personal but I know it’s not”
And instead of wrestling with the all-too-human desire to ring someone’s neck you have the option of freeing yourself from the debilitating emotions and saying;
“Great, here is an opportunity to hone my leadership skills.”
You’ll also learn, incidentally, that sometimes you really do need to ring someone’s neck. But that’s another story........
ã 2005 Anne Oberon