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Start With Your Myth

Uncovering Hidden Narratives to Articulate Your “Why”

by Jeremy Nulik

By now, you have likely drank the Kool-Aid on Simon Sinek’s premise in “Start with Why.” His work centers on a maxim that forward-thinking leaders have known for some time: People do not buy what you do; they buy why you do it. It is a human truism so simple that it seems that it should have existed long ago.

Today, the question for most leaders is no longer, “Ought I start with purpose?” The question is now, “Just what is my organization’s purpose?”

If you are someone who has struggled with this, you are among the many. Finding purpose is the kind of odyssey that few have accomplished with prodigious result — especially in single-handed combat. Most of the time, purpose statements end up sounding like a company mission: We exist to serve our clients really well and get results. (Note: This is a simplification of what is done. It is not why it is done.)

Why is this so hard? If the premise of leading with a purpose is seemingly intuitive, what makes articulating deep purpose difficult?

It is tough for two reasons: 1. We believe (as we do with most things in business) that we can call upon a mechanical solution. We assume that a why-statement can be derived by filling out the proverbial worksheet. 2. We are not sure where to find this why-thing. Even if we understand it cannot be easily answered, we do not know where to search.

In facing these two challenges, you can turn your attention to a set of wisdom far older than Sinek. The center of our purpose as humans or as groups of humans is in something more primitive. It is in our archetypal nature.

Archetypes, as defined by Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, Carl Jung, are universal symbols that serve as basic narratives. These archetypes play out across cultures. They exist in ancient myths and modern-day cinema. They are things like the religious martyr and the comic-book-movie warrior. Archetypes serve an important function in structuring belief. You know, the why-thing.

Any profitable exploration of purpose must include some time in these archetypal waters. And one way to wade in is through a Edgar Schein’s model for organizational culture. This model is something like 30 years old, but its structure can offer you a way into your organization’s archetypes. The model is like layers of an onion. On the outside is what is observable. The middle layer is made up of values. The core is the unseen beliefs (the why-thing).

You begin with the outer-most layer of the organization. It is the layer of what is seen: What is known about the organization? What do people experience? What do you make? Then you head one layer down: What are the espoused values of the organization? What are the behaviors that lead to the best outcomes that are experienced? Then, one more layer deep, you begin to explore the archetypes, myths and assumptions of your organization: What beliefs do we hold that lead us to our values? What archetypes describe us? In looking at our values, what are the patterns that emerge?

You will likely have some one-word or simple answers to the deepest layer. The point is to make a beginning and continue to ask yourself these questions. More will be revealed if you can undertake this process singularly, then with your team and take a look at the aggregate results. A purpose is more likely to emerge than burst through your door. So your role as a leader will also be in panning the results. Patience and persistence in this journey will yield the best results.

Jeremy Nulik (jeremy@bigwidesky.com) is evangelist prime at bigwidesky, a human business consultancy, in St. Louis, Mo.

Submitted 89 days ago
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