Creating the Energizing Myth

Have you ever had a thought turning in your head but were unable to describe it? And then someone turns a single phrase and you jump, “That’s it!” This happened to me on a recent trip to Europe.

For a while now, I have been looking for something to describe an intangible capability that great, transformational leaders have that the rest of us seem to lack. Until now, it has been hiding behind concepts like vision, charisma, and purpose laying just out of reach. Then, while listening to an online course on the Italian Renaissance the lecturer referred to the concept of the “energizing myth,” and I was inspired.

The term, originally coined by Frederico Chabod, describes how the Italian Renaissance was a self-defining, self-fulfilling event. Chabod’s theory was that the Italians came to believe so completely in their special destiny that they essentially willed the Renaissance into existence. While the concept of the Renaissance represents a rebirth of ancient ideas, the application of those ideas and values was unique and their awareness of this gave the people the drive and confidence to experiment with new forms of government, art, science, and social structure. Of course, the Renaissance was not one effort. The Italy of the time consisted of multiple, separate states each of which pursued their own version of the myth, a fact that only strengthened the movement.

Listening to this, it occurred to me that this concept has been applied by great leaders throughout history. When John F. Kennedy set America’s sites on the moon, or when Winston Churchill bolstered the people of London after the Battle of Britain, or when Nelson Mandela painted a picture of a united South Africa, they were utilizing the concept of the “energizing myth” to achieve results that may not otherwise have seemed possible. Of course, history also has its share of leaders who utilized the same techniques to produce more nefarious results.

But how can leaders apply the energizing myth when it comes to business transformation? Is it simply creating a clear vision establishing a motivating purpose, or setting ambitious goals? Yes, I believe this is all of these things, but I also think it can be much more. By developing an energizing myth, a business leader is building a sense that their organization is out to do something so different, so important, and so special that it takes a special group of people to accomplish it and that their team is the only group with the capabilities, resources, and opportunity to do it. As a result, the leader is motivating her people to commit their heart and soul to the outcome, giving them the holistic responsibility for achieving the outcome, and setting them free to pursue it.

If you are of a certain age, you no doubt remember Apple’s 1984 Super Bowl commercial recalling Orwell’s 1984where the hammer thrower, representing Apple, knocks out the screen of Big Brother representing IBM. It is an iconic advertisement, but what is more interesting is the speech that Steve Jobs gave when the ad was first introduced to Apple employees. In his speech, Jobs lays out what amounts to a mythical battlefront with IBM. His goal is to drive Apple employees to be David to IBM’s Goliath. He builds the case that if they give all of their disposable effort they can bring down the giant, and they will be winning a great battle for the everyday person. It is his version of the St. Crispen’s Day speech:

He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say “To-morrow is Saint Crispian.”
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say “These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.”
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words

—William Shakespeare, Henry V

One might think such ambitious storytelling is fine when one is leading an upstart company on the edge of history. Since then, this technique has proven successful over and over with companies ranging from Southwest Airlines, Facebook, Amazon, and Google, to more recent successes such as Uber or AirBNB. These leaders used their energizing myth to spark organizations that seemed ready to take over the world. But how can leaders in more common situations utilize an energizing myth to achieve exceptional results?

Thinking about this, I remembered a classic case from my business school days. I recalled the Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Soul of the New Machine (1981), in which author Tracy Kidder tells the story of Tom West and his young team of engineers at Data General who were responsible for launching “The Eagle” minicomputer. In this effort, West created a mythos around his team’s efforts. He set a context with his team that they were creating something that had never been done before; they would build a billion dollar product that would save the company, but they were in a race to complete it. They had challengers both externally from Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) and internally from divisions competing for resources. He convinced his team that their project was so special it was not to be discussed, not even with family. He did not define team members’ roles so much as to constrain them but instead encouraged them with the idea that they were owners of the product, they should see their part in it holistically, and they should apply themselves in whatever way necessary to get it to market on time.

The result of West’s energizing myth was that people gave of themselves way beyond what their salaries warranted. They volunteered to work 24/7 to meet their goals in a culture that didn’t require such effort, but self-organized and self-regulated through social pressure. The members they attracted wanted to achieve something special and were willingly indoctrinated in a process called “signing up” where they committed heart and soul to the project and were held to it by their colleagues who had also signed up. In the end, the project was a huge success and achieved goals that, in the beginning, had very little basis in fact.

Of course, the challenge of using classic examples is that they are often proven unsustainable. By the end of 1990’s, Digital General became an acquisition target and was purchased by EMC for just over a billion dollars. This story not only brings out the strengths of a powerful energizing myth, but also the flaw. It is hard to sustain. While it can create a dynamic environment that over produces and transforms organizations, but it can also be short-lived if not nurtured properly.

Taking from these and other cases, we can provide some principles that should be considered when using intrinsic motivation to drive change.

  1. Go Beyond Goals: What sets the concept of the energizing myth apart from, for example, “Big Hairy Audacious Goals” is the result is not only about achieving the KPI’s. The motivation comes from being part of something greater that may change the organization, industry, or more.
  2. Make Employees Responsible for the Holistic Result: Studies show that people are not as motivated by doing part of something as they are being part of the outcome. By giving employees responsibility for the whole result, leaders give them ownership of the outcome as well.
  3. Build the Platform, Then Burn It: Similar to John Kotter’s “Burning Platform” concept, leaders building an energizing myth create a situation where time and/or competition matters. Like Steve Jobs creating a Goliath out of IBM, leaders get employees to fight for essentially building the platform so they can light a fire to it.
  4. Allow for Self-Organization: Create a team with a comprehensive range of skills and capabilities and allow them to determine how to apply them. By providing employees broad goals and autonomy, they will be more likely to own the outcome and go above and beyond to accomplish it. At the same time, they will establish a system of social pressure that is stronger than any controls the organization will put on them.
  5. Develop a Sense of Humble Exclusivity: By developing the environment where people are doing something special, leaders give them the opportunity to be special and should promote this feeling. Leaders have to be ethically careful here not to build this feeling by demeaning others, but rather by lifting their team up. They are special because of they joined up, because they are in the right time and place, and because they have the will to go above and beyond, NOT because others are inferior.
  6. Apply a System of Constant and Clear Feedback: Setting milestones and achieving them enables the team to grow in confidence and become even more motivated. I think of the differences between the US Space Program that staged and tested their efforts to the moon and the Soviet program that shot straight for the end result. In the end, the US reached the moon successfully while the Soviets ultimately gave up (though some rumors exist that the Soviet result was even more tragic).
  7. Be Truthful: By definition, a myth is an exaggerated or idealized concept. That said, if is not based in fact, or at least the possibility of fact, it will ultimately fail to motivate. Steve Jobs truly believed that Apple was out to change the world and IBM and other massive bureaucratic organizations were holding back progress. By having faith in the outcome, leaders can create the energy necessary to get there.

I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.

-Michelangelo Buonarrotti

The Italian Renaissance was a special period in human history that launched the general European Renaissance and changed our view of art, engineering, society, and the workings of the universe. It started with a new belief in what people are capable of and gained momentum by achieving it. Similarly, organizational transformation can occur if the leaders create the energizing myth that drives it. Consider your company and your transformation. What is the story that people will tell? What will make them proud to have been a part of it? What will energize them to go to great lengths to make it happen? If you can determine that, you are already half way to achieving it.