Business of Tragedy – Or Tragedy of Business? A further search for our Seven Universal Stories.


This is the second in a series of posts (well chapters, really) about universal or archetypal stories that drive our collective consciousness. They work – whether our chosen group is a nation, a company, a sporting team, or a domestic relationship.

Story is the first collective cognitive experience for every one of us – whether we speak of early civilisations, or our own early childhood. Our education, our recreation and just about every human act is illustrated, enriched and given meaning by story. In fact, story is the shared global asset we call “culture.”

The proposition is that stories drive our group behaviour and destinies in ways that are unseen. Cracking this code makes us actors, not spectators. Users, not losers. It gives us potential to be free and active agents of human development.

The purpose of these posts is to learn what use effective leaders make of this insight, and then to apply their lessons to help us shape the world around us in positive and life-enhancing ways.

We saw in my earlier post  (Rags to Riches, Voyage and Return, and Overcoming the Monster: In search of our Seven Universal Stories) how politicians and national leaders use these archetypal stories – and the ability to switch between them – to reshape the outcome of history.

This post is all about Business. Good CEOs can “bend” reality to transform the collective perception of brands and the company’s place in society. But are entire companies and all the people in them subject to the same hidden rule?

I will investigate how – and why – employees collectively act out one or other of the basic story archetypes identified in Christopher Booker’s seminal 2004 The Seven Basic Plots: Why we tell stories.

In the first post we looked at four archetypal stories in a political context:  Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, Voyage and Return, and The Quest.

For this discussion of the Business story, I want to analyse the way events in large organisations are driven by the most powerful of all our story archetypes: Tragedy.  And to raise the question: Does it have to be this way?

Subsequent posts will deal with Business in the context of Comedy and Rebirth.

Part 2. The Blood-Boltered CEO. Why is Business so stuck on messy Tragedy?

The Social Network said it all.

There has been no more graphic a representation of the ‘Hero as Monster’ story since Shakespeare wrote King Richard III.

With one critical exception, the Hollywood version of the birth and rise of Facebook is an exact carbon copy of the Tragedy focused on this most vile of all historical stage characters.

The Aaron Zorkin-scripted movie opens with (emotionally crippled) hero Mark Zuckerberg being dumped by his girlfriend. “You’re not an asshole Mark, but you sure try hard to be one,” she says. Bitterly excluded from social acceptance in snobby Harvard, the arrogant anti-hero then embarks on a misogynistic, power-crazed bender of betrayal, dishonesty and theft.

The Shakespeare play opens with (physically crippled) hero Richard of Gloucester bitterly exulting his exclusion from female affection and the inner royal circle.

Since I cannot prove a lover,

To entertain these fair well-spoken days,   

I am determined to prove a villain

And hate the idle pleasure of these days.

The arrogant anti-hero Richard (he too gets a tongue lashing from his girlfriend Lady Anne) then embarks on a misogynistic, power-crazed bender of betrayal, dishonesty and theft.

While Richard suffocates the young princes in the Tower to achieve the crown, Zuckerberg steals the intellectual property of two privileged Anglo-Saxon Harvard princes. While Richard beheads his loyal ally Buckingham, Zuckerberg commits the latterday equivalent of extrajudicial murder – he dilutes the share options of his CFO chum Eduardo. The film ends with Zuckerberg counting the financial gains – and personal losses, of his bloody ascent.

But The Social Network ends in Act III. And it’s not over yet for Facebook.

In Acts IV and V of the Shakespearean drama, discontent about King Richard’s contempt for the nobles’ rights and privacy coalesces into staunch opposition around Henry of Richmond. The denouement is the Battle of Bosworth Field where the last Plantagenet Richard, having recklessly staked all, loses all and on his death the “hollow crown” passes to another dynasty.

Today, whisperings of discontent among Facebook’s 500 million-plus “citizens” about abuse of right and privacy settings, plus exploitation of personal data by marketers, have begun to coalesce into staunch opposition in the shape of a new prince Henry of Richmond. Let’s call him Google Plus.

No wonder that, in just the same way as Richard exiles Henry when he senses a power threat, Facebook immediately blocked the emigration of Facebook users to Google Plus.  Make no mistake: this is the cyber War of the Roses.

Just as King Richard’s disgruntled supporters switch sides to join Richmond, the Social Media stage is rapidly filling with other, less powerful nobles who also oppose the arrogance of Facebook. Check out Thimbl, Diaspora, reclaimprivacy.org, web 2.0 suicide machine.

Today, kings are made and unmade on the battlefield of the international capital markets. So I predict the hunchback King Mark’s Battle of Bosworth will be the Facebook IPO. This where the US$100 billion hype hits the fan for Zuckerberg and his Wall Street chums.

Facebook’s own rise caused the value of MySpace to collapse from US$ 580 million US$38 million in 3 years. One prince (Murdoch) was replaced by another (Zuckerberg).  And by early 2012, the emergence of a third prince (Google Plus) could leave Zuckerberg with a terrifying roll of the IPO dice.

Perhaps, like Richard, he will exit the battlefield screaming:

“I have set my life upon a cast

And I will stand the hazard of the die

A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”

OK. I’ve laboured the point – perhaps to death.

Business is the new stage for Tragedy and Hollywood has finally broken down the division between corporate life and art.

But why exactly is it that Business has got so stuck in endlessly repeating this Tragedy thing? Nobody (except Hollywood) gains. While it’s great in the auditorium, it’s fatal in the boardroom.

Consider Enron the Musical. Not because the production failed on Broadway last summer, just as spectacularly as Enron the company itself had failed in 2001. But because Enron’s (unsuccessful) nomination for a Tony Award signalled the last breakdown of the frontier between corporate disaster and mainstream entertainment.

I have to admit that I interviewed later-to-be disgraced Enron President and CEO Jeffrey Skilling. He didn’t look or act like a tragic monster. He was dull and compulsive, yet no different to the many dozens of testosterone-driven MBA button-downs I’ve interviewed when I covered finance. But in those primetime courtroom scenes, he was transformed into a tragic figure as loathed as Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Business is bad. And Business is totally stuck on Tragedy. Flawed leaders driven by their hubris must subject the world to chaos, before finally getting a richly deserved come-uppance. Greed, vanity, and hunger for celebrity are the compulsions attributed to business leaders, from Tyco’s Dennis Kozlowski to fraudulent UK newspaper baron Robert Maxwell.

Business and its Central Casting villains offer scriptwriters the luxury of not even having to make the story up. “Real” plotlines are just lying around for any scriptwriter like Sorkin to grab. Roger and Me, Too Big to Fail.

That’s Hollywood’s “take on business” — from Modern Times through Citizen Kane to Wall Street. What successfully puts backsides on cinema seats is a plotline confirming our prejudices about the greed and dehumanisation that corporate life inevitably engenders.

Bad Business is bad for business. And it’s bad for people. We want something else. Why is there so little evolution?

There’s a fundamentally pessimistic form of Darwinian reductionism behind all this. Business must of necessity be bad because it is in our nature to use force to strive for supremacy. Capitalism thrives on (barely) controlled violence.

So Supervisory Boards are experts in picking CEO candidates who can use more force to achieve more supremacy. That’s how they deliver “shareholder value.”

Anybody who can’t do the Macbeth thing is a wuss. It was such fun proving Dick Fuld at Lehman Brothers was a loser – and anyway who cares about all the boys and girls toting their lives out of Lehman office buildings in cardboard boxes?

Yet Tragedy derives for the Greek word for goat, or scapegoat. Every time the corporate cast reaches for that mask without the smiles, somebody’s throat will get sacrificially slit. Worse than that, the tragic hero and his boundless ego disrupts the entire world around him before his grim exit.

Armies must perish before the tragic process is done with in King Lear, Anthony & Cleopatra, and other stories. Roman society too, is set in turmoil by the actions of Brutus in Julius Caesar.  In Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, many are deceived by the false-accounting miracles he works with Mephistopheles. Nameless bystanders are murdered to feed the schizoid barbarities of Stephenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Why on earth has this become the default narrative for organisations? It may be the most powerful form of drama, but Tragedy is not the highest.

In terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Business narratives need to take a hike up the pyramid toward self-actualisation. If Business has a corporate soul worth saving, we have to get away from this fixation with low-end tragic tales and look higher up for a collective working model of spiritual evolution.

So let’s start a movement. “Business: get a new script! Reject Tragedy!” Next time, I want to focus on Comedy as the paradigm for balanced healthy Business and fulfilled people at work. And we’ll examine whether genuine spiritual Rebirth is possible for organisations attaining the highest evolutionary level.

Together we are going to start a corporate comedy revolution!

Richard House

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2 thoughts on “Business of Tragedy – Or Tragedy of Business? A further search for our Seven Universal Stories.

  1. Pingback: Inspector Insight » Tragedy (Plot #6)

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