In Search of our Seven Archetypal Stories: The Rebirth of Nations, of Companies, and of CEOs.

Rebirth is the last and the most challenging of the Seven Archetypal Stories under discussion – not least because Rebirth incorporates all the other stories.

It’s a soul journey that passes through everything we’ve been investigating in this series of articles inspired by Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots.

We’ve seen how literature, folk tales and classical myth address the other six story types – Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, and Tragedy. And though stories are made for heroes and heroines, we’ve seen how the dynamic of each story type works collectively in the life of nations and especially, of companies.

Now we come to the hard part, because Rebirth is quintessentially an individual experience. In all religions, the act of reincarnation or being born again is the highest of man’s earthly achievements. It’s the irreversible transformation of personality and the outcome of struggle between the forces of dark and light.

We accept that the process of individual Rebirth involves transformation of the soul as the precondition for coming into some priceless reward. But can there also be collective Rebirth for nations, institutions, communities and above all for corporations? Do such entities made up of multiple individuals even have a single, definable soul that could be transformed in this fundamental fashion?

Before moving on to address the way our own lives are driven by stories in subsequent posts, I want to take one final shot at analysing the spirit of the modern company as a “shared story,” to see if the concept really stands up.

Individual or Collective Rebirth? The Apple of Discord.

In today’s leadership vernacular, all businesses are living through change; many CEOs promise transformation; a handful boldly claim authentic Rebirth. Arguably, just one business had a convincing shot at the world heavyweight title.

That company was Apple Computer. But the announcement in August 2011 that its founder and perennial genius, CEO Steve Jobs had finally stepped down, left pundits  convinced there was a gaping hole in the life of what’s just about the world’s most valuable company.

Was the stunning Rebirth that Jobs engineered following his return in 1997 to a near-bankrupt Apple, all about himself as a charismatic individual, or all about the company? With Jobs almost gone (he’ll continue as non-exec chairman), can Apple continue its string of world-beating innovations and stratospheric levels of employee engagement?

If we review the succession process of other companies, the omens aren’t good: since the departure in 2000 of its founder Bill Gates, Microsoft has stumbled. Likewise, Dell has drifted since the retirement of its eponymous creator. The fortunes of Starbucks declined so fast its iconic founder Howard Schulz had to be recalled.

So much of Apple’s success in making us believe that its exquisite devices are in fact an essential part of modern life, was down to Jobs. His aloofness, his marketing mystique and legendary presentation skills, his passion for disruptive technologies, even his on-again-off-again illness, made him more like a Pharaoh or the Egyptian god Osiris than a CEO. But more on this later.

Time will tell us whether, in Apple’s case, the Rebirth archetype is indeed working at a collective level. I believe that in the case of this final story type, we must demand a higher burden of proof than we’ve used elsewhere.

So we need to be especially careful in following the rule used so far in this series: that it’s possible to apply the lessons of storytelling and the stories of individuals, to current affairs or to the everyday world of business.

It’s commonly argued that whole nations have been “born again” after great traumas: Germany rose from the wartime ashes of Dresden, Japan from the horrors of Nagasaki, or Cambodia from the killing fields of Pol Pot. France, with its successive Republics. China after the Cultural Revolution. But it’s debatable that these represent a simpler renunciation of darker forces of collective insanity and resumption – or reinvention – of an older, lighter path.

Schisms, reformations and new dogmas roil established religions, promising new paths to paradise. And as sporting teams fall or rise in their leagues and divisions with the arrival or departure of key players or coaches, pundits talk of Rebirth. Likewise, the marketing divisions of companies often seek to present as Rebirth the consequences of what are at best technical changes to their corporate identity: a thorough corporate re-branding, a merger, a splitoff, or recovery after a financial “near-death experience.”

But reinvention isn’t Rebirth: renewal, refreshment or just getting back on track again isn’t the same as the permanent and truly satisfying change that comes at the end of a fully resolved story of Rebirth.

So we need to use our standard methodology: first examine how the archetype works in stories. Then apply the learning to the business world. Let’s examine the Rebirth archetype at work in story, and then discover to what extent it’s possible to wholly change collective cultures that are based on long accumulation of shared histories.

When a tiny fragment of evil from a shattered magic mirror enters the eye and heart of Kay, the little boy in Hans Christian Andersen’s Snow Queen, his personality is transformed and he becomes imprisoned in the frozen castle of the Snow Queen in the northern wastes. His icy personality can only be unlocked by warm tears and love of Gerda, leading him to discover his true soul mate as they return to sunny lands.

Walt Disney’s 1994 Lion King artfully captured every phase of a young king’s Rebirth. The journey passed through the young lion cub Simba’s shame at his father’s death; his dreamlike exile in the forest; the “helpful animals” who are his companions; his African spirit guides; his call to action and integration of his “female side;” his triumph over the evil Uncle Scar resulting in the banishment of darkness, and restatement of the lion’s rightful position at the top of the food-chain through the birth of a new male cub. The theme tune “Circle of Life,” triumphantly banged home the message.

Rebirth in literature almost always involves near-domination by, and then rejection of cold, egotistical behaviour that separates us from the love of others. The great transformation is preceded by an act of humility and love that opens the heart, causing light to defeat the darkness. The hero wins a great prize – yet at the end does not return to his previous state: he is irrevocably changed.

The great conclusion of many Rebirth stories is those very same things that we as children were freely granted through grace, as adults we can win back through wisdom and hard work.

In Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the murderer Raskolnikov prostrates himself before Sonia in a Siberian marketplace, seeking forgiveness. In Dickens’ Christmas Carol, the selfish miser Scrooge must be visited in nightmares three times by ghosts, before his love and generosity to the long-suffering Cratchit family are unlocked.

The protagonist in Shakespeare’s King Lear cannot ultimately be saved (for this is a tragedy) from punishment for the egotism and misunderstanding of love with which the play opens. Yet the unlocking of genuine love for his daughter Cordelia after the cataclysm of the storm on the heath constitutes a rebirth of his kingship – echoed in the reconciliation of Kent and his good son Edgar.

In Jane Austen’s Emma, the heroine finally weds Mr Knightley, after humbling self-recognition of the damage her meddling and match-making have done to those around her. In the Sound of Music we see the wayward novice Maria’s love for Captain von Trapp’s children and her way with music finally unfreezes the father’s heart, and after a thrilling escape from Nazi Austria, a loving family unit is formed with Maria reborn as a new mother.

Where can we see this process played out on the stage of public life in our own era? The narrative of Nelson Mandela following his release in 1991 from Robben Island, brought to triumphant resolution the distrust and hate of South Africa’s apartheid era. This was sealed through the work of the Commission for Reconciliation. Arguably, Nobel Prize winner Madiba’s actions brought a collective South African Rebirth. (It’s no coincidence that Lion King cleverly hitched its own Rebirth wagon to the South African zeitgeist).

For an authentic analysis of Rebirth stories in corporate world, I think we have to raise the standard of proof well above the world of Walt Disney. Finding out whether this narrative of liberation through the power of love can be seen authentically in the world of business is a tough assignment. Our prejudices have trained us to be blind to such occurrences; after all, work is supposed to be about money.

Curiously, many Rebirth stories revolve around renouncing the corporate lifeblood – money. Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, Silas Marner by George Eliot. Even Shakspeare’s Merchant of Venice.

And traditionally, it’s where our humanity and love for fellow-men are suspended in pursuit of other goals. Strategy and value creation, not brotherly love, is real the business of business.  If money inhibits positive change, can we unpack the Rebirth story archetype and apply it to corporate life?

Some earlier examples of corporate Rebirth might be construed only as “moral debts paid off.” Alfred Nobel’s own generous patronage of the awards that bear his name – for science, literature and above all the Peace Prize – may have been the result of a personal change of heart after amassing a fortune from his 1867 patent for dynamite. But the truth is that today, Akzo-Nobel manufactures nothing more sinister than paint.

Likewise, the German chemical company BASF is today a leader in sustainability and many other good things. It’s hardly recognizable as a business that (alongside Bayer and Hoechst) in wartime held a 27 percent stake in IG Farben. Under Nazi state intervention this was the company that owned the patents to Zyklon-B, the poison gas used in Hitler’s concentration camps. It also had interests in Buna synthetic oil plants where 83,000 wartime slave labourers from Auschwitz worked.

Closer to our own times, oil majors Shell and BP have both presented themselves as “reborn” after rig disasters. But perhaps such stories fit more closely into a yin-yang cycle of destruction and creation, than true Rebirth.

The classic MBA transformation case study is the 30 year-old tale of bicycle tyres-to-cellphones maker Nokia. The same Harvard Business Review that lionised it a generation ago now hurls blogger brickbats. But now-humbled Nokia, seemingly reduced to living off IP royalties from Apple, was really a transitory Rags to Riches story, now in need of rebooting as its Riches once more become Rags.

We could cite IBM, which under Sam Palmisano’s guidance revisited its Big Blue licence to operate and traded hardware for services. IBM’s P&L and its product suite has certainly been reborn – but has its DNA?

I’d like to believe Royal Philips Electronics – a company whose old CEO Gerard Kleisterlee I worked with for almost a decade – can experience genuine Rebirth under its new leader Frans van Houten. He was the head of a unit (NXP) that was spin off by Kleisterlee in 2006, gaining useful experience for his return as new CEO. Already with a profit warning under van Houten’s watch, there’s no evidence Philips can ever seize a new narrative to replace that of cost-cutting and shrinkage.

So what’s the final word on whether companies can experience Rebirth – or whether it’s really all about the CEO? Back to Steve Jobs the Pharaoh.

There’s a whole branch of study pioneered in 1922 by Sir James Frazer’s Golden Bough, which mixes up anthropology with the study of religion and myth in its investigation of the chiefs and god-kings of early civilisation. What Frazer found was that through the death (often by human sacrifice) and Rebirth of their kings, whole societies gained renewal.

Civilisations dependent upon planting and harvesting of corn needed to re-enact the cycle of Rebirth in order to placate the gods and ensure continuity of crops  and life. The corn-god had to give his own body to feed the people, to die so they might live. From that time onward, the death and Rebirth of a royal figurehead has been a key plank in maintaining social cohesion.

In the case of the Egyptian god-king Osiris, he was killed by his ambitious brother, but briefly came back to life to father a child (Horus) by his sister Isis. His body was cut up and pieces scattered across Egypt – only to be reunited for a final funeral. This resurrection and fatherhood conferred a double “Rebirth” to Osiris, who is the father of Egyptian mythology.

So, if societies traditionally experienced Rebirth through the death and renewal of their leader, why not apply this same logic to the modern corporation? You don’t need everyone in the company to experience the Rebirth personally – it’s enough for the CEO to deliver the continuity. Many a CEO has complained of being been “sacrificed” by his Board to ensure the continuity of the business and the health of shareholders.

And so in Apple’s case, the “multiple rebirths” of Jobs (first as founder in 1976, then back in 1997, then in 2004 after his first illness, then again in 2009 and once again in 2011) have left behind a culture and value set so strong they will survive him.

If the culture and values that Jobs typified on his personal journey could be codified and captured, think how valuable that would be. Not just for Apple, or HBR editorialists, but for everyone seeking to make sense of business.

So there’s one final topic to cover in this chapter: codifying and mapping the hard journey of Rebirth. Using our trusty formula, before we explore how that could be done in the business world, let’s see how literature and storytelling handles the process.

While we can grasp the other six archetypal stories intuitively, an analysis of  Rebirth in literature shows us they frequently provide very detailed roadmaps to plot the authenticity of the transformation process. Because we need such very precise guidance these stories tend to be complex epics.

Think about two of the greatest-ever stories of soul transformation, Milton’s Paradise Lost and Dante’s Divine Comedy. Both of them describe very precisely, in terms of levels or circles, just where the hero stands, how far he has to go. What barriers he has to traverse. The names of way-stations, and of temptations.

In Paradise Lost there’s a whole geography of heaven and hell, while Adam and Eve’s progress toward “paradise regained” is exactly calibrated. The cosmology of Dante’s epic describes an allegorical soul journey through hell, purgatory and heaven, starting on Good Friday, 1300. The mapping is precise: 9 circles of Inferno, 9 of Purgatory, 9 celestial bodies of Paradise. In John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, there’s also a very precise allegorical mapping of the hero’s journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City.

If transformation of the individual is such a complex process that it needs to be mapped, how much more so for the organisation. Are there ways to map in detail what’s going on inside the “corporate soul” and monitor the organisation’s process on the road to Rebirth or renewal?

We know that companies driven by their values can and do achieve lasting cultural transformations. Plotting these values and checking how they evolve, would allow companies to follow the roadmap of Rebirth – and escape the cyclical narrative of boom and bust.

The good news is that there is indeed a methodology that plots the process of cultural transformation in companies, and which captures the core values that make up a “corporate soul.” It’s based upon one very simple idea that embodies the dualism of personal identity/corporate identity.

The Hierarchy of Needs first designed in 1943 by Abraham Maslow, showed how the individual’s progress toward self-actualisation can be described in ascending stages that are in fact quite similar to the steps we’ve explored in the Seven Archetypal Stories.

Maslow showed how individuals progress from Physiological Needs (Overcoming the Monster), through Safety Needs (Rags to Riches and The Quest) to Love and Belonging Needs (Voyage and Return) through Esteem (Comedy/Tragedy) toward Self Actualisation (Rebirth).

Maslow died before his work was finally done. But in 1998 Richard Barrett, a former World Bank executive, published a book that elegantly continued this thought-line by positing the existence of Seven Levels of Consciousness in both personal and collective planes of life. And he showed that, because companies are groupings of individuals, an extended version of Maslow’s hierarchy can be applied to plotting – and shaping – values in corporate life. Barrett’s “hierarchy”  puts two pyramids on top of each other like an egg-timer. The top one embodies the values of vision, servant-leadership and service to the community, while the bottom one deals with corporate survival, relationships and efficiency or quality.

By attributing different value levels to different behaviours by individuals, groups and entire businesses, Barrett developed a set of Cultural Transformation Tools with the objective of Liberating the Corporate Soul – the title of his book.

Today the Barrett Values Centre provides authentic tools for  mapping transformation – and arguably Rebirth too. More than 200,000 people including 3,000 leaders have completed the online values surveys upon which Cultural Transformation Tools is based. Companies with more than 85,000 employees, like China Mobile and Unilever, have used the method to track values and shape their culture. The methodology is also being used to plot the values of entire nations.

It’s more than coincidence, perhaps, that Seven Basic Plots and Seven Levels of Consciousness should come together in my description of the Rebirth archetype. I need to declare an interest here. I am a trained and licensed practitioner in the Barrett Values Centre methodology. I’m not saying the methodology is the business world’s answer to The Divine Comedy, but it comes closer to decoding the mystery than anything else out there.

Today, many companies and CEOs are genuinely seeking to unlock the mystery of sustainable Rebirth of the institution to ensure prosperity, human development and the highest possible degree of fulfilment for employees and stakeholders while nurturing both spiritual and physical environments.

They want to apply the secrets of the great stories that drive our cultures, our nations, in driving their companies forward. For them, I heartily recommend Cultural Transformation Tools.

Richard House