This material originally appeared in Spirit: Transformation and Development in Organizations, which was published by Abbott Publishing in 1987.
Myth is neither true nor false, but rather behind truth — as that body of material through which a culture’s values, purpose and direction come to expression. Myth is not just “any old story,” it is the story, which gives shape and focus to Spirit, and makes everything make sense.(1)
Myth, in short is the “eyeglasses” through which a given people perceive and interpret their world. It is the vantage point from which, or by which the true is judged to be true.
But myth does more. On a deeper level, myth communicates the moving quality of the human Spirit as it seeks to become whatever it was supposed to be. In the words of Earnst Cassirer,
…Myth harbors a certain conceptual content: it is the conceptual language in which alone the world of becoming can be expressed. What never is, but always becomes, what does not, like the structures of logical and mathematical knowledge, remain identically determinate, but from moment to moment manifests itself as something different, can be given only a mythical representation.(2)
Finally, myth doesn’t just communicate about Spirit in its quest, but in some way manifests that Spirit in experiential terms; you can feel it. That may sound like black magic, but it is no more nor less than any good story accomplishes when “you get so into it” that the story becomes reality itself . . . or why else did you stay up until 4:00 a.m. reading it?
If you noticed the Greek word mythos in the chapter title as opposed to the more usual word myth, you may suppose that my antiquarian interests got the better of me. That may be, but there is a purpose. To this point, I have used the word myth to indicate the primal stories which are told in the life of an organization, which may suggest that such stories are the only mechanism by which the Spirit of an organization is captured and represented. That is true only in part, for man does not live by words alone. Although the stories are primal, they do not appear just in words, but also in color, form, sound (non-verbal) and movement. This is Ritual.
It is common practice to speak of myth and ritual as if they were two separate things, but that is not so, for ritual is simply putting the words of myth into form, motion and music. Myth and ritual are two sides of the same thing, which I will call mythos. When it is useful to refer just to the words, I will use myth. And when the color, form, motion and sound are critical to the discussion, I will use the word ritual. But all of this is a matter of intellectual distinction. In life, you never have one without the other, and so my normal term will be mythos.
Having short-changed ritual to this point, it seems only fair to back up a bit to make the introduction and the connection with myth. Ritual is acted myth. Just as we cannot communicate by words alone, but use a whole range of kinesthetic expressions, so myth is but a very partial vehicle. With ritual, myth assumes shape, form, texture, color, sound, smell and motion, as all the senses are brought into play. Occasionally, of course, a story apparently may be told without the benefit of such things, but that is only apparent, for even in the private telling of a tale, the listener has the benefit of the gestures and facial expressions of the teller. Indeed, when tales are told bereft of physical expression, they are experienced as unendurably boring.
Ritual is myth expressed in the full tapestry of human experience. This expression may be quite formal as in the services of the church, synagogue or other religious body. Similar formality may also been seen in the gatherings of purely secular bodies such as the state, the military, and yes, even corporations. At the other end of the spectrum, ritual appears in less awesome terms as the greetings we offer upon meeting each other and the subtle body language through which we add warmth and color to our expression.(3)
The point is simply that no part of the human experience is devoid of ritual, and by the same token ritual is never far from myth. In fact, the only time that myth ever appears without ritual is on the printed page, and even there one finds the “ritual” of format, layout, typeface and texture.
Liturgy In organizational life, mythos (myth and ritual) appears as liturgy. Liturgy is formed from two Greek words, laos people and ergos work — and means in literal translation, the people`s work or what the people do. Liturgy is the sum of what the people do and say as an expression of their deepest being. As such, it may be highly conscious, artful, and carefully crafted to express the best of the human spirit. Or then again, it may be purely happenstantial, dull, drab, and degrading. Good or bad, liturgy is what the people do.
Liturgy, of course, is also the word used to describe religious services. As the church has grown progressively less meaningful in the contemporary world, it may appear that liturgy is extraneous to life. That, however, is the church’s problem with bad liturgy. The potential for liturgy to guide, direct and enhance the human spirit exists. It remains only to do liturgy well.
Liturgy at its best is the conscious production and orchestration of myth and ritual such that Spirit is focused and directed in a particular, intended way. Traditionally, it has been the role of the Priest to craft and care for the Story of the People, and to provide the means and mechanism whereby that story may be remembered. Far from being an arcane, esoteric role of doubtful utility, the priestly role is quite fundamental to the orderly, meaningful conduct of human affairs, or as we might say, the purposeful flow of Spirit. For liturgy provides the peculiar sense of time, space and propriety indigenous to a particular people and culture.
One might suppose that time and space are everywhere the same, but a moment’s reflection will show that this is not so. Westerners visiting West Africa, for example, quickly discover that the sense of time is vastly different than they had come to expect. The sense of space is also different, leading to an common western observation that it is indeed strange how Africans, who live in a vast, unpopulated continent, should build their houses in such close proximity one can scarcely squeeze between.
These differences might be perceived as happenstantial givens, just the way things are. And doubtless, in some early period, at the dawn of human consciousness, the peculiar sense of time and space just “appeared.” But the fact that a special sense is continued and sharpened over time is not happenstantial. On the contrary, the sense of “here and now” peculiar to any culture was to some extent consciously arrived at; the special gift of the priests, achieved through the creation and maintenance of liturgy.
And how was that done? By consciously telling the Story or myth, which is what liturgy is all about. So in the West, we mark time as B.C. or A.D. Those letters mean nothing until referenced to the primal mythology of Western Christendom, the Story of Jesus Christ. And the story has been carefully orchestrated with the great celebrations of Christmas, Easter and Whitsunday, which measure out time. Likewise space has been molded in the image of the Story. The great cathedrals provided the center, and all other human habitations were arranged about.
Time and space are (or at least can be) intentional human creations, and both are the product of liturgy. Given a different liturgy, and we would have a different sense of time and space.
Martin Buber captures the idea exquisitely, although we will have to remember that prayer and sacrifice are the essential elements of liturgy in order see the point clearly.
“. . . prayer is not in time, but time in prayer, sacrifice not in space, but space in sacrifice, and to reverse the relation is to abolish the reality.”
At this juncture, you may be wondering at the utility of these arcane discussions, but my intention remains eminently practical. To the extent that we would make sense out of Spirit, and perhaps even more importantly, do something positive with Spirit, an understanding of the function and effect of liturgy is critical. It is true that in the past, such considerations were held in closely guarded secrecy by a priestly class. But the times have changed, and it is given to us to create our own time and space, appropriate to the present tasks of our Spirit. Put more directly; given knowledge of, and skill with, mythos and liturgy, we can create organizations that work in a transforming world.
Mythos may be defined as a likely story arising from the life experience of any group, through which they come to experience their past, present and potential. In verbal form, mythos varies greatly, ranging from large volumes such as the Old and New Testament and the collected mythology of classical Greece and Rome, to the scattered tales present in the oral tradition of contemporary organizations. But no matter what the size or manner of presentation in ritual, mythos is first of all a likely story, which is simultaneously spoken and acted.
As a likely story, mythos is not history, and any attempt to understand it as history will only result in confusion in the mind of the reader and a basic misunderstanding of the material. This is not to suggest that historical material is not to be found in mythos, because of course it is. Thus in ancient myths, it is quite possible to dig up the cities referred to, or to find reference in other, supposedly neutral sources, to the personages mentioned, and thereby substantiate their historical existence. Contemporary organizational mythos will also contain elements of history, for example stories about the “early days out in the garage when the first machine was invented.”
However, material also exists which careful historical research cannot validate, and may even be able to “disprove.” For example, there appears to be reasonable evidence that Joshua never fought the battle of Jericho, at least in the terms described. (4)
This phenomenon is by no means limited to antiquity, for contemporary organizational mythos often contains precisely the same kind of material.
The fact that such nonhistorical (or better ahistorical) material appears quite commonly in mythos has led to the almost universal conclusion that mythos “is not true.” From an historical viewpoint, such a judgment concerning mythos is quite correct; however it may also be the case that history is not the final or only arbiter of the “truth.” In fact, it turns out that the idea of history, at least as we currently understand it, is a relatively recent invention, and much of mankind (historically) has never operated within its constraints.(5)
This is not to suggest that history has no use, for indeed it does. However, mythos understood as history will only lead to confusion and misunderstanding, for mythos is neither truth nor nontruth; rather it lies “behind” truth as the context within which mankind is enabled to perceive truth as Truth. This last statement obviously requires considerable elaboration, but I make it only to indicate that mythos and history operate in radically different ways, each with their own utility. Never should they be confused.
Mythos arises out of the life of the group. That is to say, it is indigenous to that group. The language is common to the group, as are all the other means of formal representation (color, form, motion and sound). A major consequence of this fact is that somebody else’s mythos usually is experienced as weird, strange or bizarre. However, from the point of view of the group that owns the mythos, it is very natural, so natural in fact that they are virtually unconscious of its presence, and totally oblivious to the fact that “others” may perceive it as strange.
Last, mythos is the mechanism through which the group comes to experience its past, present and potential. The past, present and potential, to which we have reference is nothing more than the journey of Spirit through transformation as it has been experienced by the group. In mature mythos, all of these elements and occurrences may be organized in what appears to be chronological order, but the intent is not to portray history; rather it is to create the conditions in which experiencing may take place i.e. to tell a likely story. Telling this story is not simply a matter of ordering events in a book, although that is one expression, but one also finds the ritual enactment of these events over time, as in the Sacred Years of Judaism and Christianity. Christmas and Easter, Yom Kippur and Passover all provide occasions for the members to re-experience the significant transformative events.
The use of the word experience here may create problems, for we normally think of experience in rather passive terms as something that happens to us. And there is a sense in which mythos enables the members of the group to passively encounter what has gone before, what the present interpretation is, and how the future expectations might shape up.
I might also have used the word understanding to indicate that there is a certain rational content — a logic communicated through mythos. But in the final analysis, mythos takes the members of the group beyond passivity and logic into a condition where the essence of the group (Spirit, if you will) is encountered as a present, timeless reality. Mythos does not talk about the essence of the group — but rather represents that essence in an immediate, almost palpable way. When mythos functions well in the life of a group, it is the absolute antithesis of “unreal” and “untruth.” On the contrary, it is the essential arbiter of reality itself, and as such it is “beyond” reality and beyond truth.
THE DEVELOPMENT OF MYTHOS
Mythos begins in the everyday events and activities of an organization. Early on, and even in maturity, it appears as “little stories” about the way things are around here. (6)
In form, these stories are short, pointed and graphic, for in their early use, they are called upon to illustrate the life of the group to new members, and to occasional outsiders who may have the need to know. For example, when a new individual joins the group and raises the question — What’s going on around here?” — a usual response will go something like, “Well, back in ’81 when all this got started, we all worked out in the garage.”
It is critically important to note that these “stories” are about some action, event or activity in the life of the group. And although they may eventually assume verbal form, initially, it was the act that counted. This point may seem so obvious as to be inconsequential, but the issue is that myth and ritual are together from the start. In later times, the tale may be told in words alone, but it becomes infinitely more powerful when represented in physical terms — ritual. To really tell a tale, it should be produced in such a way that you can see it, touch it, taste it, and smell it — and best of all, move with it.
As these stories are told, they improve with the telling. Unimportant details tend to drop out, colorful and important points may be enhanced or elaborated upon, and the story begins to assume the form of a well and often told tale, and certain devices work their way in which sustain interest and insure “correct” telling.(7) Correct here means the form of the story is maintained. A very common example of such a device is the “punch line” in a Western joke. Everybody knows that the punch line must be there, and told in exactly the “right” way. In fact to “muff the punch line” has become synonymous with a variety of other uncoordinated behaviors. Other common devices include rhythm or cadence and the use of alliteration, all of which tend to enable the story tellers to stay on course, and subtly cue the teller when they are “off.”
Obviously, it would be a mistake to ignore the physical (nonverbal) side of this development, although that becomes somewhat difficult to get down on the printed page. But when we watch present day stories grow, certain physical movements quickly get built in (or indeed they were there from the beginning). For example, watch carefully if you ever have the opportunity to observe pilots presenting their mythos. The words spoken are almost secondary to the appropriate hand motions and loud guttural sound effects. The same, of course, applies to young children at play, telling the tales of their imaginations.
As these stories are told, they become a part of the pool of tradition which the organization has found, in some way, to be meaningful, and their evolution continues, but within certain rather confined limits. Indeed, one of the surprising things about this evolution, is just how conservative it is — in the sense that it conserves the essence of the story. This point will become very important at a later time when we begin to use the information developed here as a basis for intervention within the process of organization transformation. To the extent that we would become midwives in that process, manipulating(8) the “mythos life” of the organization will be a most important tool. However, that may be done only with extreme caution and sensitivity. It may appear to us that some part of the tradition is only a story — but to the organization that story is their story, and as such it will be guarded very jealously.
Move Towards Brevity The evolution of mythos moves in several predictable ways. On the one hand there is a tendency towards brevity. In fact this tendency can move so far as to end up with only a single word which then becomes a key word or code word in the organizations. I call such words heavy words, because they carry a meaning and importance vastly greater than ordinary usage would suggest. Their root in the organizational mythos is indicated by the fact that outsiders will not have a clue to their meaning until they hear or see the story. An example of a heavy word is scrub as used in a medical setting. Needless to say it has nothing to do with cleaning floors, but its meaning and power will only become clear only when you hear the tale of the scrub-room and all the stories of surgical derring-do that began there. Not incidentally, the relationship of “scrub” to scrub-room is a good example of the interrelationship between myth and ritual, for the word assumes meaning only in the context of the ritual act. Exactly the same phenomenon occurs on the ritual side of the fence when a single physical motion can assume incredible communicative power, as for example the Sign of the Cross for the Christian or the spread fingers (V) in the Peace Movement.
Move Towards Complexity At the same time, the organizational mythos tends toward greater complexity and interconnectedness. This is quite understandable given the function it performs. To the extent that the stories are adduced to let folks know “how things are around here,” over time there is an increasing number of things to be covered under that heading. Some examples, all drawn from the Jonathan Corporation, may make all of this more concrete. The Jonathan Corporation is a small, but very rapidly growing shipyard located in Norfolk, Virginia. I worked with them during 1983-84, and the stories reported here were unearthed during that association.
For instance, in answer to the question, How did it all begin? there are “Creation Stories.” One such story related how in the early days the president and his chief associate would meet at the International House of Pancakes with a pocketful of dimes. The dimes were used impartially for coffee and to feed the outside phone — which became the corporate switchboard. As brief as this story is, it manages to communicate to present employees an essential corporate value to wit: “We don’t care what the form and setting is — just get the job done.”
In times of crisis when the issue becomes, “How do we get through this one,” there are stories of old battles won. An example of this kind of story from the same corporation goes as follows. It seems that on the first major contract bid, the company came in a full 50 percent lower than the estimated cost of the job, which in this case was the repair of a navy ship which had chosen to run into a tanker rather than aground on a sandbar. The navy couldn’t believe the figures, and asked for a review , after which all they could do is shake their head and say go ahead if you are so crazy. As luck would have it, the job had to be done over Christmas and in freezing conditions. Everybody worked from the president on down, and more often than not they worked around the clock. But the job got done for several thousand dollars less than what was already the low bid — three days ahead of schedule. Whenever this story is told, the value is clear. Simply put, “We can do it!”
For moments of conflict between organizations, there are “Boundary Stories” which indicate who we are and how we operate under the circumstances. The story in this case related how when the company was quite young, several of the senior officers decided that they wanted to “do their own thing” and so they left with several customers to create a competing operation. The president gathered the remaining troops, told them what the situation was, and indicated that he intended to go “nose to nose.” But he also made it clear that despite everything, he was sorry that the folks had gone, and still considered them good people. As it turned out, the home team won, hands down, but the abiding value communicated was that even in moments of duress and opposition, we will respect those who oppose us even if we can’t agree with them.
For newcomers (and indeed for old timers), when the question of proper behavior (values) is raised, there are stories which provide the model. The story here came to be known as Norma’s Apartment. It seems that one of the secretaries (Norma) came home to find her apartment burned out. She had lost everything. Within 24 hours, with absolutely no official prodding, donations of material and money came in from all over the company. The value was pretty clear: “We care for each other.”
Given the fact that all organizations have, or will have, similar needs in terms of saying “How it is around here,” it is not surprising that the evolving stories appear to cluster in certain types and patterns, (9) and furthermore that organizations will tend to swap stories with the form and content remaining virtually the same while only the important names will change. For example, when working with fighting gangs in the streets of Washington, I discovered that all the gangs I knew had essentially the same story about “bad dudes and the fuzz.” Only the name of the hero and number of the police precinct changed. This observation actually turned out to have real practical value, because one of my constant and painful mistakes was confusion over the turf that each gang claimed. As I learned to listen to the stories and attend to the names, I found a virtually foolproof way of determining “where I was at.”
One last example, which comes more from the world of folk stories, appeared during some work that I was doing in West Africa and the Caribbean. While in Liberia I had the pleasure of hearing the Anance Tales which recount the adventures of a spider who is constantly in trouble, and usually gets out through some ruse. Some little time later I was in the Caribbean on St. Thomas and heard from an ancient black lady the story of “Bru Anance” who was sometimes a spider and sometimes a rabbit. Bru, as it turn out, means brother, and of course it is only a short hop to the American South and Brer Rabbit.
A great deal of useful work has been done in terms of classifying the varieties of form in which organizational mythos appears. But for our purposes it is sufficient to notice the tendencies mythic material seems to follow, and the fact that certain patterns recur. When it comes to using an understanding of mythos in a practical way, I have found that the patterning pretty much follows common sense once you understand that there are patterns. Elaborate classification schemes end up being more useful to the academic than the practitioner, if only because such schemes tend to get between the practitioner and the organization.(10)
GETTING THE “RIGHT STORY”
The process by which material of the organizational mythos emerges out of everyday life seems to be relatively unconscious. Were one to ask why one story appeared and not another, the answer either would be a blank look or an apparently offhanded comment to the effect, “That’s just what we remembered.” In fact, I think this is just another example of people remembering what is significant to them. One story is “chosen” over another because it serves to re-present the organizational Spirit in a way that feels right. No votes, no editorial committees — just the collective self-understanding coming to expression in an way that “feels good.”
There comes a time, when such a laissez-faire approach to the organizational mythos is no longer appropriate or possible. Sooner or later, the organization comes to realize that its stories are important, and having the “right” story is critical. The judgment as to rightness is not made on the basis of historical accuracy, although the argument surrounding that judgment may sound that way. Basically it is a question of self understanding and, to use the Madison Avenue phrase, “image.” The agony of such choosing becomes apparent in the preparation of the annual report, or worse yet in the creation of the corporate film. At such a time, We have to tell our story, but who are we and what’s the story? Having participated as producer in several such company films, I can readily attest that the whole process bears a much closer resemblance to corporate psychotherapy than anything as cut and dried as making a film. Telling the “right” story is painful and critical.
In older institutions, getting the story right can take centuries, and involve endless commissions and no little amount of bloodshed. A classic case is the Christian Church in regard to what is called the “Canon of Scripture.” The issue was quite simply which books should be included in the Bible — or what’s our story? We know for a fact that a number of books just didn’t make it, and a number of people were consequently excluded from the christian organization because the “out” books were their books. A prime example are the so called Gnostic Gospels, but there were undoubtedly others. When “your story” isn’t part of “The Story,” you are out, or in the words of the church: you are a heretic.(11)
The growth of mythos is organic, as the organization claims certain aspects of its experience as critical and necessary for its own self-understanding. This experience is represented in words and action (myth and ritual) sometimes in isolation, but normally in union. The body of mythos may appear as an historical statement, relating “Who we are, and how we came to be at this place,” but the function of mythos goes infinitely deeper. Superficially, mythos is “about” the organizational Spirit, but in reality, mythos becomes the medium through which the Spirit may be experienced. How that might be is the subject of the next section.
MYTHOS AT WORK
Mythos images Spirit in an organization in such a way that we not only learn about that Spirit, but in addition may experience the presence of Spirit in immediate, palpable ways. The true function (work) of mythos is to say the unsayable, to express the ineffable, but most important, to bring the participant into immediate, self-validating relationship with Spirit in the organization. A tall order to be sure, but a common place experience if we stop to think about it, for mythos does what any good story does as a matter or course.
Think of your own favorite story (novel, movie, whatever), and ask yourself why and how it became so powerful for you. To be sure, you found the subject matter interesting, the description compelling, the style pleasing. But after you have identified all of these elements, and a hundred others that delight literary critics, isn’t it true that there is still more? Somehow a really good story manages to create an environment into which you may move and participate. You are the hero, you cross the rivers, experience the sadness and the joy, you know the freshness of the new dawn and all the rest. And that is precisely the point, you are really there. To ask questions like “Is it really true?” — seem to miss the whole point. That story for you is neither true nor false, indeed it seems to go beyond all such distinctions.
One of my favorite stories is Ernest Hemingway`s Old Man and the Sea. I have read it a number of times, and each time I find myself becoming the old man. No longer am I some passive observer, sitting at the edge of the ocean, hearing extraneous facts about the battle being conducted beyond the horizon. I am there. I can feel the rough texture of the small boat under my seat. I experience the heat of the sun, the sweat running down my back, and I know all about that fish. But most of all that old man is me, and I know first hand what is going on in his soul. His spirit is my spirit. To be sure, it is just a story between two covers that occupies a very small space on my library shelves. I can pick it up and put it down, but the truth of the matter is that having picked it up once, it is always with me in a way and with a power that an infinite number of real life experiences never even come close to. Should we say that it is more real than life, bigger than life? We commonly use such phrases. Perhaps they mean something.
Needless to say, I think there is meaning here, but determining what it might be requires a closer look. Were we to operate from what might be called the “standard paradigm,” in which reality is determined by a plethora of “facts,” we would expect powerful stories absolutely to overwhelm us with incredible detail — facts in such abundance that we are literally buried in them. There are of course stories like that, but few good ones, and should an abundance of facts guarantee power, the New York telephone book would be at the top of the bestseller lists. More to the point, if we look carefully at a story like The Old Man and the Sea, it is precisely the absence of detailed fact that stands out. Indeed, considered objectively, it is absolutely amazing how little Hemingway really tells us. Not much more than an old man, a small boat, and a big sea.
Where does the power come from? For me it comes from the structured open space Hemingway has created into which I may enter, and experience the reality that he offers me. The story is real and powerful because I have really entered into its “space,” and my imagination has been powerfully stimulated to create a world, the old man and the sea. The story is really real to me, because I am really there. We thus may come to the conclusion, that it is not so much what Hemingway says, but rather what he does not say that creates the conditions of empowerment. As odd as it may seem, the story says the most when it says the least — it significates in the silence.
I might push all this a little further and say that the business of art is creating those suggestive open spaces in which the human Spirit may grow. Thus in powerful graphic art, the painter opens a way for you to enter in. Picasso, was a master at this. With a few lines and some color, a whole world is created. To be sure there are details, but just enough to set the stage, and invite your imagination inside. The growth which takes place is not un-inhibited growth without shape and direction, for Picasso starts you on the way and establishes the environment which channels and shapes that growth. The net experience, however, is one of co-creation. You and Picasso create the reality that results. Further more, that reality is more than Picasso ever could have imagined, for it includes what you have contributed. This means of course, that art is not a static phenomenon, but it continues to grow over time as succeeding generations add their imagination — their Spirit.
In music, the story is the same. For all of the cascade of sounds in a great symphonic work, it is the silences that pull you in. On one level, of course you remember the sound of soaring strings or the crash of the great crescendo, but it is the brief pause before the thunder that makes you hold your breath, which roots you in that created time and space so that the power of sound literally grabs you. The phrase for this is “timing” and it may be the most important thing a conductor does. Too fast, and everything becomes a jumbled blur, and there is no “place” for you to fit in. Too slow, and the whole sense of momentum is lost. Just right, and the moment builds until you just can’t stand it anymore, and then . . . over the edge. The quintessence of what I am talking about occurs in those “time-out-of-time” moments when a great conductor, orchestra, and music combine to take you places you have never been, and when it is all over, in the silence of ending, there is a power and meaning that literally drives beyond the capacity of any form to communicate. At such moments, the unsayable seems to hover in the atmosphere, validating its own reality by its very presence.
To be sure, such moments may be rare, and the medium need not be the symphony orchestra. But those moments exist even if they do not register on the meters and scales of present-day science. The power of such a moment resides not so much in the things that are done, but not done, for in that Open Space, Spirit grows and experiences its own growth as meaning.
That in a nutshell is what mythos does. Like art, because it is art, mythos creates the structured Open Space in which Spirit appears, grows, and experiences meaning. Recognizing this function (work) is therefore the first step in catching mythos in the act of imaging Spirit.
THE LIFE CYCLE OF MYTHOS
Mythos, as it is experienced in an organization, is not a single unchanging phenomenon, but rather an ongoing process through which Spirit is imaged. This process may be understood by considering the life cycle of mythos.
The life cycle begins in the everyday life stories of the organization, as the events of common experience are captured and retained. (See preceding section.) These significant happenings represent the collective self-understanding in ways that the members can readily understand, for the stories are told in terms that are quite familiar. For the folks in the shipyard the language was “shipyard,” and when the tale is told, every manjack among them knows what is going on, if only because they have been there, or at least they have been somewhere very similar.
In the Jonathan Corporation, for example, I happened to be in the “yard” just as a new job was starting. Like much of Jonathan’s work, it was a “rush job” which involved mounting a special new gun on a naval ship that could deal with the threat posed by the Exocet Missile. By chance, this job also had to be done at Christmastime, and once more the weather had turned cold. During a small break in the operation, the men had gathered inside to get out of the wind and were standing around rubbing their chapped, frozen hands. Working heavy steel in subfreezing temperatures is no fun, even if you happen to have a welding torch to warm things up. There wasn’t much conversation, but such as there was tended toward bitching about the cold. After a few moments, one of the older employees, who described himself as a “runty Irishman” said something like, “you guys ain’t seen nothing, you shouda’ been there on the Speer.” There were a few knowing nods followed by an expectant silence, and the little Irishman started to tell the tale. Some will say that it is the Irish gift of gab that enables them to weave the gossamer strands of a story with such finesse, but whatever the reason, the tale was told perfectly about how that small band from Jonathan on the first big job had worked the clock around, slinging steel off an old barge tied up next to the Speer with the wind and the cold as constant companions. Most of the folks had heard the story before, and every now and again, when the Irishman hit an open point, somebody else would say, “you know what happened then?” — and another detail or perspective would be added.
I don’t think the whole thing took over 15 minutes in the telling, but the effect on the crew was powerful. Those who knew the story took pleasure in adding little bits and pieces, but mostly they found strength in the common telling of the tale, remembering how once before, “they had done it.” For new men on the job, this was apparently the first time they had heard about the Speer, and they listened with an intensity that told you they were really there. The Irishman was a master: he told his part of the story with sufficient macho display, which said as no direct statement could, “You guys have a lot to live up to.” But it wasn’t overpowering, and the saving grace was his timing, which allowed just enough time for each person in the circle to give shape and form to the events described in their own imagination. It is not stretching a point to say that you could almost see the Spirit of Jonathan Corporation appearing in the open space.
Such telling of the tale is by no means restricted to shipyards. At the other end of the spectrum (or at least in a very different place) is the Internal Revenue Service. For a period of a year or so, I had the pleasure of working with the Appeals Division. Parenthetically, I must say that I never quite got over that rush of adrenalin when the phone would ring with the IRS at the other end. Be that as it may, you need to know that the Appeals Division is in many respects the elite corps of the Service. Their function is to work out agreements between the taxpayer and the Government which is impartial and fair to both. The Appeals Officers are a superbly trained, dedicated crew who will carry as many as three earned degrees and/or certification (MBA, JD and CPA) along with years of experience. Despite, or maybe because of this superb academic and experiential background, I found some superb storytellers. Now to be sure, you had to know (or in my case learn) some little bit about tax law in order to keep up, but when a Senior Officer sat in the company of his peers with some junior officers in attendance, and told how it was that they brought some corporate giant to the point of agreement, it was a lot better than any soap opera.
What particularly intrigued me was how unconscious this whole activity was. When questioned, the best “storytellers” did not seem to attach any particular importance to what they did, and indeed, one senior officer expressed genuine surprise after a weekend training session with new Officers — that it seemed that the most meaningful thing he had done for the new folks was to tell the story. His only complaint was that they kept him up to 2:00 and 3:00 o’clock in the morning doing just that. To check out his perception, I made a point of interviewing some of the younger Appeals Officers who had been present, and their comments were, I thought, instructive. To a person, they reported that most of the formal material presented was a waste of time (regulations and procedures) which either they already knew or could easily find out in the appropriate manuals. What they really got was that sense (Spirit) of being an Appeals Officer which came though after the formal sessions and late into the night.
There is a danger, however, in the telling of these tales, for it may appear to the listeners that the only way things may be done is in the manner prescribed. Thus in the shipyard, the story of the Speer offers a powerful re-presentation of the Spirit of Jonathan at work, but it would be a tragic mistake for the assembled group to approach the new job in exactly the same way that things were done on the Speer, down to the last technical detail. By the same token, the young Appeals Officers can benefit greatly from the encounter with the senior officer’s story to the extent that they experience a sense of excellence and dedication that is fundamental to the job. However, they will assuredly get in trouble should they approach the work in detail as their senior had. These statements may appear so obvious as to be gratuitous, but the sad truth of the matter is that such literal application will often occur, and over time, the results are disastrous. When mythos is perceived through the eyes of literalism, its power for communication is radically reduced and ultimately destroyed.
Literalism and the End of Mythos To the extent that Mythos truly captures the Spirit of an organization, and re-presents in living color what it means to live in the organization, it is no wonder that people take these stories quite seriously. For as the Spirit of the organization is integral to the self-understanding of the individual (part of their life) so mythos, as the vehicle of both, is critical. To change the story is to change life, and that can be very unsettling indeed. Hence there is an understandable effort to “freeze” mythos in every detail. That is literalism, which will eventually squeeze the life out of mythos, and render a once powerful story into a meaningless shadow of its former self.
Under ordinary circumstances, the organization doesn’t pay too much attention to the stories it tells. They are, after all, just “war stories” by whatever name. However, over time, as those stories become increasingly familiar, and well worn by constant retelling, their presence and form is a comfort to the members and constitutes an expected part of their life. As I noted in the previous section, eventually it becomes important to the organization that the right stories be told in the right way. That in itself is no great issue, but it is not without a cost. In more flexible form, the organizational story (mythos) provides an outlet to creativity and innovation. There is enough openness to allow for different ways of looking at things which enables the organization to adapt to changing circumstances. However, at such times when the organizational life is threatened, precise wording becomes more and more of an issue. In older organizations, where the body of mythos is large and complex, this can lead to some very interesting and destructive results. The classical example of this is the phenomenon of fundamentalism in religious bodies. Stressed by an alien world that seemed to be casting doubt on the validity of the self-understanding as expressed by Scripture, the response on the part of the believers was to place more and more weight on the literal word of the text. In a situation where all seemed to be changing, it became more and more important to be aware of what God said (what Spirit was really about), and it was no small comfort to know that the “Word of God” was all carefully recorded in literal detail in a book, and therefore, always available when need arose.
It is very easy, and perhaps understandable, to treat the response of the religious fundamentalist lightly (especially if we do not happen to be fundamentalists), but to do so is to miss the powerful dynamics represented by the response, and the cost that is incurred. For the fundamentalist, certainty and knowledge are now reduced to the objective, handy form of the printed page.(12) Thus we find the fundamentalists seeking to coerce the world at large into conformity with their story, as has been the case in Iran through the efforts of Islamic fundamentalists. Such coercion is painful to them, as it is awkward for the rest of us. But failing that effort to make the world fit “their story,” the only possible alternative is to withdraw from the world. This of course is done, and small isolated communities are established within which the world may be made to look as the story says that it should. There is no small comfort in these little communities, but there can also be something very deadening about them too, and the members are progressively cut off from the normal commerce of human existence. At this point, the story of the organization, which originated as a statement about meaningful life in the world, now becomes the occasion for the denial of the world at large.
It might be assumed from what I have said above, that the fundamentalist represents a special case of aberrant religious behavior. That unfortunately is not the situation, for in as much as each organization has its own mythos, all organizations are susceptible to the dangers of literalism. In fact, organizations do not have to be either of great size or age in order to fall prey.
Several years ago, for example, I was asked to create a senior level executive development program for a major national health care institution. The program by design was small, and limited to individuals who had demonstrated outstanding competence to date and were ready to take on large, new responsibility. The objective of the program was to prepare them for their task.(13). The design of the program was unique in that there was no curriculum. I felt that our participants, most of whom had several advanced degrees, did not need yet another academic experience. What they did need was an opportunity to explore the world of health care in a way that granted them a maximum degree of freedom, and also required them to take full responsibility for the freedom they exercised. This last point, regarding the responsible use of freedom, was critical, for in my experience, the point where many senior executives fell apart came when they suddenly recognized that nobody was there to tell them what to do, and they experienced what I called Freedom Shock. Thus Freedom Shock was engineered right into the program by offering the participants two years and many resources, with the sole requirement being that they identify some major health care system issues and do something substantive for their resolution. “Substantive” could mean anything from drafting legislation (we had access to Capitol Hill), sponsoring a conference, or even writing a book. Beyond that, it was all open space. The only formalization of the program existed in a very brief prospectus which I had drafted for purposes of recruitment and to justify the expenditure of funds.
After the program had been in operation for only a few months, certain bureaucratic rumbles were felt which suggested that the effort might be in some jeopardy. This was no small consideration for the participants, for all of them had left other jobs with no guarantee of return, and some had sold their homes and moved their families across the country. All of this produced another element of Freedom Shock which was somewhat in excess of what I had intended. The result was a large amount of anxiety which manifested itself in a variety of ways culminating in a loud and rancorous meeting in which the Scholars, as they were known, took me to task for failure to manage the program effectively. The fact that I had absolutely no control over the bureaucratic “rumble” made no difference, for the truth of the matter was that Freedom Shock was getting the better of everyone. What they really wanted to know was — what they should do? After we had gone around on that one several times, and the Scholars became aware that I really believed in taking personal responsibility for one’s freedom, a most remarkable thing occurred. One of the Scholars left the room and returned with a copy of the program prospectus, and began to quote passages from it line by line, as though that booklet offered the specific direction as to what should be done, when and how. I remained silent, but when pushed said, “Well, I wrote that booklet in two hours between planes. That was a first edition, and if you would like to write another, do it. There are no rules except as you make them.” That almost ended the program right there, but the point I am trying to make with this story is that any organization, even (or perhaps especially) a very young organization, when it is under duress will reach out for something that looks like the Story, and then grab on to it in literal detail. Fundamentalism is not an affliction reserved only for small religious sects, it is available to us all.
Literalism, which seeks to save mythos, in fact destroys it. For mythos, like life, exists primarily in the process, and not in the artifacts created along the way. As each form appears, it contributes its meaning, and then must be cast aside in order that new (or renewed) meaning may appear in the Open Space. In the final analysis, mythos manifests Spirit not by what it says, but in the silence, and for that reason, mythos must be broken to be made whole.
The Breaking of Mythos The breaking of mythos is necessitated by the fact that our language is inevitably less than potent when it comes to speaking of really important things. This is simply an acknowledgment of an everyday experience when we seek to put into words that which goes beyond our verbal capacity.(14) For example, should we attempt to describe the true nature of someone we love, we often become “tongue tied.” Harry Chapin describes this condition rather well in his song, “A Better Place to Be.” When the hero first met the heroine he “stuttered like a school boy, and stammered out some words.” Stuttering and stammering is what occurs when the unspeakable tries to gain expression. What usually happens next is that we make a number of attempts at expression, even though each one seems much less than adequate.
The words might go like this (especially if we were a “romantic type”).”My beloved is like the north star, constant and bright.” But that doesn’t seem right, so we take another stab at it. Out comes something like, “No, she is like the sun which warms me all the day through.” That doesn’t quite do it, so we go off on a different tack with a reference to her physical appearance, “Her eyes are like limpid pools.” and so on. It may appear that we are failing, and for sure there is a feeling of frustration, but in fact we are beginning to communicate at a level beyond the literal words. The pattern we employ is instructive, for what we do is make a statement, and then just as it has been uttered, we take it back, or break it. She is like the North Star, not like the North Star, like the Sun, not like the Sun and so forth. What happens is that we take a particular image, push it just as far as it will go, until we have all but drained it of meaning. Then at the last moment we throw it away, pick up another image, and repeat the process.
Using this succession of images in a state-break pattern, we effectively create a pool of meaning, an open space, in which (if we are any good) the reality of our beloved appears. But note that the reality of the beloved appears not in the statement, but rather in the moment when the statement is withdrawn. Thus our listener is sent in a direction we want to utilize (North Starness), but before that image can be taken as a literal statement, it is broken. Obviously, the literal meaning of our statement would do us no good, and indeed it would actually inhibit the possibility of communicating what was in our mind. Reduced to rather an absurd level, we could scarcely elicit in the mind of our listener the subtle beauty of our beloved, if the listener were busy getting out his sexton in order to take a directional sighting. Literalism here, as elsewhere, is an impediment to the manifestation of Spirit.
The effective breaking of mythos occurs when those responsible for the tale consciously and intentionally break it at the peak of its expressive power. Just as one story seems to perfectly express the Spirit and intention of the organization, a new one appears to overwhelm and extend the prior version, and thereby drive the expression of Spirit in new directions, to new heights. Under these circumstances, the experience is one of being on a “roll” as opposed to the fitful and shattering experience when mythos is destroyed by literalism.
An example of this sort of intentional “breaking” occurs when a master teller of jokes weaves his magic and drives his listeners to a level of mirth where catching the next breath seems almost impossible. The “roll of laughter” is not created by telling one joke alone, but rather in the careful (artful) sequencing of jokes so that just as the first has achieved its full impact, the second is already on the way. By varying the content and intensity of each joke, and beginning the telling of the next one at precisely the right moment, the teller maintains careful control over the quality, level and power of Spirit. The net effect is that the crowd is left gasping for breath and tears run down the cheeks.
Telling jokes may not appear to be appropriate to the serious business of handling the organizational mythos, although the truth of the matter is that mythos often appears in the form of humor, and in fact the organizational jokster can be enormously helpful to the growth of Spirit. But all of that aside, the methodology of the humorist is very much to the point, and constitutes an essential tool for leadership. Rather than waiting for the environment to break some particular version, effective leadership moves intentionally to shatter the old story, thereby creating the Open Space in which Spirit may transform into something new and more powerful. Obviously this is delicate business, and not to be entered into lightly, but done well, the Spirit is released.
Russell Ackoff tells a story which well illustrates this approach.(15) It seems that Ackoff was doing some work for Bell Labs. As Ackoff walked in the door, the client said he was terribly sorry, but that the director of the labs had just called a meeting and everybody was expected to attend. However, should Ackoff want to come to the meeting, he was welcome to do so, but he must remain inconspicuous and pretend that he was a new employee. As far as the subject matter of the meeting, nobody knew, it was just “a word from on high” that attendance was required coupled with the implication that the occasion was important, serious and perhaps ominous.
Ackoff and his client left the office and joined the stream of people heading towards the large auditorium. It was quickly apparent that everybody was there or arriving very quickly. It was equally apparent that nobody had the faintest idea of what was about to happen. Conversation was muted, and the atmosphere verged on being thick. At precisely the moment that the meeting was scheduled to begin, silence descended over the rear of the hall, and spread forward in the wake of the director, who strode purposefully down the center isle, looking neither to the right nor to the left. The physical appearance of the director did nothing to dispel the tension, and Ackoff relates that the face of the man looked like one who stood at the edge of war, or worse. When the director reached the front of the auditorium, he turned to stand in front of the podium. Gripping the sides with each hand, he stared down for a moment, his face a dark cloud. The moment lengthened, and the silence intensified. Just as it seemed no longer bearable, the director raised his head and looked directly at his audience. In slow measured tones he said, “Gentlemen, the Bell System was destroyed this morning, and our task is to build it totally anew.” He paused for a moment, and then continued before the inevitable “buts” could even form on the lips of his startled listeners. “For the next year, we will assume nothing from the prior system. We will be guided only by an intent to create excellent communications within the limits of technical possibility. We will start now.” And he left.
What happened next is now a matter of history, for in the Open Space created by the conscious breaking of the old story there emerged a number of wonderful ideas which we now take as common place, for example the “Touch-Tone” phone.
It is significant that the director of Bell Labs did not wait until the old story of the laboratory had lost all of its punch. Indeed, from all I can tell, the Lab at that point was doing good work, and its story was as strong as ever. A less courageous or less knowledgeable leader might well have been tempted to wait until things were going down hill. Or even worse, might have attempted to freeze things just as they were. In fact, the leader acted at the decisive moment to break the old story (the phone system as it was, was destroyed) and powerfully invite those in his charge out into Open Space that freed their Spirit to pursue fulfillment in a host of new areas.
Mythos Broken by Itself Not all organizations are lucky enough to have leaders like the director of Bell Labs. And even such outstanding leaders may not always function with such decisive courage. For this reason, it is fortunate that mythos may be broken in yet another way, through an internalized self-destruct mechanism which is constantly pushing the story beyond any particular limited, finite mode of expression. When mythos comes “equipped” with such a self-destruct device, the organization discovers that its own story is perpetually driving (leading) the Spirit to new and more powerful expressions of itself. In a way, the organization is then on “auto-pilot.” This does not mean that there is no role for leadership, for even the organization on “auto-pilot” needs fine tuning and midcourse corrections. The “auto-pilot,” however, serves a much needed function when, for whatever reason, leadership is incapacitated.
It may occur, for example, that the leader will become so invested in a particular version of a story that he or she no longer has the ability to put that one down, and move on to the creation of something new. At that point, the organization will lie dead in the water, waiting for literalism to do its work or for the leader to eventually understand that the old story is no longer functional. In either event, the growth of Spirit is retarded, and may even be derailed. This “self destruct” device is an integral part of the story which honors or institutionalizes the process of breaking.
For example, part of the mythos of the Peace Corps is the “Five-Year Rule” which states that no individual will serve more than five years either as a volunteer or staff.(16) Concretely, this rule requires a constant turn over of personnel, which means that in essence the “story” is in an on going state of evolution. Managers from other parts of the government or the private sector perceive the rule with some dismay, for it seems to destroy organizational memory and play havoc with coherence. Both of these perceptions are correct, but my experience as an associate director in the Peace Corps led me to believe that the advantage gained outweighs whatever liabilities, for it has meant that the essential Spirit of the organization is always being cut loose in order to appear in different and more useful ways. The fact that the Peace Corps has managed to survive through widely disparate political administrations, some of which were overtly hostile to the organization, is attributable in no small part to this strange rule. It has also meant that no director (leader) has ever, or will ever be able to “freeze” the story in a particular form, no matter how elegant that form might be.
The Peace Corps is not alone in possessing such a self destruct device; a similar mechanism is to be found in our national story as represented by the Constitution which requires a changeover of office holders every two, four, or six years. There are of course those who find this passage unsettling, and who would prefer to maintain some old story by what ever name (New Deal, Fair Deal, New Frontier). But the story itself as we experience it will not permit such rigidity. This has meant a continuing evolution (transformation) of our national Spirit, mercifully spared the total dissolution which periodically occurs among people who’s story does not permit such renewal, for example, in dictatorships.
A classic case of the presence and operation of the “self-destruct device” appears in the mythos of the Christian organization. At the center of the christian story is a tale of one man (Jesus) who fulfills his destiny by living, dying on a cross, and then according to the tale, being resurrected. Leaving aside all considerations of historicity, which have no place in the understanding of mythos, it is apparent that the central tale of christianity is constantly driving towards Open Space and renewal. To be sure, there are those who would see this story primarily in terms of the philosophical statements, ethical precepts or daily activities of this man, but all of that is really useful only to set the stage. Each of these elements, and all of them collectively serve to garner the attention of those who hear this tale. In short, they make it real because on some level it is familiar, and seems to ring true to life. But that is just the start, for even as the hearer (believer) becomes involved in the story, it turns out that the whole point is not some new philosophical or ethical system, but rather death on a cross.(17) The story itself then breaks itself, and drives the believer into the open space wherein the Spirit may once more be reconfigured and transformed.
Over the ages, the Church, as institution, has often sought to freeze the story and confine the believers to one true way. Yet for all of these efforts, which at times have become bloody and violent, as in the Spanish Inquisition, the essential story continues to drive onwards towards renewal. The Achilles heel of the Church is in fact its salvation, for each Sunday it “celebrates the Mass” which is quite simply the re-presentation of the life, death, and resurrection of the central hero. Those who would stop the story, eliminate the change, and thereby stay the course of the Spirit in transformation discover that it is the story itself which is constantly opening the door to the new.
In Judaism there is a similar occurrence represented in part by the total sweep of the Torah. Those who understand Torah to mean simply “law” are literally correct, but if it is law, it is a living law. More accurately it is the story of the Spirit of God leading his people on a journey towards fulfillment. Each time people thought they had arrived, the Spirit moved on and required some new effort, some new way of being, and the End (telos) is still ahead.
In addition to the Torah, the mythos of Israel also contains the Prophets, the collected words of a most unlikely and uncomfortable crew. It is common to view the words of the Prophets only in terms of condemnation for sins past. And indeed, there is no little amount of that, but the real prophetic yardstick is not so much the abrogated standards of the past, but rather the unfulfilled potential of the future. In a word, the prophets call on the people of Israel to become everything that they could be, and point out the difference between what they are, and what they might become. From this perspective they condemn present action, and just as the people of Israel find themselves getting comfortable with the way things are, the prophets break the mold and goad them towards the fulfillment of their destiny.
In many ways, the Prophets of Israel are the prototypical organizational rebels. They speak from within the organization, out of love for the organization, but always with the sense that the organization and those who own it, has yet to fulfill its potential. A unique thing about Israel (and also Christendom) is that the words and person of the prophets have been internalized within the mythos. So it is that mythos for both of those Organizations is constantly ill at ease with the way things are, and always open in principle to some new expression of Spirit.
To conclude this part of our discussion, I would only note that the breaking of mythos, whether by the leader, or through some internal self-destruct device, is essential to the process whereby mythos becomes the medium or mechanism through which Spirit in the organization is imaged in the course of transformation. At the moment of breaking, Spirit is re-presented in open space, unconstrained by the barriers of literalism, and ready to continue the journey.
The Renewal of Mythos To the extent that mythos is alive and well in the organization, those who participate in that organization will perceive the moment of breaking as a real moment of release. Their desires for the fulfillment of their Spirit will be acknowledged and encouraged. But they will also experience the moment of breaking as fearful, for if the story has been a good one, they will once again have encountered the awesome open spaces through which the organization has moved. All of which means that the life cycle of mythos can not end with breaking. Mythos completes its life cycle in renewal. Precisely what form the “renewed mythos” will take depends in large part on where the organization is in its own transformational journey. But regardless of form, the effect will be to infuse mythos with new meaning which has been gathered (perceived) during the time of breaking under the conditions of open space. Essentially what occurs is that, as the individuals participate in the story and its breaking, they discover that Spirit has been freed to explore new possibilities, as for example in Bell Labs. The experience of exploration and the new possibilities discovered are now added to the story and become part of mythos. Thus it may turn out that the actual form of the story (mythos) is relatively unchanged, only now (post breaking) it is perceived as being much broader and deeper.
For the people in Bell Labs it may be presumed that their basic story remained the same after the meeting in the auditorium. Should someone ask “What is it like around this place?” the answer which might emerge from the common mythos would go something like, “We do research, and some very basic research.” The answer would probably not be much different than before. But now there is an added dimension, which might or might not be mentioned, to the effect that our research carries us right up to the edge of things, even to the point of imagining that the system we had always taken for granted is no longer in existence. Same old story, but with profound new meaning.
Given a different organization in a different time and place the effective change in the form of mythos may be infinitely greater. For example, in the on going saga of AT&T, we have lived through the old story when they were “the phone company.” That story, as we know, was shattered along with an “interim tale” they told about being the “knowledge people.” As of the moment, they are “reaching out,” which says basically they have gone back to the drawing boards. What the new story will be neither we nor they have any way of knowing. But we may be sure that however it turns out, it must acknowledge the truly significant past of the organization while simultaneously establishing the direction for Spirit in its new manifestation. In the event that they do not make it, their mythos, in all of its forms, will simply add to the pile of detritus composed of ancient tales from another age. In any event, the mythos of AT&T will continue in its unique function to image Spirit either as a living reality or an historic curiosity.
THE ROLE OF MYTHOS: SUMMARY
The role of mythos relative to the transformation of Spirit is threefold. In the first place, mythos is the record of transformation. As record, mythos maintains the memory of past transformative events in the life of the organization. In this role, mythos formally appears as “history” with a listing of the significant happenings and personages. But the intent of mythos is not just to talk about what transpired, but rather to create the conditions under which those prior journeys of Spirit may be experienced. The importance of mythos in this role lies in the fact that to the extent the organization and its members have experienced the prior transformations, they will be relatively more prepared to deal with future transformations. While no transformation is without pain or fear, it is also true that having some prior knowledge of, and experience with the process is tremendously helpful in terms of knowing what to expect.
The second role of mythos is as the agent of transformation. By virtue of the fact that mythos is constantly in the process of being broken (or breaking itself), it is present in the consciousness of the organization as an uneasy phenomenon. Just as everybody has become accustomed to the tale, it shifts and exposes some new area of meaning. This ongoing shifting continually creates new open spaces which invite the Spirit of the organization to consider new forms of expression (manifestation). The organization may or may not accept this invitation, but the fact of its existence keeps the possibility of new transformations always in view. Mythos, therefore, is an unsettling reality in the life of any organization, and it is not surprising that organizations will attempt to tame mythos by “cleaning up” the story, and making it appear that the “final tale” has been told. To the extent that the organization is successful in this effort, the final tale will in fact have been told, and the organization will be well on the way to extinction.
Lastly, mythos may be transformative itself. This occurs in the midst of the process of transformation, when events pass with such rapidity and power that they appear to exist out of time, or more exactly, they define time. Clock time (greek chronos) is replaced by kairos or meaning-filled time, which in turn defines time for the organization. Such moments appear as the “great divide” against which all other happenings are judged as in “before the merger” and “after the merger,” “before Christ” and “after Christ,” “before Moses” and “after Moses,” “before divestiture” and “after divestiture.”
At transformative moments the happening is the story and the story is the happening, and there can be little if any separation between the two. Transformation and mythos are united, but only momentarily.
MYTHOS, LITURGY AND COVENANT
When mythos is deeply and continuously integrated into the life of a people, that is liturgy. Under optimal circumstances there is no distinction, for the story (mythos) and what the people do everyday is equivalent. Under these conditions, the Spirit of a people (an organization) is coherent and powerful, accomplishing the tasks at hand with high levels of effectiveness. Each moment of the day and all aspects of the environment (all human time and space) tell the tale and do the job.
The emergence of liturgy as the custodian of time and space, and the shaper of Spirit may appear as an unconscious event, outside of our normal awareness. However, as we noted previously, the creation of liturgy can also be a highly intentional undertaking. To the extent that we would exercise responsibility for the shape and effective flow of Spirit, such conscious “liturgy-making” is much to be desired.
If the raw ingredient of liturgy is mythos, the elements for liturgy-making are form and structure. Form is the way we do things, as in the phrase “that is good form.” Structure is the delineated field of operation within which things get done. To be effective, both form and structure should accord with and be expressive of the essential story — which is in turn, the image and channel of Spirit.
The real purpose of form and structure is to make explicit and almost automatic, the proper flow of Spirit. Thus when we speak of organizational form and structure, we are talking about those elements which take care of ordinary business, and remind us how things ought to be done. We structure the corporate year in terms of finances, planning and production; and within that structure, we expect that people will observe a certain form. Thus IBM does its planning in a way that seems good form to IBM, and so with AT&T, and the corner grocery store. By doing all of this, we effectively create the unique time-space sense for any particular organization.
At some point in the life of an organization this special sense of time and space, form and structure, will be given formal verbal expression. Initially, this expression will be very sparse, limited to some general agreement on how things ought to get done around here. Over time, the expression will become more detailed, eventually constituting a sort of rule book for liturgy, otherwise known as policy and proceedure manuals, tables of organization, and the like. This rule book for liturgy is what I call the Organizational Covenant.
The covenant is very useful for establishing an orderly approach to business in the life of an organizations. But it can also become inordinately restrictive, and instead of making life meaningful, it becomes stultifying and crushing. At such a time, it is necessary to break the covenant, and allow Spirit to flow in new directions, creating new forms — which is what transformation is all about.
In the amalgam of liturgy and life, time and space are shaped to conform to the nature of the Spirit, while Spirit is molded by the special liturgical time and space. We in the West might appear to have thrown all that off, and in some sense gone beyond the constraints of liturgy. At least it is certain that we have moved beyond the liturgical expressions of Christendom, except in a few residual areas. We still celebrate Christmas, but it is scarcely the Christmas of classical Christianity.
This move on our part represents a good news/bad news situation. To the extent that we are no longer a part of the liturgy-life constellation of classical Western Christianity, we have been freed to experience (think about) time and space, and what goes on there — in some very different ways. Our time-space is increasingly that of the quantum and deep space described by Einstein, Heisenberg et al., as opposed to the time-space of Newton and before him, Copernicus. By the same token, we are beginning to perceive the world less in terms of Christian time-space as opposed to all others (the “saved and the heathen”), but now in terms of the unity all time-space in the family of man, linked by the commonality of consciousness.
But there is bad news too. As we have moved out from the particular liturgy of Christianity, our Spirit, sense of meaning, self-understanding (collective and individual) has become more diffuse and less focused. This has yielded high levels of anxiety, potential for meaninglessness and loss of direction. There are those, who perceiving these conditions, recommend a return to the old liturgy on the grounds that we are a “Christian nation,” and therefore should have prayer (Christian prayer) in the schools and the like. Fortunately or unfortunately, we are no longer a “Christian nation,” nor is there any likelihood that we ever will be again. We are an emerging planetary society, living in the age of “parenthesis” (Naisbitt), with all the richness and confusion that implies. We stand in the Open Space.
However, just because one expression of liturgy is no longer binding (powerful), this does not mean that liturgy itself is not valid, present or useful. In fact, liturgy is alive and well, and continues to function wherever human Spirit is coherent and strong. Indeed, powerful organizations all have effective liturgies — expressed through planning cycles, production programs and the daily round of corporate (organizational) life. Liturgy is, as it has always been, — the union of mythos with real life experience. Liturgy is what the people do.
That there are many liturgies at the moment is not surprising. Whether or not there shall ever be one liturgy for all of mankind remains to be seen. But if we are ever to realize the full power of our common humanity, a common liturgy will be essential. The opportunity before us is perhaps different than we as a species have ever confronted before. For it lies within our power to consciously and intentionally create our liturgy and our life. The attendant risks are enormous, for the power involved is immense. Given the prior history of mankind, it is quite likely that the few will seek to gain control over the many, at the risk of all. Yet we cannot remove the risk; liturgy comes with the territory, our planet and our humanity. This risk may be mitigated to the extent that the many (all of us) become aware of the power and operation of liturgy, so that the few cannot darkly create a world for their own ends. But the risk remains, and the choice is ours.
1. 1 This understanding of myth as the marker or medium of Spirit is part of a long tradition, described by a large body of literature. The reader interested in pursuing the development of this tradition could do worse than to start with C.G.Jung’s “Symbols of Transformation” (Bollingen Series/Princeton University Press, 1956). A parallel tradition, emerges from the fields of anthropology and mythology, beginning possibly with Frazer’s “Golden Bough,” but in the present day powerfully represented by Joseph Campbell in such works as “The Masks of God,” (four volumes, Viking Press, 1962). Most recently, the work of Ken Wilbur (particularly “Up From Eden,” Anchor Press, 1981) has provided an extraordinary synthesis.
2. 2 Cassirer, Ernst; “The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms”, Vol II, Yale University Press, 1955 pg 3.
3. 3 See Edward T. Hall, “The Silent Language”, Doubleday, 1959.
4. 4 See Kathleen Kenyon, “Digging up Jericho”, Ernst Benn, London, 1957)
5. 5 See Collingwood, R.G., “The Idea of History” Oxford, 1946
6. 6 There is of course some thought and evidence that mythos actually begins much before the origin of any particular organization in the collective unconscious of the species (Jung) and that it first “sees the light of day” as an activity of the right brain.(See Julian Jaynes, “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind”, Houghton Mifflin, 1976.) Such ideas are interesting and appealing, and certainly should be discussed in any broader treatment of mythos. For my purposes, however, I think such discussion would only add another layer of complexity to an already complex subject.
7. 7 The principles operative here have been studied and described by folklorists and others concerned with the development of oral tradition. For a brief introduction to this work, particularly as it applies to biblical material see Eduard Nielsen, “Oral Tradition”, SCM Press, 1954
8. 8 “Manipulation” is a red flag for many people, but I use it here intentionally. Webster’s 7th defines this word as follows, “to manage or utilize skillfully.” Of course, manipulate can also mean, ” to control by artful, unfair and insidious means.” The primary definition is what I have in mind, but the second definition is a useful reminder that the very same approaches can also be used for nefarious ends.
9. 9 One of the best examples of this on a worldwide basis is the so called “Hero Story” which emerges with infinite variation around the world. See Joseph Campbell’s “Hero with a Thousand Faces,” Bolligen Series, Princeton Press, 1949.
10. 10 The literature on this subject is enormous, and appears in many fields including Anthropology, biblical studies, psychology, linguistics and, I am sure, many more. What I have presented here barely scratches the surface, but I believe it is sufficient to set the stage for our discussions. The generalities which I have provided are based in part upon that literature, but in large measure derive from my own observations of organizational mythos as it grows.
11. 11 For a short description of the development of the Canon see “The Interpreters Bible” Abingdon, 1955, Vol I, pg 32ff.
12. 12 It is interesting to note that in responding to the challenge of positivistic science, the fundamentalist ends up adopting the strategy of the enemy. If truth can only exist in objective, palpable form, the fundamentalist is ready, for the truth of life is now objectively stated on the printed page (of scripture.) As life moves along its evolutionary journey, the presence of such certainty is enormously useful; it guarantees stability and the preservation of life as it has come to be known. The cost, however, is not inconsiderable, for boxed within such a rigid story, each and every twist and turn in the environment at large constitutes a threat and a danger. This means that ever greater efforts will be made to resist such change. A major example is the Christian fundamentalist’s reaction to evolutionary theory being taught in the schools. As strange as it may seem to the rest of us, this is not a trivial issue, nor can it be dealt with on a rational basis, for the shared foundation of rationality (a common mythos) does not exist.
13. 13 The institution was the Veterans Administration which is the largest single provider of health care in the United States. My “students” were aimed not only for senior positions within the VA but elsewhere in the industry, and came with such backgrounds as deans of schools, head of congressional relations for a large federal agency.
14. 14 The same may be said for our nonverbal capacity, but all of that is rather difficult to represent on the printed page.
15. 15 I have only heard Dr. Ackoff tell this story, and whether or not he has written it down somewhere, I don’t know.
16. 16 The actual rule is a little more complicated, but this statement will do for our purposes.
17. 17 As a matter of fact, there is very little of the recorded thoughts of Jesus as we have them in the New Testament, which may not be found in whole or in part in the sacred literature of Israel.