In the first post of this series, I offered a high-level overview of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey, using The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien as a point of reference. Going forward, I hope to draw out some specific implications of the hero archetype and relate them to the path many seasoned change practitioners (my intended audience) follow as they come to terms with how they work with clients. In addition, I’ll offer some related questions that I hope will be worth pondering.

Here is the basic storyline: The hero pursues a series of adventures that takes her beyond the safety of her ordinary life in order to learn some vital lessons important to her and others. In the process of her odyssey, she leaves her status quo, evolves into a wiser person, and returns to share her insights with those who could benefit.

In this and the next four posts, I’ll frame my comments around four stages Campbell includes in his mythical Journey: Departure, Initiation, Slaying the Dragon, and Return. I have cast Sara, a change practitioner, as the protagonist who first struggles to break out of her perfunctory role, but who eventually earns her standing as a hero as she brings inspiration and enlightenment to other practitioners ready to embark on their own transformational quest.

Leaving the Familiar, Stepping Into the Unknown

Sara had become “comfortably numb” without ever knowing what happened. When she finished her master’s degree in organizational change, she was confident she had found her professional niche. The academic challenge had been interesting, but not overly demanding. She had a natural flare for connecting with people interpersonally, so she seemed a perfect fit for the role as an internal change agent.

Her first job was as the junior player in a three-person implementation support team for a small company engaged in numerous IT-related projects. She valued the field experience she received there but never felt that change management was taken seriously by line management. After two years, she left to join a larger enterprise. There, she led one of several transition teams who helped “integrate” companies her parent organization acquired.

This assignment was a bit more interesting. She had a chance to try out many of the diagnostic tools and intervention techniques she had studied in graduate school. Around the third year there, however, she became disenchanted again. Although she was allowed to cherry-pick from an endless menu of implementation approaches and models her company purchased, there was no reliable structure to what she and her colleagues did. She had been exposed to almost everything but had become highly skilled in almost nothing. Some of her more experienced associates were nearing retirement and yet were still generalists in the change business—they had never gained any deep expertise. This was not something she wanted to repeat.

Thinking the problem was that she hadn’t been properly placed in a large enough enterprise with enough serious change aspirations, she jumped at the chance when a headhunter called about a position as senior change agent, working directly for a CEO and his staff as they embarked on a grand paradigm leap for their organization. “This is as good as it gets,” she thought…and took the position.

Within two years, however, she was back in a new version of the same irrelevant routine. She spent most of her time: 1) trying to talk senior executives into taking their sponsor role seriously, 2) watering down what it would take to really change the culture so leaders wouldn’t become too uncomfortable, and 3) conducting training programs about managing change instead of actually helping execute deep transformational shifts.

There was something different this time, however; she wasn’t frustrated like she had been before. She had “come to terms” with what she reluctantly saw as the truth about being a change professional…and it was very different from the images she had conjured up in graduate school. She had slowly accommodated herself to a much lower standard than she assumed would be the case, back when she was filled with excitement about her chosen profession. The reality was harsh:

  • There was no urgency for change…only the rhetoric to suggest it.
  • There were no senior leaders willing to do what was necessary to fully realize the changes they had promised customers, employees, and the board…only executives who wanted change results, but lacked the courage or discipline to do what was called for to make it happen.
  • There were no true sponsors who were passionate about their transformation aspirations and who reinforced their declarations with meaningful positive and negative consequences.
  • There were no disciplined structures to replicate change success…only training programs and processes that looked good but that few people actually applied consistently.

Here she was, a credentialed, experienced change facilitator with numerous certifications and lots of scar tissue, yet she was worse than unfulfilled in her work—she had actually lost hope that her knowledge and skills would ever be used as she had envisioned. She couldn’t say for sure when it happened, but it was clear that, over time, her enthusiasm for making a difference had atrophied and was now flatlined. At some point, the vacancy left by a withered sense of purpose was replaced with cynicism and resignation. She felt like a victim of her career, rather than an active participant in it.

Doing “what she could” instead of “what was needed” had become so routine that the mechanical repetition of her actions first created frustration, then decomposed into compromise, and ultimately full-blown apathy and stagnation. Sara finally reached a point of unconscious negotiation with herself—“comfortably numb” was preferable to ongoing annoyance and disappointment.[1]

And then came the wakeup call.

What does it take to be roused from a long-standing lethargy? Some people never wake up. Those who do have their own unique requirements. For Sara, it was personal trauma.

Within a six-month period, she lost her last surviving parent and one of her siblings started cancer treatment. She was consumed with the emotions and activities associated with both of these tragedies for a long time. When both challenges finally came to resolution, she collected herself and returned to her professional routine. When she did, however, she found that she couldn’t just pick up where she had left off. She “officially” re-engaged with her work, but found herself exasperated and angry at the futility of it.

The anesthetized state that had allowed her to carry on with her unfulfilling change agent duties was receding. The emotional pain this triggered prompted her to question more than her work: she began second-guessing her marriage, her relationship with her children, her spiritual commitments, and her physical health. In general, she found herself in a sweeping examination of what she had done with her life and what she still needed to accomplish.

She was reluctant to admit to herself that, although she was exploring these things, she was terrified at the prospect of finding answers she didn’t like. However, comfortably numb had been replaced by uncomfortably agitated and there was no turning back. In a way, she felt that she was risking it all to probe beneath the crust of denial that had hidden her discontent, but she also had a sense that it would be even more precarious if she tried to ignore the increasing pain.

Over the next few years, she found different ways to address each of the other issues in her life—her marriage, children, health issues, etc. What we are following here is the discontent she experienced about her role as a professional change facilitator and The Hero’s Journey she embarked on in order to come to terms with it.

In this respect, the professional “departure” Sara pursued wasn’t about one day impulsively turning in her resignation and blindly running toward a new job. Her exodus was more about taking leave from the comatose state she had occupied for so many years. It wasn’t about changing locations, it was about changing her mindset:

  • She stopped being tolerant of poor sponsorship and unrealized aspirations.
  • She began to believe that her knowledge and skills deserved better clients with more sophisticated initiatives to implement.
  • She began to expect more from herself and those she served.

Sara departed from her complacency…a gutsy thing to do, given that her boss and clients were fine with the way she operated and couldn’t really relate to her sense of disappointment.

Slackness and “retiring on the job” were acceptable norms in the organization, creating a political buffer from personal accountability. More to the point, there was even camaraderie with other victims, because everyone blamed something or someone else for the lack of change success.

What is even more important, however, is that when Sara woke up from her uneventful, “going through the motions” existence, it didn’t mean that the indifference and alienation disappeared. It was actually the opposite…when she became acutely aware of how she was wasting her professional energy, her anguish increased.

Life didn’t get better during the Departure phase of the Journey. In fact, it became more uncomfortable. Instead of being insulated by passive indifference, Sara was now extremely aware of the unresponsiveness of her leaders, the detachment of those who were supposed to be proponents of transformation, her lack of wisdom to deal with these challenges, and the escalating futility at having so little impact.

When Sara left her status quo, she didn’t walk out the door. Instead, she woke up to the hollowness she had unknowingly suppressed for years. She didn’t lay all the responsibility on the organization, nor did she think that if she could just find the “right” place to work, all her problems would disappear. She didn’t begin looking for new clients in a different organization; she started examining how she related to herself and the clients she already had.

By the way, Sara’s departure wasn’t based on any self-assurance. She didn’t begin her search for a better professional path because she was confident of what to do differently and how to make the transition. She escaped from her current status because she couldn’t tolerate it any more. She hoped there was a better alternative but, for all she knew, it might have been just a fantasy to think that she could practice her craft at mastery levels while supporting clients who were as serious about orchestrating real change as she was about facilitating it.

Sara left the familiarity of her present state, not because she knew how to advance or in what direction to proceed. She left because she could no longer be a “zombie practitioner”— hypnotized by complacency, bereft of consciousness and lacking self-awareness, yet able to respond to requests to conduct meaningless activities.

How about you? Can you relate to any of Sara’s frustration? Listed below are some questions to consider, whether you are currently well into your Journey or only just beginning to realize you are no longer satisfied with the status quo.

  • What does being “comfortably numb” look like in your world?
  • Is it possible you (or some of your colleagues) have anesthetized yourself to the point that you no longer feel disappointment regarding what you have accomplished professionally, how much influence you have with sponsors, the quality and integrity associated with the change implementation work you perform, etc.?
  • Have you heard a wakeup call but been reluctant to heed the implications?
  • To what degree has victimization played a part in any disillusionment you feel (or have felt) about your change work?
  • To what degree has sovereignty played a part in avoiding or recovering from being a zombie practitioner?
  • If you fell into, but have already rallied from, operating as if “adequate” was all you expected from yourself, what was your wake-up call? What jolted you out of complacency? How did you conclude that demanding more from yourself and your clients was better than remaining in comfortable apathy?
  • To what degree did your true nature (Character) and how you conveyed it to clients (Presence) play a role in your “waking up”?

In the next three posts, I’ll explore implications and questions related to the Initiation, Slaying the Dragon, and Return phases of the Journey.

Go to the beginning of the series.


[1] Sara’s experience was similar to that of the metaphoric sapling in my series on cultivating character—being smothered and lost by the trunk that had developed to protect it.