Integral for the Masses: “ Myth and the Integral Leader”

Keith Bellamy

Keith BellamyA fundamental tenet of Integral Theory places the role of myth at an early stage of development both individually and collectively.  Those who allow myths to dictate and dominate their lives are deemed to be operating at a pre-rational level of cognition.  One of the major criticisms of the New Age Movement is that it has resurrected the myths of ancient times and posited them as being the answer to all that ails us in these post-modern times and beyond.  But what if myths were not just a manifestation of a previous time, but fundamental to our psyche and necessary to both survive and thrive?  How does the aspiring Integral Leader truly transcend and include myths in today’s world?

I have recently had the privilege of spending my afternoons in the waiting room of the radiotherapy department of our local hospital as I have acted as unofficial chauffeur for my mother.  Sadly, she has developed cancer and is currently undergoing a fairly aggressive regime to counter the disease.  I have to admit that I first entered the waiting room with a certain degree of trepidation expecting to meet with a group of extremely sad and despondent individuals.

I cannot remember when I have been so wrong in my expectations; the room was filled with more laughter and jollity than I have experienced in a long, long time.  As everybody is on a daily regime of treatment, I see the same faces day in day out.  What strikes me most about this enforced collective is the passion that they display in everything that they do when they are together.  It is as if they have heard the message passed down by the spiritual masters of all traditions that they should live each day as if it were their last.

After about 3 days of attending these clinics, my mother asked me whether I thought that she was looking any better.  After joking that she was receiving radiotherapy, not plastic surgery, I turned the question around and asked her whether she thought that she was feeling better.  Her response was an unequivocal “Yes!  Now that we are actually doing something to fight the cancer I feel much better about it.”

This response from my mother took me aback a little, but as I considered it more fully I had one of those blinding glimpses of the obvious for which I am increasingly grateful.  I started to realise the role that myth continues to play in our psyche and its importance to our achieving great things both individually and collectively.

“Whoa!” I hear you gasp, how does he make the leap from his mother’s response to determining the importance of myths in today’s world?  Let me take you down the path of my perverted logic and the ultimate conclusions it implies for those who are struggling to be Integral Leaders facing up to the challenges of complexity that present themselves each and every day.

My mother and her new found colleagues in adversity are undertaking a course of action that is underpinned by a modern day myth.  The belief that introducing copious amounts of toxic chemicals and bombarding, even in an ever so precise way, portions of one’s body with highly radioactive particles in the belief that it sometimes leads to a cure is a modern day myth.

The ‘science’ used to underpin the theory is extremely dubious.  The effects of the treatments are in most cases far more debilitating than the disease itself.  Most importantly, the results, if studied properly, indicate that the probability of success is extremely limited.  Yet the wonderful group of people that I am spending my time with these afternoons have the same passionate belief in what they are doing as the ancient Greeks had in the powers of the deities upon Mount Olympus.

And sometimes it does work.  And the reason that it works has nothing to do with the pompous claims of the pharmaceutical companies making the drugs or necessarily the compassionate explanations made by the doctors, nurses and other specialists treating the patients.  It works because the patients themselves believe in it and by so doing alter their attitude and approach to life.  This, in turn, removes the blockages that stop these complex adaptive entities we call bodies from doing what they are set up to do in the first place—self heal.

That’s the beauty of myths.  They act to alter individual and collective consciousness and as a consequence raise the possibility of what is possible.  It is shortsighted to dismiss the role of myths and mythology to a time gone by or a stage of development.  Within the Integral movement, we readily proclaim the war cry of “transcend and include,” yet quite often we are seeking to “transcend and ignore, suppress or ridicule those aspects that don’t fit neatly with the world we are trying to describe.”

For the sake of clarity, I will use the term neo-myth to differentiate between the stories of gods and heroes from ancient cultures and the new mythology that permeates today’s society.  It is my contention that any Integral leader worth his or her salt, needs to not only acknowledge the importance of neo-myths and neo-mythology, but utilise the power of that these stories have in achieving any transformational objectives that the leader may have.

In my experience, nowhere is the neo-myth more prevalent than in the modern-day Enterprise and workplace.  As collectives evolve through their own particular stages of development they enter an equivalent of the “tribal” stage as described by Spiral Dynamics.  During this phase of collective development, the neo-myth provides the glue that helps to hold things together and forms the basis for the social capital that is part of the Enterprise’s long-term growth.

One consultancy I used to work for was just approaching its 10th anniversary as I joined.  In the build up to the planned celebration many stories were flying around about the early days, particularly the “days in Becky’s bedroom!”  It would appear that when the founders of the consultancy first started the Enterprise the only room that they had to meet was in Becky’s (one of the founder’s daughters) bedroom.  It was here that the foundations were laid that had led to the success of the firm.

One evening, I remember having dinner with a colleague from the Boston office, and after probably a glass of vino too many he started to recount his experiences at the firm and telling tales of his time in Becky’s bedroom.  It was only, when he let slip that he had been with the firm for less than a year and that the Enterprise had had no need to sequester Becky’s bedroom for over eight years that I realised that this individual had probably never seen the inside of said sleeping chamber (and if he had, then that was a completely different story).

He was completely caught up in the myth that helped to hold this Enterprise together.  At some level, he truly believed that he had been there and that is what enabled him to go out and deliver value to his clients.  The myth in this circumstance was acting as an enabler and, although not true, it did not behoove the founders of the Consultancy to disabuse it.

On the other hand, whilst working at an international bank, late one evening I encountered a colleague walking down the main corridor of power with a junior member of his staff in tow.  As he approached each door he knocked loudly, flung the door open and yelled, “No ‘they’ are not in here!”  or, “Is this where the ‘Bank” is?  So he continued until all the doors had been opened in said manner.

When I eventually caught up with him a few days later, I asked him what he had been up to that evening.  He explained that the young lady who was with him was one of his brightest and most able managerial trainees.  Yet whenever his team came up with any innovative or creative ideas to help improve or transform the business, this individual, in a whisper, would say something like, “They won’t let us do it,” or “The Bank will stop us doing this!”

Because she was so bright and talented, it didn’t take too long before the whole team was swayed to her point of view and nothing new was happening in his business area.  On the night in question he was, in his own words, being St. George seeking to slay the dragon of “they” and “the Bank” once and for all.  He was desperately seeking to lay to rest a myth that was serving absolutely no purpose and was in fact detrimental to the business unit that he ran.

Neo-myths are of themselves benign and should not be perceived as inherently good or bad.  The Integral Leader needs to first acknowledge that it is virtually impossible to stop myths emerging even in communities of highly evolved individuals.  In the high pressure environments of today’s Enterprise rarely is there time to validate all of the stories that emerge and therefore quash the emergence of myths.

The challenge for the Integral Leader is to assess whether a myth adds to or detracts from the energy of the Enterprise and its ability to achieve its goals and objectives.  If the assessment that the neo-myth is having a positive influence than the leader should seek to maintain the benefits and even encourage the myth’s furtherance, although avoiding being necessarily directly associated with it.

On the other hand, if the neo-myth is having a damaging impact on performance, morale and the meeting of objectives, then the Integral Leader should have no qualms at slaying the particular dragon at the earliest opportunity.  Achieving the death of myth only requires the introduction of substantiated reason.  Sometimes, one myth is displaced with another myth to achieve the required change.

Nowhere, is this better understood (implicitly rather than explicitly) than in the healing professions.  Over time, practitioners of the Hippocratic oath have used a wide array of myths to facilitate the healing process.  Blood-letting, leeches, imbibing Mercury, full-frontal lobotomy to name but a few of the practices that have been used, backed up with a panoply of dubious evidence to substantiate a particular practice over another.

With each new myth comes new hope.  With new hope comes the potential to unleash the healing process.  Unleashing the healing process in some acts to reinforce the myth and create a virtuous cycle that shouldn’t be broken just because the facts allow you to do so.

I encourage you to take a couple of minutes to consider what myths influence your life for better or worse and what actions you might consider taking to dispel the negative myths whilst encouraging those of a more positive nature.