The Essential Myths of Leadership – By Don Lowe

Imagine one night in our sleep, people stopped believing in justice or the rule of law, and all the Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and Zoroastrians in the world stopped believing in their Gods. We might wake up to an anarchic and brutal new world order, and a global abundance of vacated, artefact-filled religious real estate. However, there would still be gravity, mountains, rain, trees, sunrises and sunsets, houses, streets, and a bounty of natural wonders that make up the physical world, whether we believe in them, or not. International commerce, national boundaries, laws, religion, cultural norms; these are all products of the human imagination, existing only as long as people believe in them.

We teach children to believe in things we know to be imagined: Santa, Easter Bunny, religious deities, the Tooth Fairy, to delight or protect them in a way we must believe the real world is incapable of. And we subscribe to our own myths, ranging from the imagined existence of fantastical creatures (for those who still believe in Santa), to an unshakeable faith in the existence of unworldly Gods. We live in a world filled with folk who identify, at times violently, with beliefs based on evidence that many might find questionable.

Our leaders are all incompetent.”

“It’s the job of our leaders to keep me safe from this virus.”

“That’s just Trump being Trump!”

“My God is the one true God, and unbelievers must be pitied or punished.”

 “Trickle-down economics will never work.”

 “We need to re-open the economy regardless of the virus.”

“Everything they say is a lie designed to promote their agenda.”

“If you’re good, Santa will bring you something nice for Christmas.”

So why do we subscribe to myths?

In an evolutionary response to threats and the need to enhance long-term species propagation, primates, including humans, have developed an innate capacity for socialising in family-based colonies. These groups offer a safe holding environment built around powerful instincts to gather, to cooperate and defend in the face of a threat, and to more effectively raise and support our young. However, research suggests that primate groups have an upper limit of around 150 – 200 members, beyond which instinctively-driven cooperation diminishes, conflict emerges, and communities fracture. Humans, however, have a capacity to align, organise and cooperate in massive cultural aggregations that go far beyond simple clusters of primate family groups. What is it that enables us to do this?

Historian Yuval Noah Harari, wrote, “Sapiens are relatively weak animals, whose advantage rests in their ability to cooperate in large numbers.”

It turns out, we need myths.

A unique aspect of humanity is our capacity for imagination and creativity. We can create narratives; visions and dreams of a world that doesn’t (or yet) exist. In other words, we are wired to create myths to serve an important purpose; to unite large, dispersed and diverse communities of humans in ways our ancient anthropological forebears could not.

Deep-rooted and widely-shared beliefs, real or imagined, are at the heart of every great achievement, movement or civilization, from the Mayan and Roman empires, to the emergence of the great religions of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and others, to the initially-improbable allied victory over the Nazis, on through the modern influence of the United States and China. These mighty aggregations of humanity all shared, and were uniquely characterised by, a belief in one or more unifying ideas such as capitalism; freedom, justice and equality; control and order; or a particular deity or God. The truth of the myth was less important than its broadly shared acceptance, after all, myths are self-evident truths to those who believe them, and once adopted, they form a significant portion of individual identity.

But as binding and comforting as our shared beliefs might be for those who hold them, they can also be powerful forces for division, conflict, and potentially for change. Enduring tensions exist between belief systems such as conservative versus liberal ideologies, the myriad global religions, centralised versus distributed economic theories, and democratic versus authoritarian political systems. The tension between competing beliefs, that we open the economy and accept the likely increase in COVID-19 illness and death, versus maintaining tighter social restrictions to minimise human suffering at the cost of greater economic damage, illustrates the capacity of our myths to simultaneously unite and divide.

Similar tensions emerge when a myth clashes with reality. Donald Trump’s declarations that the US COVID-19 outbreak was under control, contained, and would disappear ‘like a miracle’ were almost certainly part of a myth serving a powerful purpose for he and his followers, and one which crashed hard against the reality of the mounting US death toll.

It is perhaps more unsettling to wonder if some of our most primal myths are being challenged by ‘the wisdom in the system’. Is COVID-19 a ‘boomer-doomer’, necessary to reduce population-driven pressure on our planet? Can we sustain the belief that we must preserve our species at all costs? Are we wrong to believe that a strong economy is the sole essential precursor to all other large-scale human endeavour? We cannot know, but collective human progress requires a shared belief in something.

When, instead of uniting us, our shared myths divide us, clash with reality, prevent progress, or otherwise lose their utility, what resources do we have to move towards new ones? Few of our most powerful, binding myths are completely supported by objective facts, so it’s unlikely ‘truth’ alone will prompt adherents to discard or modify them.

How then, do we loosen our attachment to myths that have become part of us, but which no longer serve us?

We enter into a covenant, that we shall build a society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity: a rainbow nation, at peace with itself and the world.”

Nelson Mandela’s 1994

Nelson Mandela’s 1994 vision for a united South Africa was actually a product of extensive engagement with ex-Presidents De Klerk and Botha, his political rivals. This Nobel Peace Prize-winning achievement united factions that, until relatively recently, had engaged in generations of race-based hatred, violence, routine murder, and seemingly intractable differences. At the time Mandela voiced this new vision for South Africa, it was certainly a myth; not yet true, but able to serve the purposes of enough South Africans for them to loosen their grip on old, divisive myths. True or not, their desire to believe it was enough to bring it to life.

The division, conflict, fear and uncertainty we experience as old myths lose their capacity to hold us, signal opportunities for our uniquely human capacity to create, imagine and coalesce around new narratives that better serve our needs.

Is it time for a new myth?