Leaders, brands, and heroic journeys

Leaders, brands, and heroic journeys

This past week, I did a book signing in the town where I grew up—Worcester, Massachusetts.  It was interesting, and great fun.  Two old friends organized the event, and several people I had not seen in many years were in attendance.  The crowd was an interesting mix of ages and origins, an engaged and lively group.

After I spent a few minutes talking about how the best leaders and the best brands communicate by telling their personal stories of identity, a few members of the audience asked questions related to this concept.  These queries got me thinking again about the mythical Hero’s Journey and its power to motivate.

In essence, outstanding brands and outstanding leaders inspire us by helping us feel more like heroes.  As Mark Twain, the famous American author and humorist, once said, “Great people make us feel we can become great.”  To me, the same is true of brands.

In fact, each time I consider these words of Mark Twain, they cause me reflect on a notion I have come to call “projection”.  Great leaders make us feel we can become great because they allow us to dream of a future with more challenge and meaning. They “project” us into a larger story, onto a bigger stage.

The most effective leaders are continuously crafting and living larger stories, for themselves and with their followers. Such leaders often inspire with heroic stories that give others a sense of belonging to a unique and exceptional group. Often, a leader’s most influential stories are the clear and simple visions of the future he offers to followers, portrayals so cogent and vivid that they transport the listener to a new reality.

We long for leadership stories that portray a meaningful future. One of the masters of this type of motivational discourse, this projection onto a larger stage, was Steve Jobs. When Jobs was their product champion in the early 1980s, the Macintosh team became a strike force to challenge the world, the ultimate heroic underdogs, taking on not only competitors but the nonbelievers inside Apple as well. They were a group of revolutionaries, insurgents, mutineers, iconoclasts. Jobs, their spiritual leader, raised the pirate flag outside the Macintosh building, and he called on Team Macintosh not only to invent the future of computing, but also to put “a dent in the universe.” Jobs’ discourse was extremely effective, since engaging followers means not only defining a shared identity that resonates with them, but also projecting them into a future bigger and more consequential than they had previously envisioned.

As do great leaders, great brands make us feel we can become great. In fact, we look for hero stories from our brands as much as we do from our leaders. As Steve Jobs did with the Macintosh team, the best brands make participants feel like heroes.

We long for brand stories that take us beyond the mundane. The most memorable brands take us on journeys; they let us dream of putting more meaning in our lives. Patagonia incites us to enter the realm of challenge and adventure. Nike tells us to act courageously and “just do it”. Starbucks invites us to explore the vast and exciting world of coffee. IKEA tells us that we can craft new things and take charge of our lives. All of these brands are projecting us into bigger life stories.

Great brands transcend the boundaries of a narrow product category and become protagonists for a larger cause. Nike, for example, extends itself far beyond building shoes and making apparel. They are advocates for the athlete, and for all of sport. As a protagonist for sports and the active lifestyle, Nike provides opinions on such issues as where sport is going, how athletes think, and how we should think and train as we try to achieve a personal best.

Brands such as Nike recognize that consumers live in an emotional world. Most people do not enjoy discussing the construction or technical merits of an athletic shoe. They get excited by last night’s winning goal or by their own aspirations for personal achievement.

Nike uses those emotions to project their community of fans and athletes into a world of dreams.

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