A couple of years ago, at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, a small group of researchers and writers conducted a scenario planning project on the risks and implications of the financial crisis. They developed two alternative future scenarios based on cultural myths—the prevailing attitudes and beliefs, often so deeply held that they are virtually invisible, that determine the decisions made by business and political leaders. One scenario suggested that the policymakers of the future would follow an economic myth, seeking growth; another supposed they would follow an ecological myth, seeking the health of a larger, interrelated system.
Economics and ecology are only two of five myths that shape the world view of decision makers, says Betty Sue Flowers—the poet, television commentator, documentarian, and educator who brought this idea to the Oxford scenario planning team. The other three myths are heroic (seeking to win), religious (seeking goodness), and scientific (seeking truth through reason). When a company’s reputation sinks, politicians get into intractable disagreements, or a financial crisis unfolds, one common reason is a clash among these different perspectives.
Flowers is a uniquely qualified observer of the influence that mythic attitudes and beliefs have on current events. She saw the world of large-scale enterprise up close at Royal Dutch Shell PLC, where she helped draft many of the company’s influential scenario planning reports, and the world of big government at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum in Austin, Tex., where she served as director from 2002 to 2009. As a literature professor at the University of Texas, she edited The Power of Myth (Doubleday, 1988), the bound record of Bill Moyers’s six-part interview with mythologist Joseph Campbell, which was broadcast on PBS. Flowers met with strategy+business in New York to talk about myths, their implications for business and political leaders, and their link to resolving the financial crisis.
S+B: Why are myths such a powerful force in society?
FLOWERS: A myth is a view of the nature of reality, so prevalent that it goes unseen. Although myths are conceived by people, they can feel like they are the only reality, and they can become the context in which events are framed. The frame people follow then affects the judgments they make. The idea of business, for example, is a very powerful human creation, based on the economic myth: The best thing to do is to grow as large as possible. This myth is closely linked to the parental impulse, which is one of the most powerful impulses that human beings have. Asking “How do I take our product around the world?” is similar to asking “How do I raise a child to get into college?”
Of course, once children are grown, you let them go, but raising a product is a never-ending task. Over time, the danger of the economic myth is that it leads to single-line measurements of success, such as revenues, profits, and market size. Those will inevitably peak and decline at some point, because all systems have limits—and once they start to fall, they fall fast.
In fact, each myth has a limit that people caught up in it tend to fail to recognize. For example, if you look at the world primarily through the scientific myth, you believe in truth: that there is an absolute form of rational knowledge available to humanity, even if it hasn’t been discovered yet. You expect the quest for truth to overcome resistance, which you tag as emotional; you don’t realize how much people mistrust claims of truth.
The heroic myth translates every event into a winner triumphing over a loser; it makes people who follow it vulnerable if their side loses. The ecological myth says that the health of a whole system depends on complex interrelationships. It therefore tries to take everyone’s needs into account, which can lead to immense expense and gridlock. And the religious myth—by which I mean not a perspective that favors any particular religion, but an ideological belief backed up by religious fervor—argues that all dissenting views are dangerous and must be stopped. That view cannot be sustained in a multifaceted, complex world.