Monthly Archives: October 2011

Are "Hierophants" Really That Important? (McDonald’s Thinks So!)

Why Do We Need Hierophants?

Gandalf the Grey (later the Gandalf the White), Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda, and Professor Albus Dumbledore are all Hierophants. Mr. Miyagi, of Karate Kid fame (whether the first or second film release), is also a Hierophant. With this established, is a Hierophant something (or someone) that we really need – or is this just a nice artifact for certain film and story genres?

McDonald’s, a Fortune 500 company, certainly thinks that Hierophants are important.

A Hierophant is more than a teacher, coach, mentor, or guide – although he (or she!) is typically all of those roles. The “more than” is that the Hierophant is the means by which the traditions, “secret knowledge” (whether of spells or corporate plans), and values are transmitted from one leadership generation to another.

According to a Robert P. Gandossy and Nidhi Vermma, in “Passing the Torch of Leadership”, the implicit role of Hierophants is essential in ensuring that strong companies maintain their competitive edge. Quoting a study carried out by Stanford University researchers James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras, as described in their best-seller Built to Last, these two researchers found that companies maintaining a stellar performance and managing 20th-century endurance had one essential ingredient: a culture of succession management. In other words, internal Hierophants trained the next generation of leaders.

Further, as described by Collins and Porras, and summarized in this article:

Organizations that embrace a formal, ongoing, top-to-bottom succession process that is a fundamental part of the corporate fabric–what we call best-in-class succession management–have developed a key ingredient for long-term success, as Collins and Porras demonstrated.

Is this sound advice? McDonald’s, a Fortune 500 company, certainly thinks so. In a Fortune article on Why McDonald’s wins in any economy (August, 2011), author Beth Kowitt describes a culture instituted by CEO Jim Skinner, who created “Hamburger U,” McDonald’s management training facility. According to Kowitt:

This push for talent development may be Skinner’s greatest legacy at the company, which has 700,000 employees in the U.S. alone…

His push for in-house talent development creates a substantial pool of leaders-in-training:

[Skinner] requires that all executives train at least two potential successors — one who could do the job today, the “ready now,” in McDonald’s parlance, and one who could be a future replacement, the “ready future.” … Every year the executive team, including Skinner, reviews the top 200 positions in the company and the feeder pool, which means it ends up looking at about 400 people. “We talk about all of them,” says HR chief Rich Floersch.

This is an excellent example of the Hierophant notion internalized into corporate values and training. We pay attention to that where we put our money. Clearly, McDonald’s is putting both attention – and money – into internalizing the Hierophant role within its culture.

Who – and What – Is a "Hierophant"?

Hierophant – Leader of Leaders, and Teacher of Teachers

Those of us who’ve been following Unveiling: The Inner Journey – both reading the book and this blogpost – have probably wondered about this notion of a Hierophant. We never hear the term in any of our “leadership books.” The subject of “hierophants” is not covered in the Harvard Business School, or in the military’s leadership academies. So how can this notion possibly be important? And – perhaps most essential – how can it be one of our “core six power archetypes”?

For the longest time, the idea of a Hierophant puzzled me also. In fact, it was still something of a puzzle as Unveiling was going to press. I still hadn’t figured it out! But here, in a sort of “post-Unveiling epilogue,” a lot of the concepts I’d worked on earlier are becoming much more clear. And surprisingly enough, it was the work on the Hero’s Quest (and the Heroine’s, as well – see Chapter 6 in Unveiling, on that theme), that made the notion of a Hierophant much more clear.

Let’s start with one of the classic Hero’s Quest examples from Chapter 6; Mozart’s opera, The Magic Flute. The young hero, Tamino, seeks initiation into a “higher order.” He undergoes trials of initiation, overseen by the High Priest, Sarastro. At first, we might not have a good “felt sense” of Sarastro’s role, other than that he seems to be a necessary figurehead. But let’s move on!

Our next example (also from Chapter 6) is Luke Skywalker from Star Wars. Young Luke also goes through trials, much as does Tamino. He trains first with Obi-wan Kenobi, and later with Yoda. In Star Wars, this stage of training – of both learning and proving himself – is essential before the young hero takes on his true, defining challenge. But in the early stage, a teacher is essential. As a similar example, Mr. Miyagi is the necessary teacher in the Karate Kid movie series.

The same is true of young women, facing their Heroine’s Quests. Young Dorothy, in The Wizard of Oz, has Gilda, the Good Witch of the East, to guide her.

But is this consistent? Is this something necessary?

Let’s look at a few more Hero’s Quest stories. The Lord of the Rings is a great one. We have young Bilbo Baggins first in The Hobbit, and later Frodo and his hobbit-companions, together with warriors from men, elves, and dwarves. But throughout, we also have a certain special character – not Aragorn (who really is a Hero, joined in Quest with Frodo and the others). No, the character who deserves our attention is Gandalf. That’s right; Gandalf the Grey, later Gandalf the White.

One essential component of the Hero’s Quest – since it is really the Hero’s story – is that the Hero needs to be guided by his teacher, the Hierophant, in the early stages. Yet later, he needs to confront challenges on his own. Usually, the Hierophant is killed in this process – in order to make the Hero’s isolation during his final challenge most real and concrete.

During crucial portions of The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf is unavailable to Frodo and his companions; he sacrifices himself while fighting the ancient and fearful Balrog. Similarly, Obi-wan Kenobi sacrifices himself in a duel with Darth Vader, allowing Luke and other to escape. We’re seeing a pattern here; can we find another instance?

One of the greatest “mythological sagas” of our time is the Harry Potter series. We meet young Harry when he is only twelve years old, and is whisked away to Hogwarts to study magic. He meets the Headmaster, Professor Albus Dumbledore. In a manner similar to that of Obi-wan Kenobi and Gandalf the Grey, Professor Dumbledore dies in the last book – forcing Harry to have his final confrontation with Lord Voldemort on his own.

We see that the Hierophant is a powerful figure. He is essential to the growth and training of a young Hierophant. Often (but not always), the Hierophant sacrifices himself, although this is usually a plot device – and not a necessary Hierophant characteristic!

Our culture focuses on the drama of the young Hero/Heroine, in their respective Quests. We see, now, that the Hero or Heroine does not gain skill, insight, or understanding on their own. Before they go on to their “great challenge,” they must undergo training. The Hierophant is their teacher; their guide.

So in your own life, are you being a Hero/Heroine, or a Hierophant? Learning to see this distinction in yourself, and in those around you, will be the subject of the next blogpost!