- Arzhang Kamarei
Why Leaders Need a Chewbacca Story
The Problem: Say you’re a highly motivated startup CEO with a mission to change the world and industry. After much hard work, you feel like you’re finally on your Hero’s Journey. You’ve put in the hours, made the sacrifices, and have your company launched and running. You may have 50, 100, or 500 people working for you. But as you’ve grown, you’ve started to notice some personnel issues. Some of your managers seem to believe in the company’s vision, but they aren’t as ambitious as you. Instead of trying to change the world, they are focused on small problems and managing predictability. They can be sticklers about process, deadlines, and bureaucracy. Where is their entrepreneurship? Where is their urgency, intensity, and creativity? Don’t they see what’s at stake?
Why This Happens: In fact, it is quite possible that you are living in different stories! Simply put, if you are the CEO or a senior leader in your organization, you may be very caught up in a heroic narrative about the work your team is doing. But if you look closely, you may see that the main protagonist in this hero story is, in fact, you and you alone. Of course, your hero story may sound like “our company is going to save the world!” But who is the biggest implied hero in that story? It’s almost always the CEO. In other words, you may be the main character / hero of your corporate story and you may also be the main character or hero in their corporate story. And that’s not a very motivating story for them to be in, because you are hogging all the narrative!
Some of you may have heard about the Hero’s Journey (i.e., a call to action, a descent into an abyss of difficulty, and a glorious return with a magical solution) based on Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces. For years, business gurus have been peddling this myth for all sorts of business inspiration. For those who aren’t familiar with the Journey, consider the most common example: Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. Uncertain of his lineage and with this family murdered, Luke initially turns down the call to action from his mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi. Eventually, however, Luke goes on a terribly difficult mission to become a Jedi and save the universe. In fact, when business gurus summarize the Luke Skywalker narrative, there are very few characters that they mention, other than Luke, Obi-Wan, Yoda, Leia, and Darth Vader. That’s because these are the characters most closely tied to Luke’s personal emotions and heroism.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with a Hero’s Journey story. Marketing executives find it especially useful when applied to client psychology, i.e., figuring out how to position their brand to make potential customers feel like “heroes” just by using their products.
As a mission-driven business leader, it can feel very inspiring to align your business with a Hero’s Journey mission. What’s less cool is realizing that doing so usually makes you, and primarily you, the main hero of that story, amongst all the people who report to you. You may think you only care about your company’s victories and you may be very humble - but as CEO these company victories are also *your personal victories*. If you build the best product in the world, who is the bigger hero - you or your CFO? Who gets more credit, you or the office manager? Who gets richer? Doesn’t everyone in the company know this? Importantly, the main hero of the story almost always takes different risks and mindsets than the supporting cast because they have a different narrative payoff.
The fact is, if you want to powerfully motivate your team, you also need a compelling narrative in which they can see themselves as important characters. What you need is a Chewbacca Story.
Oh, yeah, that guy! There is a reason that very few retellings of Star Wars as a Hero’s Journey mention Chewbacca - he isn’t hugely emotionally central to Luke. But isn’t Chewbacca an incredibly important member of the team? Don’t we all love him?
You may note that in Star Wars, Chewbacca is rarely the one to take the most extreme risks, throw caution to the wind, or be the main driver of glory. Luke, Leia, and Rey take far more risk. Nope, Chewie is supposed to help deliver predictable results. That’s what your team is doing. And if some of your team members seem differently or under-motivated than you, you may want to ask: do they have a story that helps them celebrate and contextualize their work? Do you even *know* their Chewbacca Story?
The Solution: I have to credit my wife for the whole “Chewbacca Story” concept. Here’s how she described it. “Chewbacca gets to contribute in his own way. And he gets to feel good about it. And he isn’t the main hero, but he’s his own hero.” In other words, a Chewbacca story is a Hero’s Journey for the people who are contributing to your mission. What makes *them* feel special, how do *they* fit in? If you notice, Chewbacca doesn’t verbally speak English. The people who want to communicate with him, like Han Solo, learn to speak Wookie. Now, not everyone who relies on Chewbacca knows how to speak Wookie, but Chewie gets along best with the people who do. Chewie is one of the most selfless contributors in Star Wars but he *still* needs people who deeply understand him to integrate him into the team. Do you even know the Chewbacca Stories of your team members? Is your version of their story the same as what they would say it is?
Actual Steps: In order to build a Chewbacca (the silent, contributing employee) Story, you first need to get out of *your own* Hero Journey. Instead, consider one of your managers or employees. What story are they living in in which they are a hero, even if it’s only a supporting role like Chewbacca? If they are a Chewbacca-equivalent in that Hero’s Journey, ask yourself:
How are they helping with the big mission?
What makes their contribution special?
What resources, tools, and powers do they need to do their job well?
What are their incentives (rewards, punishments) for helping out?
What did you not appreciate about them as “Chewbacca” in this situation?
What portions of their history and dreams for the future are you ignorant of?
Do you “speak Wookie” (their language)?
Who is the Han Solo (team leader) in this situation and how do they treat Chewie? Is that more productive than what you do?
Why This Works: I’ve said it before, but we *massively* underestimate how much we neurologically live in stories. In fact, hearing a story can synchronize our brains with the storyteller and change our brain chemistry. Especially in mission-driven or aspirational roles, our stories are our reality. And, as a leader, one of your main jobs is to create narratives to motivate your staff. And this means more than just stories in which the “company” (read you) is the hero! The *first* step towards that is to get out of your own ego-driven hero story and get into someone else’s. The second step is to empower their hero story by giving them the empathy, roles, resources, information, tools, budget, and understanding to help save the universe also.
Especially if your managers are disappointing you, imagine that they may be Chewbacca-like. Try to see how you may be misunderstanding what story they are living in. Not everyone on the team can take the same risks. Help them succeed from *within their role in the story*. Han Solo chastises Chewie from time to time - so I’m not suggesting that you have to celebrate every little mistake your team makes. But it really helps that Han Solo speaks Wookie. Do you? Arrogant, entitled CEOs don’t bother to learn their employee’s stories.
Where You May Get Stuck: If you can’t see the Chewbacca Story amongst your staff, then you may need to take a step back and co-create it with them. That may require you to improve the value proposition you offer employees or you may need to write their Chewbacca story using a Persuasive Arguments structure based on Aristotelian rhetoric (see here). Of course, your managers may simply be bad and may need to be fired - I don’t want to take your valid concerns or even your gripes away from you. But it’s worth considering if your hero story is giving you narrative blindness that is hindering your leadership. In that case, you may need to stop being Luke Skywalker and try being Han Solo for a bit!