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How prospective creative leaders experience their hero’s journey

How do prospective creative leaders experience their inner “hero’s journey” of undergoing a structured and creative training program in creative leadership? In collaboration with my colleagues Brian Hunt and Xavier Parisot (IKI-SEA, Bangkok University), I investigated this research-guiding question in a new research study titled “Creatively Developing Creative Leaders: Revealing the Inner Hero’s Journey.”

Last week, I presented our paper at the ISPIM (International Society for Professional Innovation Management) Connects Bangkok Innovation Conference in Bangkok. What exactly did we examine in our paper? And what findings did we uncover?

Research design of our study

In our explorative empirical research project “Creatively Developing Creative Leaders: Revealing the Inner Hero’s Journey,” we investigated the experiential, emotional journey of creative leader candidates undergoing creative leader development program. The said program is based on the Genius Journey method that I created for Thinkergy.

Our guiding research question was: “How did prospective creative leaders experience their inner hero’s journey of undergoing a structured and creative training program in creative leadership?” We used a qualitative research design to investigate this question.

Between 2012 and 2015, we collected data from five cohorts of learners at the end of a 12-week long training program in creative leadership. The program was offered as an elective course as part of a master’s in management program at a university in Bangkok, Thailand. We collected and extracted qualitative data from 35 participants (out of 102, thereby establishing statistical significance) about their personal experience of undergoing the Genius Journey program of creative leadership development. The aforementioned participants were primarily business professionals in their late twenties to mid-thirties from Thailand (55%) and a variety of ten other, mostly European, countries (45%)

In their essays, the learners answered open-ended guiding questions related to their inner hero’s journey at the end of a 12-week long creative leadership development program. To structure the responses, we adapted Campbell’s Hero’s Journey scheme (more on this below) as a guiding model to extract key themes from the qualitative answers.

Theoretical foundation of the study

The present paper is part of an ongoing research program on creative leader development and builds on three earlier research papers: 

  • In the first paper, I conceptually introduced Genius Journey as a new creative leadership method at the ISPIM innovation conference in Budapest in 2015. 
  • In the second paper, Brian Hunt and I outlined the contents and pedagogical design of the related creative leadership development program. I presented the paper at the ISPIM innovation conference in Kuala Lumpur in 2017.
  • Finally, in a third paper presented at the ISPIM innovation conference in Stockholm in 2018, we confirmed both the efficacy and creativity of the Genius Journey program from the learners’ perspective using a predominantly quantitative research design.

Our research program is theoretically founded both in the newly emerging domain of creative leadership development and in educational theories such as David Kolb’s experiential learning cycle. For this new research, we also chose Campbell’s monomyth theory (aka the ‘Hero’s journey’) as a framework to guide our investigation, including the formulation of subordinated research questions and a coding scheme to structure our data analysis. 

Introducing Campbell’s Hero’s Journey model

In his Hero’s Journey model, the American mythologist Joseph Campbell described the stages of a transformational journey taken by many heroes in the great stories of humanity (such as Odysseus, Moses, and even Lara Croft and Luke Skywalker). 

In a typical hero’s journey, an Average Joe receives a Call for Adventure to enter a strange new world, where he has to face and overcome challenges on the Road of Trials. Eventually, the hero has to master the Abyss — a defining challenge leading to a profound personal transformation (called the Metamorphosis). Finally, the hero receives the Ultimate Boon (a freshly uncovered, previously hidden talent, a gift, or a significant prize) as a reward before voyaging back home to Return the Boon (i.e., sharing the newfound know-how and skills with others, now as a master. of two worlds).

Revealing the inner Hero’s Journey of creative leader candidates undergoing the Genius Journey program

How do participants go through these experiential stages of Campbell’s monomyth model in the Genius Journey method of creative leader development? We present our findings along the key stages of the Hero’s Journey, thereby also quoting candidates’ feedback verbatim.

1. The Call to Adventure

We inquired why learners accepted the “call to adventure” and enrolled in a new creative leader development program. 30% were motivated by developing their individual creativity or creative leadership potential. Roughly 20% each either were attracted by the appealing course packaging and title, or wanted to develop themselves, or were “repeat customers” who took courses with me before. The chart below reveals the detailed break-up of the sign-up motivations as well as sample quotations exemplifying each category.

2. The Road of Trials

In the Genius Journey, the Road of Trials consists of 10 Destination Stops, at each of which the candidates encounter a disempowering mindset limiting their creativity, and a corresponding empowering mindset that supports the development of their creativity and creative leadership potential. The prospective creative leaders get a more in-depth, experiential understanding of these mindsets through exciting excursions to “special places.” At each stop, they also experience eight Genius Exercises that they then have to internalize, conceptualize, and apply at work and in their lives. 

Due to the sheer scope and richness of the data, we presented learners’ feedback on the different exercises and excursions as a separate attachment to our paper. The input from creative leader candidates suggests that on the “Road of Trials,” different learners love and loathe specific activities and excursions that lead them to an encounter with their abyss. 

3. The Abyss

In the Hero’s Journey, the Abyss is the moment of truth where the hero must overcome his nemesis. All previous steps lead towards this turning point, and all that follow will draw upon the essential empowerment gained from mastering this challenge. 

In the Genius Journey, the Abyss waits for each learner at one of the ten destination stops. Here, the creative leader candidates must confront the limiting mindset that most holds them back and overcome their limiting power. To probe for the Abyss, we asked each learner to comment on their biggest challenge during their Genius Journey in their essays. 

In our study, we found that all prospective creative leaders had to deal with their own personal “abyss.” The precise nature of their Abyss differed from learner to learner based on the unique mix of limiting attitudes and routines within each mind. Moreover, and as expected, each learner of the cohort encountered their Abyss at a different stop of the journey. For example, one learner noticed that he has become myopic and lost the power of his intuitive mind:

“I found stop 6 quite challenging at times. I believe my imagination to be quite good but when we did the exercises of laying down, closing our eyes and going on imagination trips, I simply wasn’t able to do it. I found it very difficult to see anything. I don’t really know why, as I used to be very good at these type of things.
However I believe that it might be related to watching too much tv & spending too much time on my cell phone or computer instead of reading. I am convinced that these means, as don’t require me to imagine anything while telling me a story, over a long time negatively impact my creative capabilities.”
 —Syrian Male 1 

Another learner encountered his Abyss at destination stop 2 (and the related stop 3) when confronting his worst enemy (his ego — and connected to it, his inner voice of judgment):

“Of course, I knew about the ego before and that it is present inside of me. But I didn’t realize to what extent it leads to a closed mind. It is the reason why I am very critical of myself and everything around me. This results in a very judgmental attitude. As soon as we reached stop 3 I started seriously thinking about – and changing – it.
I somehow realized now that my ego and my judgmental attitude are one of my main obstacles and challenges that prevent me from realizing my inner genius and from unleashing my creative leadership potential.”
—German Male 3

Yet another candidate had to overcome his Abyss already at destination stop 1 when visiting the “House of Horror”:

“My hardest obstacle was the haunted mansion. I lost my voice after joining the activity. This exercise almost resulted in having myself getting the hyperventilation problem in my breathing system. I learned the important thing that my real source of fear is not the ghost but it is the fear of the unknown. I get to learn this lesson in a very hard way. I finally realized that it all begins with the facing of the fear. If we did not start because of the fear, we will not learn or go anywhere since the beginning.”
—Thai Male 2

4. The Metamorphosis

The metamorphosis is the next step in Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, where the traveler transforms into a new, better, more advanced person. We reviewed the essays for evidence of personal transformation, which often happened in connection with overcoming one’s abyss. 

One creative leader candidate from Italy described her metamorphosis in vivid ways: 

“Another challenging experience I faced was during Stop 3, when at the beginning of the class, Dr.D made us notice the way we were sitting, focusing on our body language and its meaning.
I was then facing a very stressful and unhappy moment of my life, I didn’t like the way I was living my exchange experience and I reached the point the only thing I wanted was going back home. My body was showing that too, as I was ‘closing up’ instead of being open and willing to embrace diversity and novelty.
I was shocked. I have always seen myself as an extremely open-minded girl, however, back then I was being really pessimistic, close-minded and arrogant, by not giving this experience the possibility to change and improve.
When I realized this I decided it was time to change. I wanted to open up, and I can proudly say that I did. I started being more optimistic and relaxed, not letting any bad or stressful event bring me down. This helped me a lot changing my position toward life during that specific moment, and made it possible for me to live a totally different experience.”
—Italian Female 2 

Another prospective creative leader candidate from Germany describes a transformational moment at destination stop 2, when he realized the superficiality of an ego-driven society versus the importance of realizing one’s true self: 

“Suddenly I even started thinking critically about Facebook (that was somehow a Wow effect for me): Its main purpose for most of the people (including me) kind of became the nonstop seeking for approval from others. This may be a big flaw of our society. It can be related to object-referred power, which relies on external approval. But real power comes from inside.
Inner power is self-referred and can be seen as true power. Inner power is the power that draws people to you and makes them accept you as a leader. This mindset is very impressing to me and opened a novel insight into my personality. I took it away from stop 2.”
—German Male 3

Other candidates also reported transformational changes, such as this learner from Germany: 

“I think I changed a lot during my stay in Thailand; the Genius Journey helped me taking a huge step forward in my personal development and thus to my career and my overall happiness. I have an overall plan for the coming year and really looking forward to have an exciting year. I feel more self-confident than I can remember in my whole life and am more curious to unconventional methods in thinking outside the box with simplicity.”
—German Male 2

5. The Ultimate Boon

The ultimate boon represents a newly-found gift, reward, and prize that the hero gains after personal transformation. In the case of Thinkergy’s creative leader development program, the boon is represented by crucial learnings and newly acquired know-how, skills, and transformative experiences that learners take away from their Genius Journey. 

For example, one learner reported how the lessons of the Genius Journey helped her succeed in a tough interview: 

“I got an interview for a new position in London a few weeks ago. Before starting the Skype meeting with the HR manager, I forced myself to believe that I was able to compete for this position and that I shouldn’t underestimate myself. Besides, I remembered key notions taught in class such as believing in my ideas and dreams, daring to share my opinions, being self-confident and showing my true personality. I really tried to be positive and optimistic and I finally got the job.”
—French Female 1

Another learner shared how the course helped her manage her emotions through the active use of the body-mind connection: 

“By understanding the relation between body and mind, I now have the right tool to overcome my negativity, because by relaxing myself, stretching and exercising my mind and thoughts are now more positive, and I feel more happy and willing to keep working hard, if I get my “playing” time as well.”
—Italian Female 2

The ultimate boon of Genius Journey is increasing the likelihood that creative leaders experience a Eureka moment of breakthrough creativity. Interestingly, and despite the short duration of a 12-week long program in creative mindset transformation, a few learners provide credible accounts that suggest they experienced a personal creative breakthrough such as this learner reportedly had: 

“I had my business idea during my Genius Journey. It appeared, just as we even addressed in class, during a long conversation with a friend while walking from Khao San Road to Victory Monument.”
—Syrian Male 1 

6. Returning the Boon

As we collected the feedback at the very end of their transformational journey, the candidates did not have many opportunities yet to “return the boon” to the benefit of self and others. However, we can present some verbatim accounts on how candidates intended to “return the boon” (or had already done so). Some learners developed concrete plans to become an entrepreneur and start their creative ventures:  

“I can’t say that only due to this course, however surely through several aspects I’ve learned in this course, I have come to finally pursue my vision and will be launching my own company at the end of this year.”
—Syrian Male 1


“Genius Journey has made me realize that I really want to be an entrepreneur. I need to be in charge of my own life and this is definitely the way to do it. I have several ideas in my mind. I have decided that all my actions and choices will move towards this goal. I’m possible!”
—Spanish Male 1

Other candidates decided to “return the boon” by donating either money or their time or teach their newly found know-how to others:

“Genius Exercise 2.7 Grateful Moments helped me realize how fortunate I am to have what I had. I realized the basic distinction of human needs & wants and learnt I already have much more than I need. So, I decided to donate clothes, books, and some money to old age home and an orphanage.”
—Thai Male 4

Conclusion: Send candidates on a personal Hero’s Journey to develop them into creative leaders

Candidates undergoing a creative leader development program experience a transformational voyage that goes in line with Campbell’s monomyth model of the Hero’s Journey

In the following, we summarize the main takeaways from our research. Our findings:

  1. Reconfirm the creative nature of both the Genius Journey methodology and pedagogy. 
  2. Reaffirm the journey metaphor underlying the Genius Journey methodology and pedagogy is indeed transformative and an effective and creative device for developing creative leaders.
  3. Confirm that Campbell’s Hero’s Journey model is a suitable framework to investigate, describe, and map out the experiences of candidates undergoing a creative leadership development program. 
  4. Provide examples of the personal challenges and inner demons that prospective creative leaders need to overcome while gradually metamorphosing their mindsets into those of a creative leader. 
  5. Suggest that the nature of the abyss is individually different. Hence, creative leadership development programs need to offer a wide variety of creativity-enhancing exercises and experiences that allow candidates to identify, confront, and overcome their abyss. 
  6. Support our earlier research findings that the ten stops of the Genius Journey are indeed a suitable framework to help learners acquire the advanced mindsets of creative leaders, and to overcome their abyss. 

Would you like to read our full paper on “Creatively Developing Creative Leaders: Revealing the Inner Hero’s Journey” with more verbatim accounts of candidates traveling the Genius Journey?

  • Get access to and download our paper by clicking here.

Have you become interested to learn how to become a creative leader in the innovation economy yourself? 

© Dr. Detlef Reis 2020. The article is published in the Thinkergy Blog on March 12, 2020. It will be re-printed in a shorter version in the Bangkok Post on March 19, 2020.