Myths, Vision, and Values Amyth is a collective dream (Jung, 1965). Myths, operating at a mystical level, are the story behind the story (Campbell, 1988). They explain, express, legitimize, and maintain solidarity and cohesion. They communicate unconscious wishes and con”icts, mediate
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contradictions, and offer a narrative anchoring the present in the past (Cohen, 1969). All organizations rely on myths or sagas of varying strength and intensity (Clark, 1975). Myths can transform a place of work into a beloved, revered, hallowed institution and an all- encompassing way of life.
Myths often originate in the launching of an enterprise. The original plan for Southwest Airlines, for example, was sketched on a cocktail napkin in a San Antonio bar. It envisioned connecting three Texas cities: Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio. As legend has it, Rollin King, one of the founders, said to his counterpart Herb Kelleher, “Herb, let’s start an airline.” Kelleher, who later became Southwest’s CEO, replied, “Rollin, you’re crazy. Let’s do it!” (Freiberg and Freiberg, 1998, p. 15).
As the new airline moved ahead, it met !erce resistance from established carriers. Four years of legal wrangling kept the upstart grounded. In 1971, the Texas Supreme Court ruled in Southwest’s favor, and its planes were ready to “y. A local sheriff’s threat to halt “ights under a court injunction prompted a terse directive from Kelleher: “You roll right over the son of a bitch and leave our tire tracks on his uniform if you have to” (Freiberg and Freiberg, 1998, p. 21). (That directive, of course, signaled resolve, not homicidal intent.) The persistence and zaniness of Southwest’s mythologized beginnings shape its unique culture: “The spirit and steadfastness that enabled the airline to survive in its early years is what makes Southwest such a remarkable company today” (p. 14).
Myths undergird an organization’s values. Values characterize what an organization stands for, qualities worthy of esteem or commitment. Unlike goals, values are intangible and de!ne a unique character that helps people !ndmeaning and feel special about what they do.
The values that count are those an organization lives, regardless of what it articulates in mission statements or formal documents. Southwest Airlines has never codi!ed its values formally. But its Symbol of Freedom billboards and banners once expressed the company’s de!ning purpose: extending freedom to “y to everyone, not just the elite, and doing it with an abiding sense of fun. Other organizations make values more explicit. The Edina (Minnesota) School District, following the suicide of a superintendent, involved staff, parents, and students in formally articulating values in a document: “We care.We share.We dare.” The values of the U.S. Marine Corps are condensed into a simple phrase: “Semper Fi” (short for semper !delis—always faithful). More than a motto, it stands for the traditions, sentiments, and solidarity instilled into recruits and perpetuated by veteran Marines: “The values and assumptions that shape its members . . . are all the Marines have. They are the smallest of the U.S. military services, and in many ways the most interesting. Theirs is the richest culture: formalistic, insular, elitist, with a deep anchor in their own history and mythology” (Ricks, 1998, p. 19).
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Vision turns an organization’s core ideology, or sense of purpose, into an image of the future. It is a shared fantasy, illuminating new possibilities within the realm of myths and values. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, for example, articulated poetically a new future for race relations rooted in the ideals of America’s founding fathers.
Vision is deemed vital in contemporary organizations. In Built to Last, Collins and Porras pro!le a number of extraordinary companies and conclude, “The essence of a visionary company comes in the translation of its core ideology and its own unique drive for progress into the very fabric of the organization” (1994, p. 201). Johnson & Johnson’s commitment to the elimination of “pain and disease” and to “the doctors, nurses, hospitals, mothers, and all others who use our products” motivated the company to make the costly decision to pull Tylenol from store shelves when several tainted bottles were discovered. 3M’s principle of “thou shalt not kill a new product idea” came to life when someone refused to stop working on an idea that became Scotch Tape. The same principle paved the way for Post-it® notes, a product resurrected from the failed development of an adhesive. A vision offers mental pictures linking historical legend and core precepts to future events. Shared, it imbues an organization with spirit, resolve, and élan.
Myths, values, and visions often overlap. Take eBay, which emerged as a highly visible success amid a sea of 1990s dot-com disasters. Its interplay of myth, values, and vision contributes to its success even in a tough economic environment. Pierre Omidyar, eBay’s founder, envisioned a marketplace where buyers would have equal access to products and prices, and sellers would have an open outlet for goods. Laws of supply and demand would govern prices.
But Omidyar’s vision incorporated another element: community. Historically, people have used market stalls and cafés to swap gossip, trade advice, and pass the time of day. Omidyar wanted to combine virtual business site and caring community. That vision led to eBay’s core values of commerce and community. Embedded in these are corollary principles: “Treat other people online as you would like to be treated, and when disputes arise, give other people the bene!t of the doubt.”
eBay is awash in myths and legends. Omidyar’s vision is said to have taken root over dinner with his !ancée. She complained that their move from Boston to Silicon Valley severed her ties with fellow collectors of Pez dispensers. He came to her rescue by writing code and laying the foundation for a new company. Did it happen this way? Not quite. Mary Lou Song, an eBay publicist, hatched this story in an effort to get media exposure. Her rationale: “Nobody wants to hear about a 30-year-old genius who wanted to create a perfect market. They want to hear that he did it for his !ancée” (CNN Money, 2011). Her version persists because myths are truer than truth.
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Airbnb, like Uber, is a young brand in the upcoming “sharing economy.” Success has come so quickly that the 2008 start-up is now valued at $30 billion and has become a verb in everyday communication: “Let’s ‘Airbnb’ in Los Angeles this weekend.”
The company’s rise had not been without its challenges, but one of its key successes is its search for a mission. The cofounders have succeeded in identifying the company’s soul and how it interplays with employees, hosts, guests, and the outside world (Gallagher, 2016).
The quest for a unifying identity began in 2013 and was guided by key questions: Why does Airbnb exist? What’s its purpose? What’s its role in the world? The questions were put to founders, employees, hosts, and guests around the world. The answers would become the “rudder that guides the whole ship.”
Early on, consensus began to emerge around “belonging.”This formed the cornerstone for Airbnb’s new mission: to make people around the world feel like they could “Belong Anywhere.” Airbnb would become the place where anyone could engage with people and cultures as insiders, to meet the “universal human yearning to belong.” The Company fashioned a new logo, the “Bélo,” a cute squiggly shape resembling a heart, a location pin and the “A” in Airbnb. It stands for four things: people, places, love, andAirbnb (Gallagher, 2017).
Heroes and Heroines Organizations often rely on CEOs or other prominent leaders as exemplars. They may not be media celebrities, like Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk, or symbols of corporate greed, like Ken Lay, Bernie Ebbers, and Dennis Kozlowski. They are solid leaders who build time-tested companies and deliver results.
One is Mary Barra, the !rst woman to serve as CEO of General Motors. She took the helm at a challenging time for the venerable automaker, which had barely survived bankruptcy and was under heavy !re for concealing a defective ignition switch that produced 13 deaths in GM Cobalts. Barra handled that with a directness and transparency that were new to General Motors and used it as an opportunity to begin to change GM’s sclerotic culture. Since becoming GM’s chief in 2014, she has tripled pro!ts and engineered a dramatic revival (Colvin, 2014; Varchaver, 2016).
Another, Costco’s James Sinegal, took pride in his disdain for corporate perks. He answered his own phone and personally escorted guests to his spartan of!ce—no executive bathroom, no walls, 20-year-old furniture. He commented: “We’re low-cost operators, and it would be a little phony if we tried to pretend that we’re not and had all the trappings” (Byrnes et al., 2002, p. 82).
Executives like Barra and Sinegal embrace their role as cultural heroes. They act as living logos, human icons, whose words and deeds exemplify and reinforce core values. Bernie
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Marcus, cofounder of Home Depot, underscores the impact of well-placed cultural heroes and heroines: “People watch the titular heads of companies, how they live their lives, and they know [if] they are being sold a bill of goods. If you are a sel!sh son-of-a-bitch, well that usually comes across fairly well. And it comes across no matter how many memos you send out [stating otherwise]” (Roush, 1999, p. 139).
Not all icons are at the top of organizations. Ordinary people often perform exemplary deeds. The late Joe Vallejo, custodian at a California junior high school, kept the place immaculate. He was also a liaison between the school and its community. His in”uence knew few limits. When emotions ran high, he attended parent conferences and often negotiated a compromise acceptable to all parties. He knew the students and checked report cards. He was not bashful about telling seasoned teachers how to tailor lessons to student interests and needs. When he retired, a patio was named in his honor. It remains today, commemorating a hero who made a difference well beyond his formal assignment.