27 Nov What we Learn from Heroes
We were talking at a storytelling workshop this month, about how stories encode and transmit information that teaches us how to behave. I asked people to share favourite characters from the stories of their childhood and to describe the heroes they remembered from recent books or films. And I spoke about Captain Lawrence Oates. Few in the room knew his name, but most knew at least parts of his story.
Oates was a member of Scott’s Antarctic expedition in the early 20th century, as explorers and the nations they represented were racing to be first to reach the South Pole. The Scott expedition set off on 1 November 1911, reaching the South Pole 79 days later. 1,440 km on foot across the ice: it’s hard to imagine what a journey this would be, even today, with modern equipment and support. 100 years ago it must have been a living hell.
On the return journey, the weather got even worse. The men were suffering from scurvy and frostbite, many were injured, one man died. As the group weakened, they were covering less ground every day, and it was taking them longer to reach each of the supply drops they had left on the way in. The remaining food was being rationed more and more tightly, further weakening the men.
Oates’ feet were severely frostbitten and he knew that his slower pace was holding the group back. He asked his companions to go on without him, but they refused. A day later, on the morning of 16 March, Oates put on his coat and spoke his famous final words: “I am just going outside and may be some time.” Then he walked out of the tent. Scott wrote in his diary, “We knew that poor Oates was walking to his death, but though we tried to dissuade him, we knew it was the act of a brave man and an English gentleman.”
This story was told and retold across the British Empire, to convey an ideal, and it lives on today as a heroic archetype.
There are other parts of this story that we remember less well, because we have not chosen to celebrate them: Scott’s expedition was in fact beaten to the Pole by a Norwegian party, who reached it 35 days earlier. And Oates’s famous gesture of self-sacrifice actually made no difference to the eventual outcome. The rest of the party continued on for another 20 miles, where they died, trapped in their tent by a blizzard. Their frozen bodies were discovered by a search party later that year and their story was pieced together from the men’s journals. Oates’s body was never found.
The story we choose to tell emphasises the qualities that were most valued within the British culture at that time: gallantry, self-sacrifice and a very English kind of stoic understatement. We talked about how the heroes of American, French or Japanese stories from that era are fundamentally different, and how the heroes of British films today have changed. Every culture tells the stories that reflect and reinforce what it values.
It was a fun way to spend half a day, because people enjoy telling and hearing stories. And of course that’s what makes them powerful in changing cultures; they shape us without our even realising.
In our workshop, the focus shifted to the workplace and how some businesses are curating the stories that shape their organisational cultures. It’s an interesting exercise for any of us – to consider the stories that are told in our own workplace:
What unofficial stories circulate? The one about what the sales director said to that difficult client? The one about how the CEO reacted to the CFO’s question about the Xmas party? The one about what happened when someone challenged an existing process or took a risk to solve a problem for a customer? And thinking about the ‘official’ stories, the ones told in employee awards or profiled in newsletters, do these represent the best of your culture? What new ideas or behaviours are needed, to support your strategic goals? Where in your team could you find real-life examples of the values you’re trying to encourage? What’s the best way to share stories authentically across your organisation?
It’s worth taking a moment to answer these questions. Because, as Alameddine wrote in The Hakawati, and as the Oates story demonstrates: “What happens is of little significance compared with the stories we tell ourselves about what happens.”