The Hero’s Journey, the Helper and Coaching

The hero’s journey is a powerful metaphor for personal growth. The hero’s journey has been described as a mono-myth; an ever-present story evident for centuries that transcends cultures and time. A crucial part of the journey is when the ‘hero’ meets a helper or guide, which makes a clear connection to the role of a coach.

Joseph Campbell, most commonly associated  with the book The Hero with A Thousand Faces,  spent much of his life researching the hero’s journey myths, these often describes a coming of age rite of passage, or a transition that comes about through trials. In the hero’s journey there is a crucial role of the guide or helper.

The hero’s journey comes in three stages:

  1. The departure: hearing the call to adventure, the hero leaves the familiar world behind and crosses the threshold to start the journey towards the new world.
  2. Initiation: in the unfamiliar world the hero faces a series of trials and tests, to prove their ability. Through the challenge the hero develops the skills and abilities to help them on with their journey.
  3. The return: having completed the trials, the hero crosses the threshold once more and returns home, but has been transformed through adventure into a different person. The knowledge they have gained through the trials is put to use in the everyday world as a positive force for good.

The myths often describe a helper or a guide, who supports the hero on their journey. Typically the helper appears as a key positive influence towards the beginning of the hero’s journey. When crossing the threshold, the hero is uncertain and unskilled, and so the helper is a valuable source of support and guidance.

In the myths the helper is typically an older person, representing wisdom, but importantly, they are a hero in their own right. They are someone who has already made their own hero’s journey. They have walked a similar path and are now walking side-by-side with the new hero. But as the hero learns new skills and grows in confidence and ability, the helper is no longer needed.

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This role of helper is seen in popular culture. For example, in the movies such as the Lord of the Rings, Gandalf is helper to Frodo. In The Matrix, Morpheus is helper to Neo and in Star Wars, Obi-Wan Kenobi is helper to Luke Skywalker. In these, and many other stories and movies, the journey of the hero is similar as is the role of the helper. The hero departs, is tested and returns renewed, while the helper is surpassed by the skills of the hero.

Moving away from myths and fantasy and back to the real world of coaching, I would say that the ‘hero’ is the coachee and the ‘helper’ is the coach. Every coachee is on their own hero’s journey, transitioning from one world to another. This journey is described in their own words and in the context of their own reality. We are not in ancient times and no longer need to slay monsters, but we may have demons of another form to overcome!

I can think of ‘helpers’ through my life. For example, over 16 years ago I was promoted to the role of Group Head of Talent for a large UK company. Looking back on this, I was on my own hero’s journey, I crossed the threshold and moved from a familiar world of general human resource management to the new world of talent management, a path untrodden by myself and by the company, as it was the first ever role of its kind. I faced the trial of the new and the unfamiliar, tests of my capability, knowledge, and of my ability to influence across a multi-divisional, multi-national organisation. However, during this I had a ‘helper’ in the form of a coach. My coach was invaluable in helping my transition; he walked with me on my journey and supported me along the way.

I also remember other more testing trials and adventures during my life, and also recall ‘helpers’ during these times guiding me back home.

Moving back to the world of mythology and legends, it is said that the helpers become greater heroes for having guided other hero’s on their journey. Maybe this explains why we coach other people!

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