Practical insights for compliance and ethics professionals and commentary on the intersection of compliance and culture.

Hero’s journey of the compliance professional

The hero’s journey is a myth narrative popularized by the American writer Joseph Campbell. Campbell studied hero myth patterns in contrast with psychology, ritual, and analysis and used his view of the hero’s journey to describe the generic narrative archetype of various heroic stories as follows: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

This pattern will be familiar to any fan of a wide variety of adventure and fantasy stories such as Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, and much more. However, this narrative construct can be applied not just to literature and Hollywood movies but also to the work of the compliance professional attempting to imbed an authentic and effective organizational culture of compliance. In this view, the hero is the organization – and it is the objective of the compliance officer, as a guide or expert figure of sorts, to guide it through the stages of the journey to successful completion.

The hero’s journey is divided into three principal “acts” – departure, initiation, and return. Within each of these acts the hero undergoes a variety of tasks, ordeals, and lessons which compromise the stages, seventeen of them in total, of the journey.  The themes of persuasion, doubt, adversity, seeking guidance and expertise, challenge, success, and transformation which recur in the journey all translate provocatively to the ambitions of a corporate compliance program.

The three acts of the hero’s journey, as applied to corporate compliance and organizational ethics, are as follows:

  1. Departure – In which the hero is still living in the ordinary world and receives a call to action for an adventure which is daunting and requires a mentor’s guidance before embarking on it, this act depicts the organization which is without a compliance program or an organization where the compliance function is immature and inadequately implemented, without genuine engagement. The call to action in this case could be an internal, positive one – a decision to focus proactively on integrity and ethics, for example, or the company could be a new one which wishes to have a compliance risk framework from the beginning. It could also be an external, possibly negative one – such as new regulations or laws, a company or industry public scandal, or supervisory enforcement. The mentor offering guidance in the compliance professional, the person with the subject matter expertise and balance of rules and values knowledge who can support the organization in answering the call to action.
  2. Initiation – This is the stage in which the hero leaves the ordinary world and goes out into the unknown, extraordinary world to face a variety of challenges, some with guidance or support and others without but against great obstacles or resistance. The hero encounters crisis in the attempts to reach his goal. Once the goal is achieved, the hero has to go back to the ordinary world of before, again amidst challenges. In this stage, the unknown world represents the as-yet unformed environment of drivers for and obstacles against organizational and employee integrity and ethical decision-making. In confronting this, the organization accepts the need to implement or improve a controls framework and struggles with the appropriate approach and tone. A wide variety of interests diverge and compete in this process, with the priorities of different business lines, other support functions, stakeholders, external partners, supervisors, and even customers or followers diverging from and competing with each other. Some of these parties will be helpful allies and willing advocates for compliance initiatives, acting as evangelists with each other and the public to sell the comparative value of a compliance program. Others will be doubters who present tests to the maturity and necessity of the program’s design and goals, or even enemies who wish to defeat the effort in favor of commercial or other concerns. It is from here that the compliance professional must carefully craft communications and branding strategies for the compliance program to be convincing and overcome these trials. Once overcoming the crisis – be it incomplete implementation of a program leading to risk and loss, or reputational damage due to insufficient organizational integrity, or negative action by a regulator – the compliance professional can re-emphasize the fundamental values of the program to an organization with a new appreciation for their importance.
  3. Return – In the final act of the journey, the hero returns to the ordinary world, newly endowed with the central goal achieved and the ability to use this hard-won enlightenment for the common good. This process has been transformative and the hero has ascended to a higher level of being due to the triumph of the journey. At the culmination of its journey, the organization has successfully implemented a robust and pro-active compliance program which will be both functional and aspirational. The corporate compliance framework enables the organization and its employees to follow an ambitious yet responsible strategy guided by a flexible yet foundational balance of values and rules.

For a detailed description of the classical stages of the Hero’s Journey, check out this outline by Christopher Vogler.   And for a vivid explanation and illustration of the Hero’s Journey and its various applications in literature, watch this entertaining TED-Ed lesson by Matthew Winkler: