Tell the Mythic Legend of Your Business

It’s one thing to say what you believe. It’s another to live it.

“I think that we need mythology. We need a bedrock of story and legend in order to live our lives coherently.”

In 1776, a group of the most respected leaders of the American colonies huddled around a table, sweating from the oppressive Philadelphia heat — and because the document they were about to sign contained ideas that constituted treason to the current world order. They knew they might be signing their own death sentences, but this was the only way they could maintain integrity. They believed all were created equal, and were willing to go to war with the most powerful nation in the world to show it.

As dramatic a moment as this was, it wasn’t enough to win the Revolution. The simple fact is, the world isn’t changed by writing beliefs on a piece of paper. The world is changed by those who are willing to translate their manifestos into action, who are willing to go to any length for their convictions. To multiply the Founding Fathers’ solitary efforts, America needed heroic people to show the rest of the fledgling country what being an American looked like.

These stories are familiar to Americans: the Boston Tea Party, Paul Revere riding his horse at midnight, George Washington braving cold winter wind across the Delaware. Such shared legends spread the beliefs that fomented revolution, and provided every colonist with inspiration, conviction, and most importantly, a model for what it meant to live out the American ideals. Stories enabled leaders to multiply meaningful change beyond themselves, giving individuals a sense of purpose and belonging within the cause.

To this day, we tell these stories to remind ourselves of the beliefs that built the USA. In spite of the vast differences of people who make up this country, these are the legends that still unite us — even as we understand them anew — and around which we continue to shape the future.

It may sound strange, but retelling legends is just as essential to building your tribe, too.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Are myths just made-up stories?

When we talk about building a tribe, we don’t just mean assembling a team; we believe tribes are communities that have achieved radical belonging and a united purpose. Tribes have the following characteristics in common:

  1. Tribes espouse a distinct and transcendent central belief system, which they codify in a manifesto and take risks to live out, even when it’s difficult.
  2. Tribes tell a compelling myth that embodies that belief system.
  3. Tribes use symbols to create a connection with the myth (and, thus, the manifesto).
  4. Tribes create meaningful rituals to tie the belief system to people’s daily routines.

Humans have naturally formed these kinds of communities throughout history. The strongest tribes have held a shared mythology around which they shape their lives, and this includes modern-day businesses and movements.

Every Silicon Valley startup has a feature outlining their “origin story,” when the founder made a discovery in their garage or had a lightbulb moment on vacation. We know, instinctually, that a story communicates something that a mission statement can’t. Myths and stories tap into our deepest human instincts for learning and memory. As children, we learned through fables. We might not have known what the word “perseverance” meant, but we knew why the tortoise beat the hare. Using myths as adults turns vague platitudes into tangible, memorable realities.

If you’re worried about this being too woo-woo, you don’t need to be. We use the word “myth” to denote the quality of a story; obviously, in the professional realm, a factual story matters. But a myth’s deeper purpose is altogether different from history: it is a memorable narrative intended to express a philosophy so that your tribe can see beliefs embodied in action.

Building a tribe is not just a matter of throwing your origin story on a website or sharing the latest success at a dinner. It’s about shaping those stories into myths that authentically reflect your tribe’s manifesto and shared identity. With some reframing, you might find that your stories have much more of a “mythic quality” — and a greater impact — than meets the eye.

Multiply Your Myth

At first pass, Carly Zakin and Danielle Weisberg’s origin story is pretty un-mythical. They quit their NBC news production jobs and began sending theSkimm email from their couch, summarizing daily news for a few friends with an episode of Law & Order: SVU playing in the background. The audience grew, until they were sleeping in shifts to get the email out by 6 a.m.

Even without an “aha!” moment, they’re able to frame this story for their team and audience as an epic myth that inspires values-based action. Writing a myth only takes a few components:

  • A hero who takes a major risk for the sake of a belief or value.
  • A nemesis who embodies the opposite of the hero’s belief and stands in the hero’s way.
  • A coherent account of their conflict.

Consider how Zakin and Weisberg retell it: they were two millennial women, working for a news giant that struggled to attract the coveted “millennial women market.” But their friends never watched the work they produced, and instead would often ask them for summaries of the news. Zakin and Weisberg knew that women wanted to be informed, but the traditional media wasn’t listening. While the news industry tried focus groups and surveys, the two Skimm founders had real relationships with their target audience — and knew they needed to shape their voice around that relationship.

So, they started in their living room, writing up news summaries for a list of their friends. The summaries took a friendly, casual tone, making pop culture references and snarky asides as it detailed huge stories in quick paragraphs. It worked: their list grew and soon they were staying up until 6 a.m. to meet the demands and get the email out in time. Eventually, they quit their jobs at NBC, and with only $4000 between them, they tried pitching the idea to hundreds of investors who told them that millennial women didn’t want news, or that “email was dead.”

The belief buried in the story is that dialogue and relationship should remain at the core of how we share news. TheSkimm’s founding myth is a story about two partners who stayed down-to-earth enough to listen to their friends, and who risked everything to build a no-nonsense news service that feels personal and direct, as if to a friend. The “villains” in the story are the stodgy NBC executives and the investors who had high and mighty opinions about what millennial women wanted, but who clearly weren’t friends with any.

Their focus on relationships runs through the entire organization. If you ask the founders what accomplishment makes them proudest, Zakin says it’s “a tie between building theSkimm’s culture of transparency, authenticity, and ‘no bullshit,’ and [her] special partnership [with Weisberg].” It is this commitment to relationships that has attracted so much support under their banner. Even now, though they have grown to a company that serves 7 million subscribers with 75 employees, when you get your morning Skimm email, it still feels like you are getting an email from your most intelligent and informed friend.

Keep the Myth Alive

Zakin and Weisberg have maintained this insistence on relationships not by just putting their values on the walls, but by keeping their myth constantly present to their team. TheSkimm myth is such a big part of their company culture that when members of the staff were tasked with redecorating their corporate headquarters, they named each conference room after a Law and Order character. They prioritized comfy couches that would imitate the apartment where theSkimm began — promoting the friendly, collaborative culture that defines their public voice.

This brings us to the most crucial point for leaders to understand about myths: leaders don’t tell myths so employees celebrate your moments of success; leaders tell myths so that others can become a part of your tribe’s story and create mythical moments of their own. Retelling myths gives tribe members what humans naturally long for: a sense that they are part of something larger than themselves, and a clear model for living out our life’s deeper purpose.

Like any company, theSkimm has values like “We are humble” and “We are not afraid to fail.” But it’s the myth capturing their manifesto of beliefs that shows the team how to put those values into action. Zakin and Weisberg’s “no bullshit” way of facing challenges, as evidenced in the way they faced rejection by hundreds of investors, even inspired one employee to come up with a “Fail Hard” hard hat. This hat is proudly awarded to team members who faced big failure or rejection and grew from it. It is no wonder that innovative employee-led initiatives are ingrained in theSkimm’s culture. Their leaders don’t just tell people what to do; they show how it’s done, with myths to keep the legend alive.

A leader doesn’t want armchair philosophers, who muse on the company’s purpose but can’t make it happen. Myths are the most effective way leaders can show their followers how to take action in line with the tribe’s shared identity. Myths take the abstract and make it concrete.

If there are times you wish people could remember what your company stands for — when they turn in low-quality work or make decisions detached from the vision — you likely don’t need to hang up a poster with the corporate values. You’re in need of mythology.

Find your myths. Grow your tribe.

The power of myth isn’t just motivating a few members of your team. What if everyone showed up at work not just to check off boxes, but full of purpose — to be heroes in the myth of your organization? How would things change if clients began speaking your language? What if customers paid a premium to be heroes in your company’s legend, to be part of the world-changing movement you’re enacting?

For theSkimm, their myth replicates itself beyond Skimm HQ. They’ve got a base of subscribers-turned-brand ambassadors 30,000 strong. Skimm’bassadors are people who have referred friends to the newsletter, reenacting the story of the founders’ early efforts to send the email to friends. As Skimm’bassadors have become enveloped in theSkimm’s beliefs, they’ve led their own initiatives to multiply the culture of relationship: they’ve become pen pals with a woman whose husband was deployed, performed cross-country favors for a grieving family, and held each other accountable to accomplish goals — all under the banner of theSkimm.

Myths are not simply stories to tell; they’re a way to invite people deeper into your tribe’s central manifesto, awakening in them an inner purpose that might be lying dormant and giving them a place to belong. That’s a kind of brand loyalty that simply can’t be bought.

Anyone who has started or run a company has a myth to tell. You might not have gained your 7 million subscribers yet, but no company grows without hardship, grit, and learning. Consider:

  • What beliefs have you fought and sacrificed for?
  • What convictions led people to call you crazy, but drove you to be where you are now?
  • What was a time you had to persevere?

(If you don’t have any interesting stories to tell about your startup, then you either aren’t paying attention or you aren’t taking enough risks for your convictions.)

Your myths are your opportunity to show that when it comes to your beliefs, you have put your money where your mouth is, and it is worth it for others to do the same.

We believe this power is available to you.

We’ve put together resources for people who want to lead families, businesses, communities, and themselves.

There’s the 7-day Tribal Transformation for leaders who want to change their culture from the inside out. Each day of the course will walk you through every step of tribe-building, with case studies that show you exactly how to go from personal belief to team transformation. The email that’ll arrive in your inbox each morning includes journaling prompts to tap into your leadership instincts, as well as a concrete step to take during your day to turn theory into practice. Just like theSkimm, you’ll learn how to harness the power of your myths to rally your tribe around a common purpose so they can begin changing the world.

We have our proven Core Beliefs Session to help individuals or teams get in touch with the purpose that fuels them. In just 2 days you’ll emerge with a Manifesto of values that can guide a transition, establish a family culture, or define a brand.

You can also take our Leadership Archetype Assessment to find out where in the leader’s journey you are — and where you need to go next.

This and more is available at A Tribe of Me.

A creative agency building tribes and moving mountains for brands with a mission. Drop us a line at sherwoodfellows.co

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