Shawshank Prison and the art of leading change: Part II

The hallmark of a great movie script is the transformation of its lead character. Thus, in a voice as mellow as aged bourbon, Morgan Freeman lifts the veil on Shawshank Prison inmate Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding:

“There must be a con like me in every prison in America. I'm the guy who can get it for you...”

These words, at least for the film’s first 60 minutes, epitomise Red. A hustler, a fixer, an opportunist. A man who might have Shawshank sussed but who is slowly atrophying nonetheless. It’s a far cry from the Red we see 19 years later as he heads for Mexico to rendezvous with his friend Andy:

“I find I’m so excited...the excitement only a free man can feel...I hope to see my friend...I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope.”

According to the great American mythologist Joseph Campbell, a hero is an ordinary person who has embarked on a quest that is far bigger than himself. This quest can be internal, external or both. Importantly, the hero is seldom in full control of his quest: throughout he is fragile and vulnerable, often found wanting in the face of adversity. In the final analysis, however, the hero, like Red in “Shawshank”, is transformed by his odyssey.

To orchestrate these transformative journeys, scriptwriters rely on three essential storytelling devices:

  • A central dramatic theme (CDT), an idea or thesis that collides with the hero’s worldview and which disrupts the status quo. It is the ongoing conflict between the hero and the CDT, that drives the plot forward. “Shawshank” is the depiction of a jaded prison “lifer” grappling with the idea that “hope is a good thing, possibly the best of things”.

  • A mentor: someone who has walked the same road as the hero and who provides encouragement. According to Christopher Vogler, “the relationship between hero and mentor is one of the richest sources of entertainment in literature and film”. Who is Red’s mentor? Some fans might reject the view that it is Andy. While he is indeed heroic, Christopher Vogler, however, would describe Andy as a “Catalyst Hero” - the type of hero who himself doesn’t change much but whose role is to bring about transformation in others.

  • An inciting incident or, in Campbell’s words, a “call to adventure”. The inciting incident is like the removal of the hero’s safety blanket, something that forces a choice on him and which propels him away from his “ordinary world” into the “special world” where the rules of the CDT prevail. This could be anything from a cataclysmic event to a tiny nudge discerned only by the hero himself. In “Shawshank”, Red experiences several inciting incidents. Chief among them is Andy’s reckless show of courage on the roof of the plate factory. It produces the unlikely outcome of the prisoners enjoying a few beers at the guard’s expense and, in Red’s words, feeling like “Lords of all creation”.

These narrative devices conspire to produce a stunning transformation. The man who once placed a cold bet against Andy’s chances of surviving his first night in prison slowly emerges as the man who dares believe “that there are places in the world that aren’t made out of stone.”

I believe these storytelling devices provide a blueprint for transformations in the real world too. Consider the following real-life business scenario:

In the early 1980s, Anheuser-Busch (AB) slipped beneath the radar of snack giant Frito-Lay by launching a range of high-quality salty snacks. Using its strong beer distribution system, AB not only entered new snack channels but established beachheads in supermarket chains too. Seven years later, Eagle Snacks had nationwide exposure and was nearing a 6% market share. Astonishingly, almost no-one at Frito-Lay seemed rattled. With one notable exception: CEO Roger Enrico. “We were functionally excellent,” Enrico would later recall in an HBR interview, “but the problem was everybody was doing a superb job on stuff that didn’t mean anything”.

Meanwhile, delivery on things that did mean something, (product quality and distribution) was slipping. Fearing that AB might reach a 10% tipping point, Enrico faced the greatest challenge of his professional life: to incite a turnaround in a “successful” organisation. In a landmark speech, Enrico drew a bead on Frito-Lay’s apathy calling it the “tyranny of incrementalism”. He pointed out that market share only moves in two directions. Up or down. “Ours is going down,” he said. Above all, he emphasised that going big on the basics of product quality and distribution would be critical moves in the short to medium term. Finally, he talked about the 1950s, when Coke had 7x the market share of Pepsi. “Don't you think that if Coke could relive the 1950s, they do things differently?” he asked.

I trust you can discern the narrative devices: an ordinary world made up of distracted - even apathetic - would-be heroes. A mentor with an instinctive sense of the danger and of where the business would end up if this was ignored. An inciting incident that gave apathy a name and which articulated the CDT that “overwhelming force on a few things is better than excellence in things that don’t matter”.

What does this mean for you in your transformation challenge?

  1. You are the mentor or possibly, as Vogler might say, the Catalyst Hero - your sole concern must be to set your people in motion; create the conditions for their heroic journey

  2. How well do you understand your “heroes” and their “ordinary world”? What is their backstory? In what ways are they incomplete? What could lead to their downfall? What aspect of this must be challenged or dismantled? What could save them?

  3. What inciting incident is needed to get them to leave this “world”?

  4. With what central idea or thesis will you challenge them?

Admittedly, the process of change doesn’t end there. Far from it. In Frito-Lay’s case, this was only Act I. While Enrico might have awakened his people from the stupour of indifference, it would take six long years of heroic exertion before the company could declare victory. Change, much like 19 years in Shawshank Prison, is a long game and must be treated as such. More to come...


Hardball - George Stalk and Rob Lachenauer

The Writer's Journey - Christopher Vogler

The Hero with a Thousand Faces - Joseph Campbell

Craig Mazin Podcast: How to Write a Movie

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