Shawshank Prison and the art of Leading change: Part III

“Change can’t be dictated, Powerpointed or conferenced into existence” - Anonymous


Leading change, much like a 19-year stint in Shawshank Prison, is a long game. Moreover, as a recent paper from BCG points out, only 1 in every 4 transformation efforts will succeed. A rousing call to adventure might ignite change but it is naive to believe it can sustain change or help people to navigate it. Leaders and followers - much like the heroes of a great movie - must be galvanized for the long haul.


As pointed out here, the art of scriptwriting offers rich insight into this.


First, it shows that things inevitably get “worse” before they get better. As a movie’s hero answers the call to adventure, she crosses the threshold that separates the ordinary world from the special world of the Central Dramatic Theme. As she does so, she encounters what Joseph Campbell describes as a “dreamland of curiously fluid and ambiguous forms, a place where she must survive a succession of trials”. It’s a new and sometimes frightening experience for the hero whose landing is seldom a soft one. In fact, this baptism by fire is sometimes referred to by screenwriters as the “trash compactor moment” - an homage to a scene from Star Wars: A New Hope in which Luke, Solo, and Princess Leia find themselves in the waste disposer of the Death Star. The Empire, they discover, is every bit as evil as others say it is and it is about to overwhelm them before their quest has even begun.


Secondly, it shows that change cannot be force-fed. Change may be likened to an assault on a major mountain peak. First, the hero must find his feet on the foothills of the “Special World” before he can graduate to its more precipitous peaks. Christopher Vogler describes a succession of tests that start out resembling an entrance exam to a new school but which soon escalates into a succession of surprise quizzes, daunting midterm tests and ultimately, the do or die final exam. These tests and trials are the grist of all great movies. They keep us glued to the screen, nervously munching our popcorn. Early on, the hero - much like your followers - may try to run from or sidestep these trials in a desperate effort to regain the safety of the Ordinary World. Later, however, thanks to the efforts of the Mentor as well as to personal courage, she will come to confront and triumph over them.


Let’s see how this arc plays out In The Shawshank Redemption: Andy’s cunning manipulation of Captain Hadley has nudged Red at least to entertain the notion that Hope, even in prison, is a good thing. Andy’s worldview even enables Red to be exempted from manual labour so he can assist with the prison tax returns. But soon things begin to sour: Andy spends two weeks in solitary confinement for playing an excerpt from Mozart’s “Magic Flute” over the prison’s PA system. Later, after he asks the warden to review his case, he will languish in solitary for a full month.


While Andy’s struggles are visible, Red’s are less obvious. His is a battle with a persistent existential question: is there really any use for Hope on the inside? Is Hope a dangerous thing? Could Hope really drive a prison inmate mad? The question consumes him for close on 19 years, manifesting in a series of ever more stringent provocations and trials. For example, when Andy buys Red a harmonica (an instrument he loved as a free man) - the best he can manage is a single note before stashing it beneath his mattress. When Brooks Hatlen commits suicide shortly after being paroled, Red is reminded that he too, on a long enough timeline, might become “institutionalised”. And then, when Andy shares his dream of a fishing charter in Mexico and that he could use a man “who knows how to get things”, Red writes it off as a “shitty pipe dream”. Soon, Red’s showdown with the Question of Hope and institutional pessimism will culminate in what Joseph Campbell calls “the Inmost Cave” (or Central Crisis), a place where, albeit symbolically, he experiences a kind of death and rebirth. Soon after being paroled he is caught in a dead end job bagging groceries at the local super. Frustrated, he considers buying a revolver to shoot himself. “No way I can make it on the outside”, he says, echoing Brooks Hatlen’s suicide letter 15 years earlier. But then, at the last minute, his eye settles on a compass - the instrument that will guide him to the treasure Andy has buried for him shortly after his escape. It is a seminal turning point, a sign that the old Red has gone and the new one emerged: all that remains is for him to find the treasure, jump parole and, truly free, make for the Mexican border to meet Andy in Zihuatanejo. In his own words: “I’m so excited I can hardly keep a thought in my head. It’s the excitement only a free man can feel”.


Unlike many business settings where change is unilaterally imposed on people like a square peg in a round hole, the screenwriter must be more tactical or his story won’t be credible. In The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler’s “Character Arc” reflects uncanny insight into how humans encounter, digest and pursue change. This arc is not just for the silver screen but for the real world too where it serves in assessing the disposition of your followers and adapting your influencing strategies accordingly. Here is a précis of that arc:

  • First, people have no or limited awareness of the need for change.

  • In time, they gain some awareness of the need but resist it.

  • Soon, they come to realize that living with the old is unsustainable and begin a tentative and bite-sized pursuit of the new.

  • This experimentation (sometimes successful, sometimes not) produces knowledge and wisdom...which, in turn, pave the way for increasingly bold leaps of change.

  • These leaps culminate in a final moment of truth that produces mastery

Where do your followers fall on this continuum?


No screenwriter worth their salt would dream of ignoring any one of these steps. Frank Darabont, writer of The Shawshank screenplay certainly didn’t. And, as a change agent, neither should you.

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