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What can Santa teach business?

cultural-archetype Odin

Business has softened the terrifying figure of Odin, and his eight-legged steed has turned into reindeer. (From William Collingwood's Odin Rides to Hel.)

AROUND THE WORLD,  we humans like to celebrate the changing seasons by re-enacting stories.  

The bearded creature who flies through the long night of the northern winter solstice, doling out presents to children, plays the lead role in one of those dramas.  Peeling back the layers of commercialisation on the Santa tale can reveal some lessons that it just might be worth learning.

The pagan festival of Yuletide told of the terrifying one-eyed Norse god, Odin, who struck fear into anyone who dared to venture into the darkness.  Each year, he rode astride his monstrous eight-legged steed, Sleipnir, cloaked, carrying his spear, and laden with gifts for the youngsters.   Business has since softened his image into a benign old man on a sleigh, and the eight legs have turned into reindeer.

The ancient sky-watchers who created myths like this intended them as metaphors.  These are far from fabrications, according to Anthony Aveni, astronomical anthropologist and acclaimed US professor.  Rather, they seem deeply ingrained with truth: based on likenesses they discovered between the behaviour of the heavenly bodies, and aspects of their lives which they sought to express.  Aveni warns us against dismissing celestial mythology as purely non-scientific superstition.  “It has its real elements and they are well worth reclaiming,” he says.

This overhead theatre allowed these peoples to reflect and examine their own behaviour.   As Nobel prize-winning physicist David Bohm comments: “they personalised it”.

Characters like Odin can be interpreted as archetypes, primitive mental images inherited from our earliest human ancestors and recognised across cultures around the world.  Odin is probably based on the planet Mercury, which orbits most quickly around the sun.  Scientists categorise him as a culture-hero, frequently portrayed seeking greater knowledge, and who changes the world through invention or discovery.  

When the rather sinister face of the pagan narrative was whitewashed and over-painted with a jolly fat man in red, we arguably lost very practical messages: how light comes out of darkness, novelty out of despair; and how learning is a journey of discovery.   As mythologist Joseph Campbell puts it: “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” Gifts from the darkness? Maybe it still works.

Creating business value


Sleipnir sculpture at the metro station of Wednesbury, UK, settled by Vikings and originally named ‘Wodin’s bury’.  
Commissioned by Altram, Centro, Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council and the Black Country Development Corporation.  
Photo: Tony Hisgett

In our modern world of business, understanding story and archetypes, and how to use them, has huge value for individuals — and therefore, for our organisations that depend so much on them.  Archetypes help us communicate across cultures, find meaning and unlock brand personalities and  leadership styles.  Stories help us engage internal and external stakeholders, juxtapose, synthesise and unite disparate ideas to promote responsible innovation.

In his book, Conversing with the Planets, Aveni notes: “Long ago, the fingertips of mankind touched earth and sky more sensitively, and from those sensations there came a self-awareness that we could never be separate from nature”.  Many of today’s societies have lost that experience of connection with our environment.  No wonder, then, when clients sigh that green audits have descended into mere check-box activities.  How might we use story to redress that relationship?

At Contented, our vision is to use story to create a better world.  It’s already proved both an important tool and a product for our clients at Contented.  We want to use best practice in audience engagement to promote responsible ideas with the power to change the world.  Through reflective dialogue and agile cycles, we’re learning to connect ideas and shift thinking.  High-performing innovation communities create spaces where participants can address the complex challenges they face.  Story also offers frameworks to capture and promote insights, internally and externally, positioning our customers as thought-leaders and the ‘go-to’ organisations in their target market. 

Like every other company, we have our share of ups and downs. While many organisations shrug off the lows and quickly move on, we are learning to recognise the value of taking time to reflect; that the the darkest experiences can generate the most valuable insights. 

Season’s Greetings — and we look forward to working with some of you in the coming year.