Review of Randall Benson’s The Quest Effect
Benson, Randall (2009). The Quest Effect: Mastering Breakthrough in Your Organization.
Who is the hero, that more-than-life-sized figure of myth and history and fairy tale; the conqueror of evil, the liberator, the rescuer of the oppressed? How terrible to think of not being the hero of one’s own life; this is the role for which each of us is cast, no matter how unsuccessfully we play it. And if the part seems too big, if we picture the hero as being indeed “more than life-sized”, it is because our daily life has dwindled, become less than real, and only pygmy proportions seem natural to us…It is not an academic study; the effort to decipher our own unconscious symbols, unravel the real meanings behind our actions, witness unblinkingly the parts we actually play, exacts from us an exercise both of courage and of discrimination that can perhaps be the beginning of our training for the starring role we were intended for. – From The Spirit of Quest by D.M. Dooling
I first encountered the Quest work in the middle of a Nebraska winter while contemplating a divorce and working on a client project (the two are unrelated except circumstantially). It very much felt like the external landscape of sleet and snow mirrored the internal landscape. I sat down with Randall Benson in a little cafe and the structure of the Quest that he unfolded for me became a map, not just for my personal use but for the organization that we were working with at the time.
The first thing that he said that really struck and stayed with me is that in many old stories, those who don’t heed the call to adventure and experience that mixture of thrill and terror at that precipice turn away from the quest and lead a life of “constant adaptation to diminishment.” How often have those of us who consult to organizations seen people dwindle and languish within the structures of what they assume “is” and “always will be”? “This is the way it’s done here” or “We can’t because (some nebulous) they won’t let us.”
The personal structures that I found constraining the edges of my life included the “shoulds” and the “oughts”, especially of a traditional Chinese family where divorce was still stigmatized, a recourse only available in very dire circumstances, those circumstances becoming hobgoblin stories in and of themselves to ward away the young. The aspect of “constant adaptation” is like a frog being boiled, the little adjustments and compromises here and there. One of my clients once said, “you are defined by what you tolerate”, and sometimes what we tolerate personally, organizationally, culturally becomes increasingly dark, limiting our ability to see options. I’m reminded of David Whyte who said that “anything that does not bring you alive is too small for you”. For the client organization that we were working with in a highly risk-averse environment when decision-making authority rested primarily with the leadership team and not with the people who actually interacted with their customer base, a life of constant adaptation to diminishment was something so insidiously and implicitly accepted that to even call it out was challenging.
To avoid that fate then, that constant adaptation of diminishment, what is the course? Where is there an imperative to travel to? On the map of the “Quest”, the territory is aptly labeled “Uncharted”, and according to Randall, it is the experience of the uncharted territory that is key. Whatever growth, personally and developmentally, may be attained, it is definitely not squarely within the realm of experience we already have. It involves listening at the edges of things and hearing the call. There is a calling to the Quest, whether the sense of inspriation as GE was inspired by Motorola, a sense that there is more of life to be lived an experienced, or even the bordering of despair at seeing the economic and political structures sway.
My personal metaphor for the Quest is the mental image from the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where he’s standing at the edge of a chasm and needs to take a leap of faith. The notion behind that moment for me is the concept of commitment. The thing about the Quest is that you do not and can not know you’ll succeed (as if you had any such certainty about life in general anyway) and you make the leap anyway—you make that commitment of a full self or the commitment of your leadership capabilties and organizational resources. The ground gets constructed beneath you and the guides appear along the way, but you don’t actually get to know any of that. Despite having that borne out for me personally time and again, at every precipice, you can know that you’ll land, but you can’t actually know it. Randall says beautifully that, “in committing to the adventure, every time, you find the guides, the companions and the hermits who take you in and give you sustenance before sending you on your way.”
As much as you can count on support with full commitment, often from unexpected sources, Randall outlines the forces arrayed properly against you. These are the threshold guardians that test your commitment and your own sense of true seeing in their muddling of the waters. These are the holdfast forces of tradition and order that have their own role to play, organizationally and societally, and yet add to the cacophany of voices in the dark that keep people from ever questing, ever innovating. These are the trials that are both the opportunies for testing and developing capacity and capability and yet can simultaneously tear you apart. The Quest as Randall outlines it acknowledges most openly what is true of personal and corporate quests—the paradoxes of deep companionship and occasional deafening aloneness, the requirement of faith and the need for building the path, the duality of challenge as a cornerstone for growth and a force for feelings of overwhelm and backtracking.
What the Quest offers is a path to making what is common for all the journeys we take that result in breakthrough growth and when something—even a map—is weilded with intentionality and consciousness, it’s power is magnified. It becomes another lens for reflection and action, Action Learning at its best. The Quest aligns beautifully to the quadrants and levels of the integral map, reflecting the multiplicity of perspectives available, and thus becomes far more than just a map of the journey but a tool to guide the way.
Gayle Young is Associate Editor of Integral Leadership Review.