Brute force: Medieval foundation myths and three modern organizations’ quests for hegemony
By Ann Rippin and Peter Fleming
Management and organizational history, Vol.1:1 (2006)
Abstract: Foundation myths have been at the heart of western culture since classical times. Business foundation myths lie at the heart of corporate culture. Here, the nature and purpose of foundation stories are questioned, as is their status as innocent narratives. This article takes the narrative tropes of Europe’s archetypal national foundation myth, the founding of Rome, retold in the epic Latin poem, Virgil’s Aeneid, and traces their reemergence in the foundation stories of three major modern organizations. The narrative elements are the foundation of a new empire by immigrant principals, the empire inspired by a dream or vision, and the establishment of a culture superior to that of the indigenous inhabitants. The three cases are Marks and Spencer, Nike and Starbucks. While it is impossible to state that organizations consciously have recourse to this archetypal myth, a comparison of the context in which the elements of this ancient tale are retold is a lens through which to examine organizational claims to legitimacy and autonomy, in order to pursue corporate agendas unopposed.
Introduction: Foundation myths, whether of nations, dynasties or cities, have been at the heart of western culture since classical times. Today, organizations’ foundation myths lie at the heart of corporate culture. The genre is, in fact, so familiar that it has become an accepted artefact of corporate life. Induction programmes and other orientations often contain an element of storytelling that details ‘where it all began’. In this paper we examine the nature and purpose of foundation stories and question their status as innocent narratives. Our method is to use two closely related ancient foundation myths – Aeneas’s foundation of the Roman race and the foundation of Britain by Brutus, or Brut – as a heuristic device to examine three modern corporate foundation stories. In employing this strategy, we do not assume that any of the latter were inspired, or even influenced, by the former, but rather we use a comparison of the circumstances of production of both sets of stories to suggest shared political imperatives.
The three modern cases are Marks and Spencer, Nike and Starbucks. In the cases of Marks and Spencer and Starbucks, there are executive ‘memoirs’ to consult. With Nike, the account is written by a journalist but with the full cooperation of the notoriously taciturn chairman and founder, Phil Knight. These form the primary texts. In all three cases commentaries on the companies are also examined. The three elements of the Aeneas/Brutus narrative to be explored are the foundation of a new empire by immigrant principals, the empire inspired by a dream or vision, and the establishment of a culture superior to that of the indigenous inhabitants.