Archetypal leadership is nothing new. In fact, it is one of the oldest philosophical approaches to leadership there is – common across cultures, continents and languages. We use it every day when we talk about the “tyrant” manager, the young executive who is “driving” change throughout the organisation, the manipulations of the office “gossip” and the “compliant” team member who just wants to fit in. All of these approaches, while appearing dysfunctional, are also quite effective at achieving particular personal and organisational outcomes – outcomes that unfortunately, also create tension, anger and long-term behaviours that sabotage teams and organisations.
The deliberate and strategic use of archetypes in a leadership context however is rare, perhaps because of its symbolic and intuitive nature, but more likely, because to consider it means to consider aspects of our self and our behaviour that is confronting, challenging and requires significant courage. Its typical home is within Jungian psychology and masculine and feminine psychology. Yet, it is a highly practical and pragmatic approach to solving real-world leadership dilemmas and creating real-world leaders. So what exactly is archetypal leadership? Like everything else, we must begin at the beginning.
What are archetypes?
Archetypal leadership is an approach to leadership that draws on universally understood patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving. Archetypes are often referred to as potentials within our psychology, potentials to think, feel and behave in particular ways. The most commonly known are the “Hero”, the “Mother”, the “Wise old Man” and the “Trickster” and they can be found in cultures all over the world, from the Raven stories of the North American Indians and the Grail legends of Merlin and King Arthur to the Greek myths of the Underworld and Australian Aborigine songs about the Rainbow serpent. In particular, this article will be focusing on the four archetypes as described and detailed through the work of Robert Moore, a Jungian psychologist, as these resonate powerfully in terms of leadership as well as masculine and feminine psychology.
According to Moore, these archetypes are King/Queen, Warrior, Magician and Lover. Essentially, if we can connect with these potentials within our psychology, then we can create our own powerful leadership mythology. Similarly, if we can identify how these archetypes play out in our interactions with others, in both positive (light side) and negative (shadow side) manifestations, then we are in a more powerful position to influence outcomes. Exploring our archetypes in detail enables us to create our own archetypal map and look at strategies for managing the shadow sides of the archetypes and how they manifest in people’s behaviours.
Why a mythological approach?
Leadership is easy when the business and its people remain connected and continue to grow and develop. It is a very different story when we are faced with crisis and economic uncertainty, destructive behaviours, power struggles and apathy. How much of our leadership theory and training really prepares us for this, particularly when it is discussed and dissected in quite rational, non-emotive terms. In myths and stories, the protagonist learns to really know his/her self – usually through direct, painful experience. They learn to balance their rational and intuitive minds or suffer the consequences. They learn to be true to themselves and others and they have an aura or luminescence – that is, they shine. It’s time we realised that we can all shine and that we have control over our own leadership mythology.
All leadership theory, past, present and future agrees that the fundamental core of great leadership is an authentic and intimate knowledge of one’s self. Self awareness enables us to penetrate the mysteries of our own thinking and feeling, and how our thinking and feeling manifests in behaviours and relationship with others and the world. Such awareness forms the bedrock for understanding others, because we need to intellectually and empathetically understand via experience. The more we understand our self and others, the better we can perceive and understand the dynamics that occur between people and groups that impact on performance and results.
The need to understand our self has led to a burgeoning industry of diagnostic profiles, personality types, models, leadership and capability frameworks and training programs, all of which provide enormous value in supporting leaders to building their awareness. In particular, these tools give leaders a language with which to describe preferred patterns of behaviour, and of course, what leadership “is”. Of course, such languages are double-edged swords, because while they provide us words in which to describe our “self as leader” and “leadership” per se, they also have the potential to limit and label us if we are not mindful. Much of the business leadership language still favours the rational and analytical, and many lack the courage to explore the shadow side. They don’t authentically stretch people’s sense of “self”. Instead, they label, often in a checklist fashion, pitfalls and traps to avoid – as if it were that easy. When it comes to describing and ultimately understanding ourselves, we must also keep Derrida’s work in mind – that there is a fundamental contradiction in definition: the more we try to define, the more we move away from that thing which are seeking to understand.
Rational vs Intuitive
The more we frame leadership within a rational construct the more this becomes our lived experience of leadership – which is highly disempowering, because real leadership is messy, organic, highly subjective and constantly the locus of struggle, re-assessment, action and reflection. Rational leadership frameworks serve to reinforce particular mind-maps and ways of thinking about leadership, which in turn drive particular types of leadership behaviours resulting in habituated patterns that become difficult to escape. The more detailed and specific the leadership framework, the less chance of being able to embody it, as the brain simply cannot consciously hold all the pieces of the puzzle in place at the same time. However, without a framework or map to guide us, how do we chart the territory?
Palatable vs Authentic
Some leadership frameworks, assessments and profiles deliberately avoid exploring the “shadow side” of leadership psychology, usually because it is “unattractive” to executives and managers (and therefore not commercially attractive). Those that do can still fail to hit the mark when it comes to the very real psycho-pathology of colleagues, supervisors, peers, friends, parents and people with whom we interact in our day to day work and life. The reality is that work and life are continually made up of power struggles, teams wracked by uncertainty, entrenched organisational tribes, bloody-minded individuals and people who are masters of manipulation.
Vanilla vs Luminous
Because of this avoidance of the “shadow side”, leadership can become vanilla, lacking “luminescence” and reducing the psychological complexity of “leadership” down to a palatable palette of words that have been used over and over so many times that their meaning is lost. They have lost the language to really inspire new thinking, feeling and behaviour, disabling our ability to shine from within, to grow beyond ourselves and at the same time, find our self even more deeply. Powerful leaders have something that makes them shine. And this “something” is fully accessible by anyone willing to believe in themselves and do the hard work of walking through the wilderness. In other words, the vanilla is palatable. Real leadership is bloody hard work, often un-appreciated and unseen, fraught with failure and struggle – there is no escaping this.
Type/Style vs Whole
Finally, many of the organisational feedback tools organise, classify and arrange people into exclusive types or styles which serves to cut us off from internal psychological resources that are not only always available to us, but are crucial to our success as leaders. If anything, your style or type is a result of the resources you bring to any interaction and at any given point in space and time, which of course means that there is a horizon of change. The whole leader is the one who can draw on both the complementary and paradoxical within their self so that they can become more integrated, more centred and therefore, more powerful. Of course, there is DNA, context, education, experience and a whole cornucopia of factors that influence us. However, there are plenty of examples of people who have risen despite these factors, and recent investigations into neuro-plasticity and the shifting nature of the brain-body identity open up space for questioning.
What we have found time and time again in our one-on-one coaching sessions and group workshops is that if the subconscious and intuition are engaged and fully “online”, then real change occurs at levels deep enough to sustain it through environments of challenge and in the face of opposition. What we need is a language and way of talking and thinking about leadership that is not limiting, but is expansive, that is luminescent and evokes very powerful thoughts, feelings and intuitive connections in people’s minds so that they are better able to successfully live out the experience of leadership. We need a language that we all already know, that has minimal detail so that the intuition, subconscious and imagination are integrated and engaged and is flexible enough that it can be accessed by anyone and is always expansive, stretching and growing. A language that hurts, that is bloody hard to accept, that doesn’t let us avoid the truth, but holds us accountable to the words we choose.
Most importantly, what we have learnt is that people need to connect with all aspects of their psychology so that they can feel like a King/Queen in any situation, irrespective of who is with them and what is happening and really take control of their personal leadership mythology.