Leadership today is too often viewed as a function or role conferred only by some authority. Yet, whether you are a parent, a teacher, a supervisor, a CEO, president of a country, or someone who acts because something needs to be done and no one else is doing it, you can lead successfully only if other people actually want to follow you, collaborate with you, or support you. Even so, being in charge can feel as if it is just a job, often even a tiring and thankless one, especially if your responsibilities do not fill you with meaning and help you to feel that you matter. The mundane can crowd out the important.
I’ve been a leadership scholar and a leader, and believe me, formal responsibility for leadership is harder, though not as difficult (for me) as parenting. In recent years, I was the Director of the Burns Academy of Leadership at the University of Maryland and then the Provost and President of Pacifica Graduate Institute. Since my scholarship is based on Jungian and archetypal psychology, I’ve applied these ideas to leadership and my life generally, especially with the foundational belief that we all matter and have a responsibility to show up to do our parts—an emerging notion in contemporary leadership theory and practice.
I’ve discovered that leadership can be restored to a calling—when I treat it as one, even when my responsibilities include things I would rather not be doing. Leadership becomes a calling when we care about making a difference to individuals, groups, and the greater good and when we connect the desire to matter with the archetypal stories, alive in us, that fuel our interests, motivations, and behaviors and that provide plotlines to guide our action. Staying rooted in this awareness can help any of us persevere even when the petty, mundane tasks and infighting get us down.
Background Ideas and How They Can Help You Find Your Deeper Leadership Calling
The psychiatrist C.G. Jung found that some narratives recur in all times and places, and he called them archetypes, which are revealed in myth, symbol, literature, and other human creations. When we live them, we are connected with universal psychological patterns and all those who live them now or have done so at any time in history. Jung highlighted archetypes such as Mother, Father, Child, and Trickster and revealed how archetypes can connect people with eternal human patterns—patterns that are always in the process of evolving. His work focused on healing patients by helping them connect with archetypal images and energies that were important to their individuation process (the process of being true to themselves), but had been lacking in how they were living their lives.
In my work with leaders, I help them recognize the archetypes that motivate and energize their actions at any particular time, with one or more offering clarity about their core purpose or calling. I work with archetypes that are important to the hero’s journey and that contribute to leadership success, such as the Warrior, Sage, Caregiver, Magician, and Ruler. Those that are most alive in us connect us with our deeper selves and also inform our attitudes and behaviors. The term “archetype” can seem mystifying until you realize that you can recognize each kind of character in novels, movies, or TV shows, as well as in people you know. You also can recognize the plotlines that go along with these characters if you think about them in relationship to different fictional genres. For example, and to oversimplify a bit: the Warrior stars in war stories and superhero comics; the Lover in romances; the Magician in fantasy; the Sage in mysteries, and so on. All of these genres have recognizable plotlines as well as central characters.
As leaders, the characters we most like and the plotlines we tend to live out show us what kinds of leaders we best can be, and allow us to seek out situations where we will be the most helpful.
Neuroscience reveals to us more details on the role of stories in our lives. Our brains and psyches naturally make meaning of events through organizing them into narratives. Social neuroscientists have demonstrated that living and telling one another stories inspires not only personal growth, but also supports the evolution of human consciousness and social systems that we all can influence. That means that the stories you tell and those you model in how you live matter greatly. As you take your life journey, different archetypes emerge in you as they are needed, expanding your potential.
Not all of these stories help us find our deeper calling or what is special about what we have to offer the world. Nonetheless, they can expand our abilities and promote a positive attitude toward facing the unknown. Thus, my work with archetypes in leadership stresses not only those that connect us with our soul calling, but also others that are needed to live in our time and context. These help us relate to the diverse people with whom we come in contact and respond to external situations, increasing our social and emotional intelligence as well as our situational flexibility.
As children and throughout life, we soak up attitudes and behaviors from people who influence us and those we hang out with, as well as from what we view and read. These experiences activate archetypes within us that may not fulfill us, but may, nevertheless, assist us in responding to challenges and relating to others, and thus enhance our chances of success. Doing this consciously also can help us join the ongoing human conversation and influence the evolution of the archetypes in our time. It also can amplify our ability to grow and change by emulating mentors, identifying with fictional characters, and using our imagination to pretend to be what we are not yet as we use fantasy to prepare for prime time.
Archetypes that Promote Important Leadership Capacities
The following chart identifies 12 archetypal stories that are important to leadership success today and offers brief examples of how living them and embodying their roles is helpful to leaders as they act to accomplish important leadership tasks. Of course, all have much more to them than is possible to describe even in a longish blog.
- As you read this, you might want to select from the chart the tasks, characters, and plotlines with which you most identify.
- Then notice any of the other plotlines that are needed in your life for you to be more successful, especially in your leadership roles, and those that have helped you in the past.
- Finally, notice any you tend to devalue or ignore as irrelevant.
Leadership Task: Providing
Plotline: When problems arise
Embodies and reinforces shared values, sometimes through communication
Identifies threats; appraises opportunities before acting to prevent or remediate them
Fights for your people, resources, and mission fulfillment; builds competitive teams
Care and safety
Establishes caring systems; models being kind to people; supports human needs
Pioneers and seeks out available options to accomplish goals in individuals’ own ways
Fosters personal relationships, collaboration, shared commitments, and attractive spaces
Encourages and implements imaginative solutions and creative products/services
Resources and prioritizes projects and weeds out outmoded ones; avoids overload
Establishes order and safety
Manages and, in a changing environment, upgrades systems, policies, and procedures
Fosters optimism and cheer
Offers social time, humor, and wildcard brainstorming; attitude of work as fun
Analyzes situations, weighs options, and develops plans using rational processes
Orchestrates rituals of celebration and transition; builds consensus; provides answers
Then analyze your choices:
- Your top three archetypes likely are those most fulfilling for you, so you can choose tasks and situations that require and reward what you are authentically motivated to do. This not only makes you more authentic, it also makes leading easier and more fulfilling.
- Recognizing your nonpreferred or less preferred but active archetypes can help you notice how you have grown as a person and a leader as they have assisted you from within.
- From this, you can trust that as you take on increasingly complex challenges, archetypes that you need will activate, especially if you welcome them.
- Those archetypes you typically ignore or devalue, when recognized, can help you notice and prevent problems before they occur.
These four understandings, taken together, can help you live into your soul calling as you grow and develop through the great adventure of living and leading.