What is an archetype?
An archetype is a character that we know in our culture and in our stories. It is the King, the Queen, the Warrior, the Wizard, the Wise Woman and many more. Archetypes are at work in organisations when we tell a story about the future of our organisation, perhaps a ‘good to great’ story or a ‘challenger brand’ story. Archetypes are at work when we label someone a ‘fighter’ or a ‘princess’ or a ‘bit of a joker’. They are a language that we share and understand. For example, I expect we all know someone who we might fit the archetype of a Warrior Woman. In legend she may show up as Athena, Boudicca, Wonderwoman or Elastigirl. All are independent, driven, focused, capable and self-sufficient women.
Carl Jung wrote “Aren’t we the carriers of the entire history of mankind? When a man is 50 years old only one part of his being has existed for half a century. The other part which lives in his psyche may be millions of years old… contemporary man is but the latest ripe fruit on the tree of the human race. The archetypes are, as it were, hidden formations of the conscious mind…”
Archetypes shape our thinking about people, about leadership and about development whether we are aware or not. Better to be aware.
What are the main Archetypes?
There are many different ways of describing archetypes although the themes are recognisable. I recommend Jean Shinoda Bolen’s books “Gods in Everyman” and “Goddesses in Everywoman” for a start. The Pearson Marr Archetype Indicator is also a useful resource. It is a test that can be taken online and uses the following list of archetypes: Innocent, Orphan, Warrior, Caregiver, Seeker, Lover, Destroyer, Creator, Ruler, Magician, Sage, Jester. Read that list once more and notice which you are drawn to, which you understand and which seem mysterious to you.
What is the usefulness of archetypes in development?
I see two main ways in which archetypes are useful to leaders and those who coach them.
The first is about growth. Archetypes can show us what might be next for us; what might be unfolding in us. In Jung’s words “Archetypes are systems of readiness for action… they represent on the one hand a very strong instinctive conservatism while on the other hand they are the most effective means conceivable of instinctive adaptation…. ” When a coach of mine told me 15 years ago that he could see my ‘inner Queen’ emerging, it sounded a little weird. But I knew what he meant. At that time I was still in thrall to leaders in my organisation. I was dutiful, a team player. The archetype of the princess or loyal courtier was well-developed in me. I did not yet have a conception of myself as someone who might one day be on the metaphorical throne of an organisation, but I could rely on the Queen archetype to help me imagine how I might develop.
The second is about what stays outside of our awareness or disowned by us. If we assume that all archetypes are somewhere within us, we can get interested in the parts of ourselves that we acknowledge and the parts we exile. For example, the Warrior Woman who disowns the part of herself that is a vulnerable and persecutes anyone in the organisation who whinges or expresses helplessness. Another example would be the class-clown senior manager who cracks cynical jokes about the executive team and cannot get in touch with the King-like part of himself that might, at some point, appropriately, take charge.
When I took the Pearson Marr test, the Destroyer came up as an archetype I disown. I was perplexed for several months – how could a Destroyer be a useful archetype for me to inhabit? But I have come to see it as a shadow side of a strength. I know how to be loyal, to build relationships, to create projects, to collect friends and objects. But do I know how to end relationships, to break up an organisation that has reached its natural end, to send the junk in my cupboard to the charity shop? Just as a natural forest fire sweeps through a forest clearing the dead wood allowing new shoots to prosper, the Destroyer archetype can be a force for good. Accessing the Destroyer archetype at the right time is something a leader needs to be able to do.
As we evolve as leaders and professionals, archetypes can be powerful guides, it’s best we know them and get curious about how they are at work in us.