Leadership archetypes that inspire

23 November 2021

Zoe Routh

Zoe Routh is a leadership expert. She has worked with individuals and teams internationally and in Australia since 1987.

What makes a great leader? Zoë Routh examines the five leadership archetypes that inspire in a crisis and beyond.

What makes for good leadership in a crisis? It’s not just what leaders do, it’s the role they embody.

Take for example the success of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s approach in New Zealand. When COVID-19 hit New Zealand, she gave daily briefings from her home, on occasion in a well-worn sweatshirt, after having put her infant daughter to sleep. Ardern appeared as a dedicated mother, strong head of state, and deeply caring human.

Lauded around the world for their success in containing COVID-19 with aggressive, science-advised lockdowns, Ardern and her Government have enjoyed overwhelming support from New Zealanders.

A Colmar Brunton poll taken just after the early and very strict lockdown restrictions came into play last year, revealed 88 per cent of respondents believed they could ‘trust the Government to make the right decisions on COVID-19’. Ardern’s leadership bearing was wise and compassionate, strong and empathetic. 

Compare Ardern’s posture to the strongman, populist stance of former U.S. President Donald Trump, Boris Johnson in the U.K., and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro. In each of these countries, the pandemic raged unfettered for far too long, costing thousands of lives. Hero talk without swift follow through is an empty masquerade.

Action matters, too. Recent research based on more than 21,000 leadership assessments among C-suite executives by ghSMART reveals four key behaviours that help leaders manage in a crisis: ‘decide with speed over precision, adapt boldly, reliably deliver, and engage for impact.’ Crisis implies the need for intense, focused action. It conjures the deft strokes of a fencing sword master: slash, slash, drive it home. It’s a frenzied blur of activity.

Sustainable leadership beyond a crisis, however, needs more than short-term intense behaviours. Leaders need action and attitude templates that inspire and deliver. Personas can guide practice.

Ancient wisdom for modern practice 

Ancient Romans sought inspiration in the worship of numerous Gods and Goddesses. They looked to deities not only for guidance, but to invoke their best attributes in their daily challenges.

Through their stories, the Gods and Goddesses provided a template for how to live better. Roman soldiers prayed for the strength of Mars, the God of War, before going to battle, hoping to manifest his example. Every day Romans worshipped Minerva, the Goddess of wisdom and craft, seeking her deft touch in material and intellectual matters. 

We can borrow inspiration from these stories for modern leadership practice in the form of archetypes. Archetypes are figures that represent familiar patterns of behaviour. In the time of crisis and beyond, here are five archetypes to help shape leadership agility.

1. The Elder

The Elder appears in all cultures as the embodiment of wisdom and compassion. The Elder demonstrates the best of the mind and the best of the heart: a blend of wisdom and compassion. The Elder helps us make both sensitive and sensible decisions. With the Elder, we can rise above factionalism and political agendas to seek the highest good for all. Think Nelson Mandela.

2. The Warrior

If ever there was a time to invoke the Warrior, it’s in the time of crisis… but with a caveat. An elevated Warrior archetype fights for humanity, and seeks the elevation of all, not the mindless destruction of others. When things look grim, we can lean on the Warrior for courage, conviction, and determination. Think Greta Thurnberg.

3. The Guardian

The Guardian archetype is needed when we emphasise maintaining traditions, while balancing innovation and progress. The Guardian archetype helps us identify what matters most in our team, group or business. The Guardian ensures that our values are honoured and integrated as we evolve. Think Queen Elizabeth.

4. The Diplomat

The Diplomat is the epitome of skilful negotiation. Diplomats can navigate competing interests with aplomb, seeking outcomes that benefit all parties. Diplomat leaders see the benefit of including more perspectives and will look to leverage partnerships. Think Angela Merkel.

5. The Pioneer

The Pioneer is best called upon when we want to build and progress. Growth and development is the imperative. Experimentation and pathfinding is the method. The spirit of adventure drives the Pioneer. Think Bill Gates.

In a time of crisis, not only do we need a swift response, we need smart choices, too. When we use archetypes to inform our leadership decisions, we actualise their best qualities. Archetypes also create architecture for action. These ancient stories are proven patterns to help us lead more wisely and compassionately. And the world needs more of that right now!

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