The text message from Mindy came to me during a morning one-on-one leadership coaching session with another client. Now, Mindy simply doesn’t send SOS text messages. She is one of the strongest school administrators I have had the privilege of coaching. So when she sends a text asking for help, today, something must be serious. She wrote, “Our KRESA leaders are really getting banged up right now in regard to our COVID-19 back-to-school entry plan. The realist’s voice is so loud right now. We are really hurting. Could you facilitate a discussion with our administrative team?”
Kalamazoo Regional Education Service Agency (KRESA) is a support agency for local schools in Kalamazoo county, Kalamazoo, MI. One of their major areas of support is to provide educational services to the most challenged students in the county. However, COVID was threatening to reduce their annual, joyful, back-to-school breakfast into a virtual, we can’t do face-to-face education, fear-dinner. KRESA Superintendent David Campbell and his leadership team had a good plan for school re-entry, but the strong voice of the Realist archetype, issuing from teachers and staff, was demanding attention.
The Realist Archetype
The Realist is one of 12 archetypes in the Pearson-Marr Archetype system that I have worked with for years as leadership, team, and organizational coach. The 12 archetypes, listed with brief explanations at the end of this article, are from the work of Carol Pearson, Ph.D., a literature scholar who identified these 12 archetypal characters and plots from classic literature and film across time and culture. The system includes an assessment, the Pearson-Marr Archetype Indicator (PMAI), and supporting material.
I jumped on a videoconference call with the team, and, with a diverse group of 17 leaders filling my Zoom screen, I listened to each of them use the archetype term, Realist, to explain the voices they were hearing from their fearful staff. As a consequence of our work over the prior months and years, I understood exactly what they were hearing. Because the administrative leaders worked to establish an organizational common language in the archetypes, they knew exactly what their staff was saying to them and why.
The Realist archetype is about seeing real dangers in life and wanting to alert the world around them. A Realist will do so in order to rescue their community from certain danger. They are adept at seeing possible traps in everyone’s plans; they see potential holes in leadership proposals. The KRESA staff wanted to warn their leadership team about the fears they were experiencing. In the past, these voices might have been referred to as “Negative Nellies” or “Debbie Downers.” Armed with archetypal knowledge from training in the PMAI, the KRESA leadership team had learned to not just embrace the Realist’s voice, they grew to learn from it and they learned to grow from it.
This common language did not exist in KRESA just years earlier. Where did this common language begin? What power did it give this leadership team to engage in these courageous conversations? Where might the power of common language lead them?
A Common Language Within Organizations
Superintendent David Campbell came to KRESA eight years before COVID. His desire was to craft a leadership team that was relationally cohesive, technically sound, and driven by shared core values. He knew for that to happen, he needed a common language that everyone could both understand and use to convey their thoughts, needs, and opinions. I introduced Campbell and his team to the PMAI assessment and system. The aim of using the PMAI tool was to teach the administrators, leaders, and staff a shared language built upon the 12 archetypes of the PMAI theory.
The group learned to recognize the voice of those driving for excellence (Warrior). Soon the voice of those demanding structure, policy, and process would ring with understanding in their minds (Ruler). It did not take long for them to recognize the thoughts, words, and reflections of those who seek change and new experiences (Seeker). They even learned that the Idealist can see hope and trust when everyone else sees doom and gloom. In the midst of a worldwide pandemic, they even came to recognize and value the words spoken by those wishing to warn the community (Realist). But their deeper task was to move their team from the Realist to the Idealist perspective.
Superintendent Campbell, when asked about the power of using a common language centered around the PMAI theory, would say:
“The study and mastery of the archetypes is a wonderful tool for leaders to use to help people understand each other and work better together. By doing so, they accomplish organizational goals in a manner that lasts because strategies have been looked at from multiple points of view.”
When Mindy heard her leadership team, she immediately recognized the essential, archetypal message they were sending. The administrative team needed to appreciate the Realist’s voice and pivot their own thoughts and understanding to both the Seeker and Ruler voices. The Realist often can give us the problem, but it takes exploration for solutions (Seeker) and established process (Ruler) to balance them with the hope and trust of the Idealist. The KRESA team needed to trust their leaders.
Mindy asked me to facilitate that discussion. By helping them focus on the process of the Ruler and the solutions of the Seeker, we were able to link them with the hope and trust of the Idealist. Mindy knew what she needed because she had a common language to express and guide the team. After our productive virtual meeting, she gave me her after-action-review reflections:
“Archetypes have given us language to both understand ourselves and each other better. It creates a common way to see human behavior and communication. Most importantly, archetype language helps us to remove judgment about the various ways people communicate and allows space for many voices to be heard and valued. And most recently while leading in a time of crisis, it has helped us to find a place of balance. While we know we need the vigilance the Realist’s voice provides, it is equally as important to ensure the Idealist is alive and well, providing hope and encouragement for the new school year.”
The PMAI Archetypal Characters
The PMAI assessment and system provides organizations with a common language to express their values, thoughts, and ideas. Many organizations have a common technical language. Even more have a common industry language. Through the PMAI tool, organizations can grow and develop through a shared understanding of archetypal situations humans find themselves in, bringing their thinking and communicating into a common language. A common language that produces uncommon understanding and uncommon results.
The 12 archetypal characters:
Caregiver provides helping and nurturing as a source of fulfillment.
Creator is imaginative, constantly thinking of innovative possibilities.
Idealist has a basic trust in life that lets you look on the bright side.
Jester finds humor and joy by recognizing the absurdity of life.
Lover lives for relationships, passionately leading with the heart.
Magician knows what is real is determined by what one believes.
Realist is practical, doing what works, and seeing what is likely.
Revolutionary challenges, and often changes, the status quo.
Ruler gravitates to power to achieve goals and keep order.
Sage is curious about many topics to pursue life as a learning process.
Seeker follows a search for the authentic self and the new.
Warrior is mission-driven and meets challenges courageously.