By Cindy Atlee
Depending on which side of the outcome you were on, last week’s election may have produced a lot of tears. That happened for me on the Saturday night before the vote, in a very unexpected way and certainly via an unexpected source. Saturday Night Live reduced me to tears.
Yes, that Saturday Night Live—the veteran comedy sketch show that’s been making America laugh, not cry, for more than 40 years. In their last pre-election skit of the season, Kate McKinnon and Alec Baldwin dropped their Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump characters, joined hands, and strode purposefully out into the streets of New York City to see America together.
That surrealistic moment had me crying no more than 30 seconds in, and for two reasons. First, the idealism of the skit twist was a poignant reminder that there’s been no room at all in this election for any of the positivity or wonder or hopefulness of the Innocent archetype. Second, it reminded me of how narrow the archetypal aperture has been on all the storytelling in this cycle and how little room has been left for any real humanity to emerge.
I’ve been privileged to work with Carol Pearson’s archetypal system for almost 15 years now. I use it as a branding consultant and leadership development coach to help individuals and organizations define what story most brings their identity, purpose, and promise to life. I also help clients use archetypal meaning and motivation to build teams and cultures that deeply engage the people who are part of them.
Over the years, I’ve come to understand that most people and groups identify strongly with three to four archetypes that can truly energize and activate their brands. Innocent is one of those types for me. I’m an optimistic, belief-driven, values-oriented kind of person. That attitude flavors my business brand, which is shaped most heavily by the Creator’s thirst for imagination and expression.
A great brand usually can be developed by focusing on what’s most central to a couple of archetypes that truly personify it. I’ve found, though, that building an engaged, committed team or culture requires more complex thinking about a group’s story-based structure—and especially about the story level that’s driving its action. And that gets us back to my second point about the Saturday Night Live skit. It’s not just that certain stories have been left out of this election cycle. It’s also that most of the stories we’ve heard have been told at a fairly low level of expression.
What do I mean by that? One foundation of Carol Pearson’s 12 Archetype System is the concept of story level—the idea that archetypal storylines play out at varying levels of focus and intent, with each level more successively other-directed than the last. Here’s what the overarching Innocent story type can look like at different levels:
- Level one (Me): Self orientation (the Believer, someone who relies heavily on personal values and virtues to shape decisions and attitudes)
- Level two (Us): Immediate other, such as family, work group, neighborhood (the Cheerleader, someone who optimistically encourages others—especially those in a close affinity group where a positive outcome is particularly desirable)
- Level three (We): Expanded other, such as community, country, or humankind (the Idealist, someone who pursues a high or noble purpose with a dream of making the world a better place)
All of us shift in and out of story levels all the time, and all of the levels are needed. At level one, good boundaries and a strong sense of self help us function well in the world while letting others know who we really are. Level two provides the impulse for us to form strong bonds with others and create groups that are healthy and productive. If we spend too much time in a level one or two orientation, though—forgetting about level three—we can lose sight of the very humanity of anyone who’s not on our immediate radar screen. That in turn can create a great deal of conflict and misunderstanding, especially if it means that we can’t appreciate or respond to the divergent perspectives, needs, or motivations that a wider “story aperture” invites. The absence of level three awareness leads to problems even before we exhibit any of the most shadowy, dysfunctional versions of the archetypes that hover below a level one focus.
That’s certainly part of what’s happened in this election. Don’t get me wrong; there’s been plenty of shadowy, dysfunctional behavior throughout—and there’s also been very little level three storytelling. Few if any of the central players have captured the public’s imagination or created meaningful dialog across partisan lines (politics has never been a great breeding ground for that, of course).
Despite living just outside Washington, DC, I don’t work in politics. I certainly don’t know how to heal the great divide in this country, and I don’t know how to inspire politicians to spend more time at level three. On a much smaller scale, though, I do have some ideas to help leaders move their organizations down a culture engagement path that makes room for all three levels of expression within their teams and across their enterprises. Leaders who do that build engagement by making greater room for diversity of thought and feeling. They’re secure enough to tolerate differences, and often to welcome them in service of a culture that works for more people. Here are three tips for moving down the me-us-we culture engagement path:
- Assess your culture. Healthy teams and organizations have a sense of direction and destiny that’s very similar to the plot of a universal story we all know. They also have a supporting roster of archetypes that helps them accomplish the most important tasks of professional life (establishing systems and structures; producing results; collaborating and relating to others; and learning/adapting). When you assess your culture archetypally, you’ll find out what’s driving the beliefs and behaviors of your people—and how that’s supporting or getting in the way of the culture you’re hoping to create.
- Look for story level signs. Once you know what storylines are most active in your team or organization, you can start considering what story levels are at play. Put on your me/us/we thinking cap and honestly assess what’s going on around you. If there’s lots of conflict, competition, and grandstanding, people may be too focused on themselves and the level one version of the story. Cliques and territorial skirmishes can indicate too much level two. If there’s so much long-term focus and high-mindedness that present-day reality and self-care is forgotten, there may even be too much invested in level three thinking. Great leaders learn to call others to the right story and the right level of expression for the situation.
- Make room for storyline diversity. Teams and organizations with the most engaged workforces have a collective identity that brings everyone together—and ways of allowing individuals within them to live out their own stories in service of the shared passion, goals, or vision. I’ve personally worked in organizations where my Innocent and Creator contributions have been welcomed, and I’ve felt completely committed to a collective identity that was more about another storyline. I’ve also had experiences where that didn’t happen.
Looking back on my very surprising reaction to Saturday Night Live, I can see what happened. The Innocent archetype was invoked, all right, and that resonates for me. A level three story that had room for a much larger swath of our world was told as well—and with an entirely new, rarely imagined kind of ending. Maybe it was corny, maybe it was unrealistic, but at least it made our collective radar screen.
I’d love to believe we’ll start seeing this in real-world politics, but even I’m not enough of a Pollyanna to think that’s very likely under the circumstances or that so much divisiveness can be overcome quickly. There’s one thing I think we all can agree on, however. This election has been one story that really did need to end.
Cindy Atlee is a coach, facilitator, and branding consultant who believes that every individual and organization has a powerful story to tell. She currently is principal of The Storybranding Group, a firm that helps clients define and use the power of who they are to develop motivated leaders, build inspiring brands, and deeply engage their workforces. Previously, she was Senior Vice President, Branding & Organizational Culture, at the global public relations firm Porter Novelli. Since completing Dr. Pearson’s postgraduate Transformational Leadership Program at Georgetown University, she’s worked extensively to develop and apply archetypal tools and frameworks in all of her work. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.