The Power of Leadership Narrative Intelligence Blog Series -- Part Two

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

The Power of Leadership Narrative Intelligence (NQ)

By Carol S. Pearson

I’m inspired by Quakers who call on one another to answer the question: “What is mine to do?” They ask this not just once, but in an on going way. As we reenter the post-pandemic world, how can we be optimally responsive to the crucial match between outer needs and our authentic motivations? What is ours to do?


The theme of this year’s International Leadership Association (ILA) global conference calls us to reimagine leadership for our time. For me, this is also a call to reimagine one’s own leadership. A psychodynamic approach can encourage us to reflect and then act from the inside out. If we don’t, and we come up with abstract ideas only, we may fail to embody them—just like New Year’s resolutions or organizational visioning processes that end up in a drawer, accomplishing nothing.


This is the second of two blogs that explore the role of archetypal narrative intelligence (NQ) in linking motivation, action, and leadership outcomes.


Blog Two: Fueling Leadership Authenticity, Situational Flexibility, Cognitive Complexity

Authentic Leadership and Personae Development

Leadership literature tells us that authentic leaders tend to be successful because people trust them enough to follow them. Authenticity is supported when we act in ways congruent with our most active archetypes. Ultimately,our authenticity arises from our essence, and in a Jungian frame, from our deeper self. Archetypal stories provide ways to express who we are by embodying our own versions of these universal characters and living their many plotlines. If you take the PMAI® assessment, your results will identify your three most active archetypes, making these conscious. The more aware we are of whicharchetypes are most available to us, the more choice we have in how we live their narratives. The more we trust and express who we are, the clearer our sense of purpose can be and the more likely we will contribute what we are uniquely qualified to do.


Jung’s work on persona development emphasizes that we are not islands who can be totally authentic all the time. Good persona development—or, for leader, personal branding—is interactive. A discovery process is needed to recognize what part of ourselves can be welcomed and be effective in each environment in which we find ourselves. Effective leadership can require a persona that shows the parts of you that others can hear, which can also lead to effective communication.

While some assume that leaders have a set style, psychodynamic theory related to archetypes says yes and no. Yes, we may have a core archetypal story, but people change over time, and cultures do too, although generally a bit more slowly. This means that just about the time we get comfortable being ourselves in an organizational, civic,or family culture, we might change or the culture might. If our most active archetypes change, we may seek to shift our roles or context, unless the inner change we are experiencing mirrors the outer changes needed by the setting in which we find ourselves.


Gaining Flexibility

Originally, PMAI® results emphasized only high and low archetypes, but leadership literature helped me understand how important the eight midrange scores are. Some midrange scores may be, or have been, active in you. If so, the motivation to live those stories has likely developed, to a certain degree, the archetypes’ possible competencies. It is helpful to recognize that although we can possess those competencies, we may feel bored or robotic when we do the very activities that used to light us up or that we developed by doing what was required of us. You might notice the plotlines/tasks you checked off as things you could do, and those that are also starred, as things you like to do. You know that for either you can rise to the occasion when needed, but the ones you also enjoy are those that you are likely to be able to sustain without a loss of energy and passion.  


Leaders can better understand others by imaginatively putting themselves in their shoes. One way to do that is for the leader to find some part of themselves that is like the other. The12-archetype system can be of help in naming what “movie” we are in, what inner character needs to show up in it, and to what end. Borrowing from method acting, we can perform the needed storyline convincingly by finding that part of ourselves. For example, if someone is whining and you hate that, find the part of you that whines inwardly, so you can show compassion. Such inner work prepares you to live the story needed by a situation, at least for the time required, even though it may not be where you like to live.


Being story savvy also can help you meet goals through team action. Scenario planning provides a way to achieve adesired goal by telling many stories about how to get there. Archetypal theory can add to this by assessing whether the narratives the group and its leadership are currently motivated to live can achieve the goals desired. Imagine various archetypal storylines as maps that might help you get from here to there. If the goal is winning, the Warrior plotline may be called for, whereas if the goal is to form a supportive community and collaborate or to figure out a difficult issue, the Lover or Sage plotlines may need to be invoked. Moreover, many storylines have various tributaries. Some lead to desired outcomes, some to undesired ones, and a few to somewhere in between. Getting everyone on board with the desired outcome is an intelligent move, so your efforts are not undercut. The key is to make clear how their own motivations can be utilized in the endeavor.


What We May Not See Coming

The PMAI® assessment reports a least active score. You can consider any motivations/plotlines that you crossed out above as being your lowest scores. Why is this important? When we utilize one of our preferred narratives to explain what is happening, we are likely to disproportionately focus on the things that support that narrative’s plotline. Even well-read, well-informed, well-traveled leaders may have one or more stories that do not occur to them. That is where they can be blindsided by events they do not see coming, and where they can discount insights from those in whom these plotlines are active. Having a heads up about what we might not see can motivate us to learn enough about those archetypal stories to be prepared if they are needed.


This is also important because such undeveloped storylines may result in leadership challenges where we find ourselves confronted with our own level of incompetence. At worst, we might even act out a potentially shadowyquality of an undeveloped archetype. These can spring into action uninvited in their more primal forms because their narratives have not been lived enough toevolve through practice and feedback.


Recognizing such undeveloped areas early can lead to wise team building, delegation, andpartnerships, which serve as protection going forward.


Leadership and Complexity of Thinking

A current danger in many countries today is that some people live in bubbles where they keep hearing only one side of the story, a story which sometimes is not even connected to reality. Such people without power can be easily manipulated. However, leaders typically do have power, so the more they are capable of understanding, the better it is for everyone. The advantage of thinking through story-telling is that narratives link the head with the heart and light up a good part of the brain. The more archetypes active in our psyches, even imaginatively, the more ways ofunderstanding the world we have available to us. In this, as in most things, practice can help. It is helpful, when faced with a new challenge, to tell several of the twelve archetypal stories about how to ace it — including the story from our lowest scoring archetype. Doing this activates narrative intelligence (NQ), which can combine empathy with rationality, while also revealing the logical consequences of considered actions where plotlines lead.


Conclusion:  I hope this short article has provided you with some story-based leadership insights.  It, of course, builds on the work of many respected scholars who specialize in areas such as transformational leadership, authentic leadership, situational flexibility, cultural sensitivity, cognitive complexity, and so on.  Any of these can provide you with important background information about such specific leadership approaches.  For more information about my story-based approach, go to What Stories Are You Living: Discover Your Archetypes – Transform Your Life.

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