top of page

The 3 Archetypes of Change Leaders - What Are They Missing?

Updated: Aug 31, 2023

"Why didn't this work out how we imagined?” It’s a question we hear a lot. We think of this as the Pinterest fail of leadership: we have a picture of the leadership moves and the way people will respond. And often we can’t explain how our expectations versus reality diverge so significantly.

To help you see where your intentions go awry, let’s explore your default approach to leading change. Under pressure, we double down on our strengths - with often unintended impacts on our reputation and relationships.

The 3 Change Archetypes

Let’s look at three common types of change leaders and explore their gifts of their leadership - and some of the costs.

The Pontificator

This leader has brilliant strategic ideas – and a lot of them. They can see the promised land and what is possible for where the organization can go. They have conviction, and often, charisma.

When others fail to follow, the Pontificator can become frustrated with the resistance or lack of motivation. Why can’t they just capture the vision and help it come together?

To others, a Pontificator can be seen as a “big ideas” person or a "flavor of the week" generator. She doesn’t see what it will actually take to get it done, or how the idea will play out on the ground. People working with a Pontificator can feel bruised by past ideas that made their lives H*&@ - or jaded knowing that “this too shall pass.” They play it safe and try not to get too involved.

The Pleaser

This leader has a special knack for tuning into how people feel. His empathetic, caring approach means that people feel safe coming to him to unburden themselves of the challenges they are facing. The Pleaser is often the receptacle for everyone’s fears, struggles and resistance during a change process.

Pleasers can get stuck when the change turns difficult - playing “shuttle diplomacy” between parties with differing opinions. Sometimes, they feel torn between what leadership has asked them to do and the voices of dissent. When people continue to raise what isn’t working rather than constructively being a part of the solution, the Pleaser loses optimism and energy.

People may love but not respect a Pleaser. They appreciate feeling heard and cared about, knowing that someone else will step into fight their battles. But the Pleaser doesn’t make the tough calls. It takes courage to pull above the noise, see a third way forward and inspire others toward a new direction.

The Driver

This leader knows how to get. things. done. They are decisive, planned, and organized. Once they have a problem in their sights, they put solutions and people into play. They develop rich, concrete pictures of how to operationalize the change, and their energy is put into mobilizing their plan to get something complete.

When people don’t follow, a Driver might double down on the detail and follow through on the plan. They may highlight the risks of people’s non-compliance, and they may insist that others dig deeper to do their part in the process.

Some people find themselves exhausted by Drivers. They feel conscripted into something that wasn’t their idea in the first place, and they resent the prescriptiveness and urgency that come along with the plan. They just can’t breathe. Other people may give the “bobble head” response. Technically, they say yes to the work, but they eject out or hand it back to the Driver once it starts to become difficult.

Underneath “resistance” is a missing need

We know that resistance leaves leaders at a loss for how to achieve the seemingly impossible task - “get the job done” and “make sure everyone is super happy in the process.” They are working incredibly hard, and ironically, each one is doing something incredibly well.

Here’s the thing: it’s not that the leaders’ style is wrong. It’s simply incomplete. They meet some of the needs of the people, but need to explore what they are missing.

  • The Pontificator might give broad inspiration, but may miss that people need clarity, support, and empathy for how to actually make that work.

  • The Pleaser might give empathy, but their indecisiveness fuels fatigue and disbelief.

  • The Driver brings clarity and concreteness, but they miss the emotional connection and fail to engender a sense of ownership and inspiration in others.

Put differently, resistance could simply be a roadmap, pointing to human needs we missed. It’s when a leader flexes and captures the strengths of all of the change archetypes that they can tap into the myriad of human needs in change.

Leading change is about synching our actions and the needs of others

Successful change leaders flip the script in leading change. They understand what people need, and do THAT, rather than going with what feels natural or comfortable for themselves. They are constantly studying how people tick and learning new ways of leading in those moments. And they are building in scaffolds to keep them honest when they know they may be tempted to spin in place or cut corners.

As you consider where your default patterns lie, we also encourage you to examine the assumptions and narratives you have about your leadership. What limiting beliefs keep you defaulting to your safe (if less effective) ways of doing things? What might it look like to take a different approach to your next leadership move?

In upcoming posts, we will look more deeply at how humans experience change. We’ll examine the concrete steps change leaders take to support those needs across a sustained initiative. And we’ll explore how our identity and culture impacts our change leadership."


Interested in learning more about the practical steps of leading inclusive change? Join us for our foundational workshop series, Leading Inclusive Change.


bottom of page