Lesson #2: Claiming and letting go of change agent archetypes
Who you really are
The work of the change agent is not to become more like what others think of when they think “change agent,” “leader,” “activist,” or “impact.” It is not to become more like those that society most admires and rewards. It is not for us all to think the same way, do the same thing, or strive toward the same goals or visions. In fact, it is not to become someone or something different at all.
The most impactful change agents focus their energies where they are uniquely positioned to leverage change. They use the sharpest tools in their toolbox. They play the roles in which they truly thrive. They grapple with the challenges over which they have particular influence or insight. They delve inward to uncover and harness the potential already within them.
The most impactful change agents understand that they cannot be everything to everyone. They know exactly what their role in change is and they focus on it like a laser beam. They let go of the roles and responsibilities that are not theirs to take on and trust that others will pick them back up.
The work of the change agent is to know and be who they really are. It is to become more themselves.
The change ecosystem
Imagine a thriving, beautiful old-growth forest teeming with life and abundance. Notice that there is no one individual or species that “leads” it. There is no one element that defines it. The forest is a confluence of plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, and more, each offering something new, unique, and vital. It has many different layers and stories. It has both birth and death, growth and decay.
What makes the forest so beautiful and rich is how these diverse elements balance and complement one another. Together, and only together, they transform into something more dynamic and resilient than the sum of their parts. They become an ecosystem. They become the forest.
Change is much like that forest. It is an ecosystem that relies on many disparate, often contrasting or even competing, actors each doing what they do best, each being who they really are, each balancing and complementing the other.
A beetle cannot be a hawk. A hawk cannot be a tree. And a tree cannot be the forest. As change agents, we must continually remind ourselves that we are only ever just one small piece in the beautiful mess of it all, one small piece in the puzzle of change. We play the roles that are ours to play, admire and appreciate others playing theirs, and watch in wonder as change emerges and unfolds before our eyes.
Everyone has a unique role to play in the ecosystem of change. But no one can play them all.
There are perhaps endless change agent roles we might imagine and embody. Just as with an ecosystem, change is dynamic and ever-evolving, always inviting new life, always creating new habitats and niches.
However, the types of roles change agents often play can perhaps be distilled down into a handful of archetypes, just as the forest can be divided by biological kingdoms, families, or species. These general categories of roles do not and cannot define or encapsulate any of us. But they can help us begin to identify our specific contributions to change so that we can focus our energies accordingly.
Some common change agent archetypes include:
- Activist: The activist strategizes, organizes, and disrupts on the front lines. This might include someone organizing a protest or joining a direct action. Example: Greta Thunberg
- Analyst: The analyst builds knowledge of critical challenges and solutions. This might be a climate scientist or economist exploring the drivers of inequality. Example: Brené Brown
- Artist: The artist inspires new insight and perspectives by engaging their creativity. This might be a songwriter that exposes the pain of the world or a muralist who captures possibilities for the future. Example: Ai Weiwei
- Communicator: The communicator inspires awareness of challenges, risks, and opportunities through clear, compelling storytelling. This might be an author, documentarian, or social media influencer. Example: Ta-Nehisi Coates
- Connector: The connector fosters collaboration and cross-pollination by growing personal relationships and networks among change agents. Example: Stacy Abrams
- Conservator: The conservator protects, maintains, or revives the existing aspects of the world that serve us. This might be someone who urges us to acknowledge and leverage the beauty in the status quo or someone seeking to rekindle lost customs. Example: Tyson Yunkaporta
- Entrepreneur: The entrepreneur creates and grows new products and organizations. This might be someone launching a business, non-profit, or collective. Example: Yvon Chouinard
- Healer: The healer helps integrate and holds space for physical, emotional, and spiritual pain. Example: adrienne maree brown
- Intrapreneur: The intrapreneur builds new initiatives or paradigms within existing organizations. Example: Sheryl Sandberg
- Satirist: The satirist exposes the shortcomings, inconsistencies, and ironies of existing systems and paradigms. Example: Stephen Colbert
- Sage: The sage teaches us presence, connects us to the wisdom of the universe, and offers counsel. Example: Thich Nhat Hahn
- Visionary: The visionary dreams up new paradigms for a better world. Example: John Lennon
Note: While the specific people listed here might be useful examples of these archetypes, their contributions cannot be fully captured by or distilled into any one archetype.
This is not a scientific, exhaustive, or definitive list in any way. You may see yourself in some of these archetypes or you may not. And in fact, it may be more powerful for you to define your own archetype that distills what you see as your particular role or roles in change. Or you might look at the additional change agent taxonomies – such as those here, here, and here – for inspiration.
What matters most is that you acknowledge that there are many different roles in the ecosystem of change, all essential, none more important than the other. It’s incumbent on each of us to find the roles that most resonate with who we really are, what brings us alive, and where we have a sense of moving with our own internal gravity or currents rather than against them.
Your no makes the way for your yes
The world today is often chaotic and overwhelming. With the internet and social media, there is a near-limitless amount of news to absorb, skills to learn, challenges to address, and opportunities to seize. It would be quite literally impossible to do it all.
And yet, many of us still try. We exhaust and overwhelm ourselves trying to learn about every critical issue and seize every opportunity to do something meaningful.
Identifying your change agent archetypes can certainly help you discover and fulfill your unique roles in change. But it is perhaps even more important in defining what you will not focus on. We might identify closely with one, two, or maybe even three of these archetypes. But we cannot be them all. We cannot be the forest.
Nearly all of us take on false roles, responsibilities, and even identities because we think we must or should. Whether it’s our family of origin, a close mentor, or society itself, something outside of us tells us what we are supposed to do, who we are supposed to be, or what is actually valued and needed in the world.
When we think about deepening our change agent practice, many of us immediately start imagining and become overwhelmed by all the new roles and responsibilities we need to take on. But often, the single most powerful and necessary thing any of us can do is to let go of all the roles, responsibilities, and challenges that we believe we “should” or are “supposed to” take on but aren’t actually called to. As adrienne maree brown says in her 2019 book Pleasure Activism, “Your no makes the way for your yes.”
By letting go of these false labels, we afford ourselves the energy and space needed to make our greatest contributions. By letting, we set ourselves free. By letting go, we let ourselves become more who we really are.