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Leadership Lessons from Volkswagen: The Journey from Warrior to King

Inspired by its use in my Vistage CEO advisory board, I have recently been working with the four leadership archetypes detailed in Robert Moore and Doug Gillette’s book, ‘King, Warrior, Magician, Lover’. In particular, as a group, we have been reflecting upon the transition from the warrior to the King archetype. The obsessive warrior is that part of the leadership psyche that works all hours, aggressively confronts every problem, loses sight of the bigger picture vision and looks to win every battle at any cost to themselves or those around them. Meanwhile, the King leadership archetype is that part of the leadership psyche that lets go of the immediate battle in order to focus upon winning the war, establishes a calm order throughout the kingdom and rules with a confident authority grounded on a clear sense of mission.

Leaders who are obsessive warriors create obsessive warrior cultures. This week we have had a shocking example of the moral vacuum that such cultures breed. The warrior mind-set in Volkswagen declared that winning the battle was necessary at all costs. In this case, the cost of trying to sell more cars than anyone else adds up to 11 million vehicles fitted with ‘emissions-cheating’ software, 1 million tonnes of extra nitrogen oxide pollutants released into the atmosphere and the prospect of $18bn in fines from the US courts. This was no ‘rogue trader’ issue, it was across the board institutionalised dishonesty so pervasive that the CEO did not recall doing anything wrong. Yes, you did do something wrong! You colluded in the warrior mentality of your organisation, rather than leading a principled rebellion against that culture as befits the King-like psyche required of the 21st century context.

king warrior lover magician

In the closing chapter of their book, the authors offer the following observation, when discussing what they refer to as the transition from boy psychology to man psychology, ‘Ours is a psychological age rather than an institutional one. What used to be done for us by institutional structures and through ritual process, we now have to do inside ourselves, for ourselves.’ As masculine, western leadership matures from its heroic to its post-heroic stage, from the warrior to the King psyche, the Volkswagen example demonstrates that this transformative work has to be done on the inside by each leader, rather than on the outside by institutional dogma and diktat. For the same reason, it is executive coaches, not management consultants, who will facilitate this shift.

Why is this the case? It is because our institutions are always a step behind. They are always the product of the previous era of thinking. Like the buildings in which they are housed, our institutions are the ideas of architects who have now moved on to new projects; working with different standards, designs and technology. Our institutions are, by definition, institutionalised and therefore the hope for change lies not in Volkswagen, but in the individual leaders within Volkswagen. And those leaders need sufficient King-like energy that they can lead principled rebellions against the hard-wired warrior DNA of the previous era; the same warrior DNA that this week has been globally ‘named and shamed’.

As coaches and leaders, it is our responsibility to challenge the obsessive warriors that we engage with in business life. Not by fighting with them, for that is what they want us to do, but by exercising a calm and confident authority in their presence. If they cannot yet access the King archetype within themselves then we must role-model that behaviour in ourselves. And what does it mean to be a King in the face of a warrior? To answer this question, I have adapted the advice of Walter Wink in his book ‘Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination’ to come up with the following tips:-

  • Die to the fear of the old warrior order and its rules
  • Seek for and recognise the King within the other person
  • Be willing to suffer rather than retaliate
  • Take the moral high ground
  • Find a creative, humorous way to respond to aggressive warrior behaviour
  • Stand your ground and assert your dignity as a person
  • Refuse to accept the warrior role that is offered to you
  • Expose the injustice in the warrior mentality
  • Shame the warrior into repentance
  • Force the warrior to make decisions for which they are not prepared
  • Deprive the warrior of a situation where a show of force is necessary
  • Die to the grip of guilt that the old warrior order has bred in you which prevents you from stepping into your full King authority

Whoever works with the next CEO of Volkswagen as an executive coach and whoever is in his or her management team will need to keep the above list close to hand. It is not as easy task. Warriors do not like to be challenged. The events of the past week are a reminder that the warrior mentality still grips a large chunk of the global corporate psyche. Unless the Kings bravely step forward and proudly wear their crowns, then antiquated, warrior-style organisations will continue to wreak various degrees of havoc into our daily lives.

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