The Wise Club: The Unfear Archetypes

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An excerpt from the book Unfear.

Unfear can be purchased at the following places.

Once we reframe our relationship with fear, we can begin the transformation process that will eventually lead us to the unfear archetypes. Both the fear and unfear archetypes experience fear. The key difference is the story they tell themselves about that fear. When we are in the fear archetypes, we act in dysfunctional ways because we believe that it is the only choice. In the unfear archetypes, however, we recognize that fear is a cue for learning and growth and that we can choose how we respond to it. Like the fear archetypes, we developed the unfear archetypes inspired by the work of Dr. Robert Cooke and his organization, Human Synergistics.2 (See the Appendix for more detail on Human Synergistics’ Styles Inventory Circumplex and surveys, and how the Unfear Archetypes relates to and builds on them.)

Both the fear and unfear archetypes experience fear. The key difference is the story they tell themselves about that fear.

Individuals who demonstrate the unfear archetypes exhibit selfenhancing or growth tendencies that contribute to greater levels of personal satisfaction and well-being. They perform at a high level and can work well with almost any team. Unfear organizations believe that investing in people will help ensure their long-term success. They allow employees to express themselves in their work—to test, experiment, and learn from both successes and failures. They place a strong emphasis on transparency and communication and encourage people to get to know their colleagues as people instead of just as roles or objects to be used or overcome. Let’s explore the four unfear archetypes (Figure 4.1).


Seekers3 strive for self and collective improvement. They seek to maximize their potential. They don’t do this in a competitive or destructive manner but combine this yearning for self-improvement with an acceptance of others. They strive with not over others. They recognize that admitting when they don’t know something propels individual and collective learning. They create safety to speak up and show up with curiosity. They take calculated risks to create better outcomes. They tend to develop innovative, unique solutions to difficult problems. This archetype allows for the free flow of ideas and creates an infectious positive energy, even in the face of challenges. Organizations that display this archetype nurture vulnerability, which allows employees to deal with change effectively and take the risks that lead to breakthrough solutions.

For much of its early years, Google exemplified the Seeker culture. The company intentionally hired people who fit the Seeker archetype: highly intelligent, curious, and conscientious individuals who were comfortable with ambiguity and change.4 The company had several programs that entrenched its Seeker culture, including weekly all-hands meetings where company leadership would share successes and failures in an unscripted way and field questions from employees. As part of these all-hands meetings, the company would also have employees vote on improvement ideas and volunteer to help make them happen. This ritual got employees actively engaged in innovation and improvement. The transparency also displayed and built trust. In the latter half of the 2010s, there were some rumblings that Google had strayed from its Seeker roots.5 Whether or not this is true, the early culture the company built, the culture that in many ways fueled the company’s rise, was a quintessential example of a Seeker culture.

One of our clients is a healthcare payor for underserved communities in New York City. This, as you might imagine, is a challenging mission and industry. The organization and its employees face significant business and human challenges to run a successful company and make a meaningful difference. People care deeply about what they do and have a highly constrained budget to get it all done. It is exactly the kind of environment where fear might run rampant. When we first met the CEO, that was exactly what was happening. He had been one of the earliest employees of the company, and he cared deeply about its success. Driven by his passion to make a difference and burdened by a feeling that it was all up to him, the CEO tended to lead with more Aggressive/Defensive behaviors, in particular the Fault Finder archetype.

He had a strong Seeker side to him, although he rarely expressed it. Early in our conversations, to his great delight, he recognized these two conflicting archetypes within him. We worked with the CEO on this, and he eagerly jumped into the work. He learned to move away from his Fault Finder tendencies. In situations where it would be easy for him to blame others, he now seeks to understand how he has contributed to the problem and what he needs to do differently to create a better outcome. He constantly uses the refrain, “Feeling into my discomfort and pain.”

This is what Seekers do. They lean into their own fear and discomfort to see what they need to shift to be more effective. Through this behavior, the CEO has significantly improved the quality of his relationships and the effectiveness of the entire organization.


Coaches6 are people builders, teachers, and mentors. Unlike Fault Finders, who see their role as pointing out other people’s faults, or Likables, who withhold feedback to avoid creating distress, Coaches build the capabilities and confidence of other people with care and compassion. Coaches have mastered the ability to simultaneously express how much they care while providing direct feedback. These individuals strive to create a nurturing environment that inspires self-development and high performance. They also take time to help others reframe their relationship with fear. Coaches focus on patterns that need to shift in others and figure out how best to show up to make that happen. The Coach culture allows for growth and learning without the caustic effects of excessive judgment. The Coach archetype creates a virtuous cycle in which the organization attracts exceptional talent and nurtures and develops that talent for leadership, which, in turn, attracts more talent.

One of my (Gaurav’s) most important mentors embodied all the unfear archetypes, and he was an incredible coach. This man, Michael Rennie, was my mentor at McKinsey, and he inspired me to work on human potential and cultural transformation. I always knew that he had my back, even in the moments when he gave me difficult feedback. One such moment, which had a massive impact on my career, came when I had just moved back from South Africa to work with him in New York. By the time I arrived, Michael had been out of the office for a few months because of illness, and I felt that I had no support in the New York office. So I drove all the way to Michael’s house in Amish country in rural Pennsylvania to complain to him. Michael listened to everything I had to say and then told me, “Gaurav, you have tremendous potential, and I believe in you. But you are getting in your own way.”

I was shocked and wondered if he’d heard a word of what I’d said about how unfair the office had been. He saw the shock on my face and smiled. Then he looked directly at me and, with great care, told me that I was giving up my power through all my complaining. He reminded me

that it is difficult to create change. He invited me to step into my power to bring about change and to stop letting other people become excuses for not doing so. I listened to him, and he supported me while I worked to figure out my path.

Isao Yoshino, a visionary leader at Toyota, once said, “My role as a leader was to help others develop themselves.” This sentiment perfectly captures the Coach culture. In organizations with a strong Coach culture, managers aim to build the skills and confidence of employees to solve their own problems and confidently ask for help when they need it.
In her book, Learning to LEAD, Leading to LEARN,7 Katie Anderson documents the culture of Toyota through the eyes and ears of Yoshino. Toyota lets their employees solve problems themselves, instead of providing the answers for them. Company leaders believe that developing their people produces better and more sustainable results than taking shortcuts.
A Coach culture doesn’t just mean coaching conversations. Organizations can build systems that make the development of others a natural part of doing business. To facilitate this coaching, Toyota has developed a wide set of practices. One is “going to the gemba,” or “going to where the work is done.” It allows Coaches to get a sense of the real, specific challenges that employees face in their environment so that they can best guide the employees in the pursuit of their goals. This also applies to the “coachee.” To better think through a problem, coachees are encouraged to “go and see” to learn more about the issue directly rather than making too many assumptions.

A linked practice to this is the andon, or “signal,” cord. Essentially, if frontline employees can’t resolve an issue within a certain amount of time, they are encouraged to pull the andon cord, which tells the supervisor that they are struggling and need some assistance. They then stop or slow down the manufacturing line so that the manager can work with the employees to solve the issue. They don’t punish employees for pulling this cord, even though it is costly to slow down the line. They think that it is more valuable to make sure that the work is done right and to develop the skills of the employees instead of allowing subpar outputs to pass through the facility. This is a practical tool but also a symbolic one. Raising your hand to say, “I have an issue, and I need help” is accepted and celebrated, even when it feels inconvenient in the moment. This same philosophy works in an office setting, but instead of pulling a literal cord, employees can take the initiative to either raise their hand or send an email to request help.

Trust Builders

Trust Builders8 are phenomenal team players. They create groups that energetically and effectively coordinate their actions to achieve meaningful shared goals. They build teams that reframe their relationship with fear and can engage in difficult conversations with skill. They create cross-silo collaboration and build effective, trust-based networks of people with common interests and passions. They demonstrate strong interpersonal skills and use genuine praise to motivate others. Trust Builders see patterns in team dysfunction that they help shift.

Organizations with strong Trust Builder cultures facilitate open communication, coordination, and learning routines that allow teams to work together effectively. Trust Builders create psychological safety within the organization by ensuring that everyone feels respected and heard. This allows them to contribute to their fullest.

One of our other clients is a healthcare provider for underserved populations. During the 2010s, policy decisions at every level of government dramatically reduced funding for such organizations, which forced a number of them to shut down or seek a merger. Our client was merging with a larger organization, and the client asked us to coach one of the organization’s executives, whom we will call Charlotte. Charlotte was working with her counterpart on the other side of the deal to ensure the merger’s success. The business case for the merger was sound, but the two leadership teams disagreed about the vision for the future of the organization and over what roles each leader would play after the deal. This shattered the trust between the two sides. Charlotte and her counterpart suddenly needed not only to manage the technical details of the deal but also to get the workforces of both companies on board.

Instead of collapsing under the pressure of the situation, Charlotte used her Trust-Building skills and facilitated open dialogue within and across the two leadership teams about their fears and concerns. She then worked individually with key leaders to help them see the benefit of the merger for them and, more important, for the population they served.

Then, in an ultimate test, the CEO of her own organization quit. This threw the whole deal into jeopardy, and the rest of Charlotte’s executive team seemed close to walking away. She facilitated negotiations between her executive team and their peers in the other organization and ensured that the deal had mutually beneficial terms that would retain key leaders. It has been over a year since the merger, and the two organizations are successfully charting a path forward. Charlotte is an important leader on the new executive team who ensures that the two legacy organizations work together harmoniously.

A Trust Builder organization par excellence might be Menlo Innovations, the development company run by CEO and cofounder Rich Sheridan. In describing his management philosophy, Sheridan said, “If we can pump the fear out of the room and get people trusting each other enough, then you start to get that collaboration and teamwork.” Although we might argue that you can never just pump the fear out, we agree with him. This is exactly what Trust Builders do. They reduce fear and help people respond to whatever fear still exists with resilience and by coming together in common cause. Sheridan’s book, Joy, Inc.: How We Built a Workplace People Love,9 is a master class in trust and team building, and we highly recommend it. For our purposes, we highlight two keys to a Trust Builder culture that his book provides.

First, Sheridan and the Menlo management team believe that if people find joy in what they do, they’ll naturally work hard and well, without much supervision and micromanagement. Part of that joy comes from a feeling of trust and inclusion and a belief that everyone’s voices will be heard. Sheridan and Menlo managers manifest this belief in several ways: an open-plan workplace, a nonhierarchical organizational structure, soliciting input from the whole office on hiring decisions, and flexible working arrangements that, for example, allow employees to bring their dogs and babies (which, for some people, are the same thing) to work.

Second, Menlo management extends the network of trust beyond the walls of the company to include its customers. They treat customers as an essential part of the software delivery teams. Through a ritual called “Show&Tell,” they involve customers in the weekly working rhythm. During Show&Tell, customers come in and demonstrate to the software team how the company’s product is working (or not). This turns the tables on the development team. Rather than them “presenting” the product to customers, they have to sit and watch while customers use the product in front of them. Any successes, issues, or strong emotions quickly become apparent. This dynamic creates deep trust and rapport between both the delivery team and the customers. The team can respond directly to the customers’ needs and wants. Trust grows. Everyone wins.


Achievers10 set bold yet achievable goals and apply themselves and the organization to them. They do so without wasting time and energy in perfectionism or misplaced competition. They create effective learning routines and disciplines within the organization. They do not shy away from the hard work needed to achieve meaningful goals. Achievers do not hesitate to act on knowledge that will improve things. They see patterns in the breakdown of learning routines and create new pathways to address them.

SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk in 2002 on the assumption that the cost of launching rockets into space could be reduced by a factor of 10, exemplifies the Achiever culture. Our sense is that the SpaceX skews in the unfear direction, based on how employees describe the culture. Writing in Forbes, Josh Boehm, a former leader of software quality assurance at SpaceX, reflected on the long hours he put in this way: “I loved my work and saw the value I was bringing to the team. I technically reported to the CIO, but was essentially self-managed like many others there at the time.”11

The way the company has continued to achieve, even in the face of notable challenges, also indicates a strong Achiever orientation. The company bounces back stronger from setbacks instead of collapsing into blame and total risk aversion. In 2019, a test version of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon space capsule exploded during a ground test in Florida. After intensive investigations with NASA, the company found the source of the failure and fixed it. On May 30, 2020, SpaceX successfully launched two astronauts into space in the Crew Dragon spacecraft named Endeavour, atop a Falcon 9 rocket. Endeavour later docked with the International

Space Station. SpaceX was the first private company to accomplish such a feat. Earlier failures were simply a part of this later success.

To embody the Achiever culture, however, you don’t need all the glitz and glam of Space X. An Achiever has a can-do attitude in the face of any task or challenge. Few people I (Mark) know exemplify the Achiever mindset more than the Navy Seabees. There are few jobs less glamorous, yet while I served with the Seabees, I was consistently impressed by their dedication and hard work. Once, a utilities man (a plumber and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning specialist) in my unit literally jumped into feces to unclog the old pipes at a military base in Kuwait. Given the dirty nature of the job, I was concerned about his morale. But he popped out of that hole with a huge smile on his face. When I asked if it was an awful experience, he said something like, “Nah, I’m glad I did that. Those toilets need to work!”

The Seabees aren’t what most people imagine when they think about important military operational work. But almost everyone in the military knows just how vital they are. These men and women take on all sorts of projects that improve the functioning and welfare of military personnel, including building and operating camps, moving gear ashore for the Army and Marines, running construction projects in war zones, and providing humanitarian relief. Through all the work, they maintain a cheery can-do spirit—even when they are literally wading in shit. This is the Achiever mindset—taking on the hard, dirty work without the need for any special recognition. The hard work itself is the reward.

A mature Achiever organization builds an environment in which performance can be decoupled from reactive fear-based behavior and can coexist with employee well-being.

No individual, team, or organization has only the unfear or fear archetypes. In fact, these archetypes are not fixed. Through active choice and deliberate practice, any individual, team, or organization can consciously step into (and out of ) the archetypes most appropriate for creating business performance and employee well-being in different business environments.