The Consultant as Hero

By Robert A. Goldberg

(Originally appeared in Organizational Development Journal. Chesterland, OH: Organizational Development Institute, Volume 19, No. 3, fall 2001, pgs. 82-87)

Stranger Than Myth

The company was a five-year old, privately held internet portal serving Latin America. Like many of its kind, Xene, Inc. experienced explosive growth soon after its founding, mushrooming from 30 to 300 employees.

The company culture was a mirror of its mercurial CEO: Brilliant, informal and visionary, Martin was equally comfortable with the investment banking community as he was “talking code” with the techies. But in casting so bright a light, he also had an accompanying shadow. Thus, Martin could be highly impulsive, secretive and capricious. His wife, Rebecca, a talented marketing executive, was Executive Vice President and his confidante.

I learned this from Julia, the Vice President of Human Resources, who was hired the year before to coordinate the recruitment effort and to clean up some nasty employee relations issues that had led to litigation. Julia had a lot of experience handling human resources for high tech companies, and appreciated the industry’s lack of formality, the value placed on autonomy, and the competitiveness. At the same time, Julia was worried that she had little influence in the company, and complained that she couldn’t succeed unless she got more help. Everybody, including herself, she said, was working “killer hours” at the risk of burnout and high turnover.

Julia had been asked by Martin to establish more formal human resources practices, especially performance management and staff development processes. Martin asked her to locate a firm that could provide a Management 101 program for the top twenty managers, each of whom reported to himself or Rebecca.

I was surprised she called me, since as a Gestalt-oriented consultant most of my work entailed helping executive teams find common ground around strategic issues and helping them become more unified as leaders of organizational change. But the prospect of working with such a high-tech firm sounded exciting, and I contracted with Julia to meet with Xene’s key players to see if others shared Martin’s point-of-view and objectives.

In two days of interviews, I learned that the company’s management practices were indeed primitive: job descriptions, performance appraisal and development processes were non-existent. If someone wanted time off, they would simply ask their supervisor. There were no guidelines governing salary increases, leading to wide discrepancies and charges of unfairness.

But I also learned that the senior-most managers had deeper concerns. They felt “in the dark” about the strategic direction of the company. Were they going forward with an initial public offering? Were they seeking to be acquired? Were they seeking more venture capital?

They were also concerned that information was not being shared across departments. This led to breakdowns in communication and slowed projects down, which resulted in public criticism from Martin. He would saunter into project meetings, express his displeasure, and then disappear. Finally, they felt that Martin was being “led” by Rebecca, whom no one appeared to trust. They were uncomfortable raising sensitive or controversial issues to Martin, knowing he would tell Rebecca. People were afraid of her reactions.

Julia concurred with my findings, especially about how the “dysfunctional relationship” between Martin and Rebecca was affecting the group. With this in mind, I suggested we shift the intervention from one focusing on management skills and practices, to a senior team development process. My reasoning was that without common ground around shared “vision” and “values,” that any management skills workshop would be nice but yield little sustainable benefit.

Driving my concern was that the company culture appeared to be suffused with “magical thinking.” There was a pattern of Martin and many others making heart-felt pronouncements about something that needed to be done. Making the pronouncement was considered solving the problem, which appeared to relieve the pressure, freeing them to move on to the next urgent issue. While this certainly felt good, nothing substantive usually resulted. I worried that a Management 101 program would provide the false illusion that their issues were resolved, enabling them to minimize the amount of work needed to support this effort following the meeting. Julia agreed with the decision to shift the work away from the initial request, but she continued to worry that if they didn’t hit a “home run” with this project that they wouldn’t get another chance. She often talked to me about how high the stakes were, both for the company and for her.

Julia arranged for me to provide Martin and Rebecca with the interview feedback. Something came up and Rebecca did not attend the meeting. I described to Martin what I learned and why I believed it was important to start with a session to “build the management team as a team,” to examine communication and decision making processes, and to establish a shared set of values for running the company.

Martin agreed that these would be important things to do, but was mostly concerned about how much time it would take to make this happen. He was also concerned that the session should have some tangible outcomes. I thought that scheduling an initial two days for the top twenty managers to come together would be sufficient; Martin replied that the meeting could take a maximum of one day.

The night before the team development meeting a few weeks later, I met with Martin, Rebecca and Julia to review the agenda. I noticed that Rebecca’s demeanor was shifting during our conversation. Where first she was charming and outgoing, she grew increasingly quiet.

Finally, after I asked if anything was wrong, Rebecca said that yes, indeed there was. She didn’t disagree with the findings, but she needed the employees (and us) to realize that this was how she intended to manage. She explained that she and Martin had created the company “from nothing,” and she was proud of their achievement, especially of the growth of the firm. She also felt that managers should not at this point know the strategic direction of the company. In fact, that could be a “fatal mistake,” given the volatility of the industry and the nature of the competition. Further, if anyone wanted to tell her or Martin anything, their door was open and they shouldn’t blame her or Martin for their lack of backbone. She said she didn’t want to participate in a meeting to blame her or Martin for the problems of the company, and that she had no intention of doing so.

This came as an enormous blow to Julia and me. We tried to get Rebecca to see that the ramifications of her and Martin’s leadership style was a disaffected workforce and inefficient work processes. The more we advocated the “common sense” values of open communication, trust and “pulling in one direction,” the more Rebecca defended her right to manage in a way she saw fit.

Martin ended up agreeing with Rebecca. Julia suggested they postpone the next day’s meeting. I agreed with Julia that under these circumstances it would be best if they postponed the meeting and reconsidered their objectives. As she left the meeting Rebecca looked over her shoulder and asked Julia, “what ever happened to the Management 101 program?” but she didn’t wait for an answer.

After Rebecca and Martin walked out, Julia became angry with me. She blamed me for changing the project and for not managing Martin and Rebecca’s resistance. I claimed it was Rebecca’s fault; that if it weren’t for her the project would have succeeded.

The Management 101 program never occurred, nor did the management team development meeting. Four months later Julia left for another firm. I continued my consulting practice, focusing on team and organizational development.

What’s Wrong With This Picture

It is easy to analyze this project along traditional consulting lines. Perhaps I hadn’t anticipated Rebecca’s “resistance,” nor gauged her power over Martin. It was certainly a misstep to present the feedback report to Martin without Rebecca attending (especially given my Gestalt background!). And why didn’t I simply give Martin what he asked for?

As helpful as this soul-searching is, many of us find it more convenient to view our client as responsible for a project not succeeding or an organization not progressing. We say they “didn’t walk their talk,” or that “their very success prevented them from learning,” or they “just don’t get it.” Yet rather than looking at either our consulting technique or the client’s limitations as problematic, I suggest that it is mostly a lack of clarity about our and our clients’ identities and deeper motivations that leads us to hasty judgments and missteps.

To explore deeper identity issues and motivations, the vocabulary of myth, or archetypes, is particularly helpful. Initially described by Carl Jung (1958, 1964) the relation of myth to our lives was later popularized by Joseph Campbell (1972, 1988). Carol Pearson’s The Hero Within (1989), examined six archetypes of human self-identity that have particular resonance for the consulting relationship. Pearson addressed archetypes developmentally, as a way to describe the common human story on our journey from infancy through adulthood. Archetypes are the motifs that underpin our mythology and fairy tales, from Homer to Grimm to Spielberg. Archetypes have the power to bind us as individuals to a collective culture, while they provide signposts for our own personal and professional development.

Yet it is not sufficient to understand what archetype we may be operating under. It is equally important to illuminate how shadow aspects of our archetypes often play out in our behavior. In doing so, we can each find the path toward our own personal development.

Archetypes and the Consulting Role

We come into the world utterly dependent on others for survival, unable to tell the difference between self and other. The archetype of Innocent describes this state. Self-absorbed, egotistical, we deserve the satisfaction of our every physical and emotional need. People who use their vacation time to be completely pampered are often acting out of this archetype. And there are some people who have been so able to manipulate their worlds that their every whim is catered to. Rather than do anything for others, they use their resources to satisfy their own needs, and are astonished when others express needs of their own. They too are acting under this archetype.

As brilliant as Martin was, he was under the influence of the Innocent. He had arranged his entire organization to revolve around his own gratification, from combining in one person (Rebecca) all his needs for personal and organizational intimacy, to making pronouncements and decisions with no deep sense of responsibility beyond doing what made him feel good. He could absolve himself from feeling accountable to others as Rebecca played the ‘heavy’ and ran the firm from behind the scenes. The “magical thinking” at Xene culture was rooted in the shadow of Martin’s innocence — like a small child, he expected that if he said he wanted something, it would simply appear. Had Martin understood the archetype he was being influenced by, he would have had more insight into his own behavior and the impact of his behavior on the culture of the firm.

Yet few people grow to adulthood with the Innocent as their prevailing archetype, because each of us experiences the loss of our innocence, and the pain inherent in that loss. Why? Inevitably, the child separates its ego from its main caregiver. Or we are “abandoned” or “orphaned” by someone pulling away emotionally or by physically dying. Regardless, our more primitive needs are no longer met, and we look outside ourselves for answers. Disappointed, hurt and angry, we crave to return to a time when another person satisfied our needs, taking care of the baby inside.

While this archetype, the Orphan, is a necessary step on our development path, many people get stuck here. When people feel and act like victims, subjecting themselves to the capriciousness of others, they are operating under the Orphan archetype. Those who sincerely believe a company should take care of its employees, and are baffled or upset when this expectation is disappointed are acting as Orphans. At its heart, enacting the Orphan myth entails projecting parental authority onto others, and repeating the cycle of disappointment we feel when we realize our parents are only human.

At Xene, Julia portrayed herself as the Orphan. Despite having a successful career and having much insight into the company, she permitted me, with my presumed expert power, to sway her, even against her better judgment. In this way Julia could comfort herself by blaming me for how I disappointed her on the project. Further, she treated Martin as the unsupportive father figure she could not challenge. And, she could not even see the impact of her lack of engagement with Rebecca. This was a crucial blind spot for her and for the project. If Julia had been better in touch with her Orphanarchetype during this project, she most likely would not have let the project go forward without insisting on Rebecca’s significant early involvement, especially considering her insight that Rebecca “ran the company.”

Consultants under the influence of the Orphan archetype initially put clients on pedestals. We are attracted to clients’ power, and willingly do what is asked. While at these times we might make effective “pairs of hands” (Block, 1981), we gloss over clients deeper motives and needs, and are reluctant to challenge their behavior. When a project does not work out as we imagine it should, we might then act the victim and blame the situation on our client, without realizing our contribution to the outcome. A way to assess ourselves in this area is to reflect on how many one-time assignments we conduct (often without closure). If we move from client to client, it may be due to a pattern of starting projects in admiration, and disengaging prematurely, disappointed by clients’ actions (or inaction).

As an Orphan becomes more aware of his abandonment and loneliness, he may develop the power to reject those that had previously nurtured him. By opposing what once was idolized, individuals take on the Wanderer archetype. This archetype is characterized by solitary journey, external and/or internal, in which the individual turns his back and goes his own way. In our society, adolescents are often under the influence of the Wanderer myth. Even if they don’t physically leave their parents’ home, they may journey inward, searching for answers where once they accepted their parent’s guidance.

Many consultants take to the path of the Wanderer when we leave formal organizations to become external consultants. Proud of our ability to survive alone, we sometimes expect our clients to have the wherewithal to take the same journey. Unfortunately, rather than accept clients’ own journeys, we might sit in negative judgment of their situation, thinking “after all, if it’s so bad, why not just leave?” This attitude can be intimidating and contribute to clients’ questioning their own adequacy. Consultants can check this attitude by trying to understand the value clients get by being part of their organization, and by being clearer about the trade-offs we are making in our decision to “go it alone.”

Within organizations it isn’t easy to locate Wanderers. The very nature of their developmental work requires they walk their own, untrodden path. This journey does not lend itself to hierarchical systems. Wanderers are often resented for the freedom they give themselves, so are easily ostracized or marginalized. Thus, we do not find Wanderers at Xene.

What we do find at Xene are Martyrs. Martyrs sacrifice themselves to support someone or something else. Expressed in stories of great martyrs from religion and history (i.e., Christ dying for others’ sins, Ghandi sacrificing himself for the independence of India, Martin Luther King, Jr., sacrificing himself for the rights of African-Americans, etc.), the archetype of the Martyr appears to cast a brilliant light. Healthy martyrdom revolves around sacrifice by choice, which opens the martyr to receive as well as to give. The love that Mother Theresa absorbed from those she helped is a good example of this type of martyr. Yet a shadow aspect of the Martyr archetype is often seen in organizations.

People who feel they must take care of everything and everyone, yet refuse to receive in return, are acting out the shadow aspect of the Martyr archetype. Their ceaseless giving permits them to manipulate and feel superior to those they are helping, even as they complain about how deprived they are. It is easy to see this type of martyrdom in organizations. Ask people who are running around like whirling dervishes, complaining all the while about their exhaustion, why they continue their pattern of behavior. If they “just have to, because nobody else could do what I do,” or “because my boss (or anyone else) just doesn’t get it,” they are most likely under the influence of shadow aspects of the Martyr.

At Xene, the senior managers were acting out the Martyr drama. They worked “killer hours” at the risk of burnout without fully understanding why they were sacrificing themselves. They continued to enable Martin to live the life of an Innocent, yet did not feel comfortable expressing to Martin and Rebecca their own needs. Finally, they thought they could be “saved” if they just kept giving.

A healthier path exists for the senior managers at Xene in which they could end the vicious cycle of their false martyrdom. But this depends on better understanding the psychological rewards they gain from their sacrifice. By exploring why they need to feel superior through sacrifice, they would understand the deeper feeling of inferiority that their behavior is covering up. Paradoxically they could then feel freer to ask for and receive the information and support they need from Martin and Rebecca (who, after all, are dependent on these managers for their sacrifices). In so doing, the management group could begin to make sacrifices more appropriately, receiving even as they give. We would then more frequently hear them say “no,” or “on these terms…”

Consultants who do not establish boundaries and mutual expectations with clients might be playing out the shadow of the Martyr archetype. For many, it is easier to ask a client what she expects from us than to tell a client what we expect of her. But without doing so, we might end up constantly giving without receiving what we need to accomplish an assignment (i.e., organization access, administrative support, time, feedback, etc.). When we hear ourselves complain that we cannot get our clients on the phone, or believe we have a monumental task to accomplish without client support, we should reflect on our own motivations. Is it possible that by not holding clients accountable for their behavior toward us, we might be indulging ourselves in unnecessary martyrdom?

And what about me, the “fearless” consultant? What archetype was I acting out? Certainly not the Innocent, nor the OrphanWanderer or Martyr. Rather, I was being influenced by an archetype that many consultants fall into, especially when we position ourselves as “agents of change.” I was operating under the archetype of the Warrior. While the Wanderer identifies the villain and leaves, theWarrior identifies the villain and fights to conquer. The healthy aspects of Warriors reside in their assertion of courage and in their ability to help us distinguish good from evil.

The trap for the Warrior is that these distinctions are often self-serving, used to justify battles that “prove” their superiority. In seeing the world in “either-or” terms, Warriors also see their own behavior in terms of victory or defeat. At their most dangerous, Warriors promote much of the “we — they” thinking we see in organizations, while portraying themselves as “saviors,” particularly of underdogs, the Orphans.

As a consultant, I had developed firm values about how an organization should be run. It seems self-evident that success lies in an open, feedback-rich environment, with participative management and an empowered workforce. Yet when I encountered Xene, these values were tested. Here was a company that was successful (albeit with growing pains), but with an entirely different value-set than I could apprehend. This dissonance permitted my Warrior to influence how I proceeded with the project. Rather than work the initial request for a Management 101 program into the project, I became the champion of both the Martyrs of Xene (the senior managers) and of Julia (the Orphan), whom I felt could not defend themselves. Of course, to save them, I needed a villain to save them from, and that villain was Rebecca and the power she represented. My subtle struggle to win (based not on brute strength but on self-righteousness) while not perceived by Martin the Innocent, was correctly assessed by Rebecca as a threat. It was inevitable that she would find a way to defend herself and her values against what I represented.

From Warrior to Magician

Thus, like many Greek myths, the outcome of this “intervention” was ordained based on the personae of the actors, including me. How could I, in my role as consultant, have been more effective?

Like all of us, I would have benefited from examining my underlying motives for doing the work I have chosen. If clear about my values and desire to help companies align to my values, I would no longer feel the need to disingenuously portray myself as neutral and I could then find projects more congruent with my mission. But while this clarity might serve me well in the short run, my need to find villains and victims still might create more harm than good.

Rather, the development path from Warrior entails a shift from perceiving the world in terms of “good” and “evil” to seeing one’s own “truth” as only one of many. This helps us avoid trying to convert clients to our own value system. We can then serve our clients as witnesses rather than as judges, not pressured to create a result or a victory. When we take on this mantle, we end up caring as much for the “villains” as we do for the “victims,” and no longer need to exact our revenge on behalf of the “powerless.”

Had I re-defined my role to serve the system rather than protect Julia and the senior managers at Xene, and sought to learn more about Rebecca’s contributions, this project may have succeeded. After all, perhaps Martin and Rebecca’s leadership approach was exactly what the firm needed to survive.

This is the path to the Magician, the final archetype that Pearson describes. The archetype of the Magician revolves around creation of something from nothing and the integration of polarities, particularly the polarities inherent in each archetype.

Thus, the journey to Magician is through reconciliation: From the Orphan, the Magician understands the polarity between dependence and control, from the Wanderer, between belonging and loneliness. The Magician has internalized the Martyr’s sacrifice of self with the Warrior’s vanquishing of others. In other words, the Magician’s “magic” is the alchemy of embraced opposites.

In our story Rebecca is the Magician! She, and Martin, created Xene from nothing. She is not particularly interested in the vestments of power, but exercises her power without shame. While to many she may be frightening, this may be because, like magic, she is poorly understood. She seems to care little whether or not she is liked or even trusted. She understands that she is both of the system and apart from the system in which she works. And unlike me, she creates effects without caring whether or not she creates effects. She is the embodiment of the alchemy of opposites.

This is not to advocate Rebecca’s management style as the ideal. Magicians can use their power to pursue self-serving as well as altruistic motives (and frequently, both at the same time). In fact, this dynamic tension between shadow and light is true for the other archetypes, as well. For instance, while the Innocent may be oblivious to the world beyond his own needs, he is able to see the world in an entirely fresh, creative way. Likewise, the Warrior, blind to the ambiguity behind good vs. evil, can vanquish the “dragon” that threatens the village, protecting us all.

Thus, as consultants, our developmental, heroic journey is through each of these archetypes, rather than being “locked in” by the undue influence of any one archetype, or by casually denying each archetype’s impact on our behavior. Unfortunately, this journey is not traveled along a prescribed path or within a certain time frame. (Actually, the search for a prescribed path might indicate being overly influenced by the shadow of the Orphan, seeking the “eight steps to enlightenment.”)

Rather, it is more useful to explore our own behavior and underlying archetypes to understand the lives we are creating and the needs we are attempting to satisfy. There is no shortcut or sorcery toMagician — one must pass through the archetype “portals,” not go around them.

It is ironic that, as a Gestalt-oriented consultant, I failed to see the connection between the Gestalt school and the essence of these archetypes, particularly the Magician. Gestalt consulting (Nevis, 1987) is primarily focused on helping a client system become more deeply aware of itself, which mobilizes energy for action. A Gestalt-oriented consultant’s job is to advocate neither change nor stability, but to help the client system become aware of where its energy is.

This is the underlying paradox inherent in Gestalt consulting: to change something, don’t try to change it — try to better understand it. The magic of Gestalt consulting, as in the Magician archetype, is that change happens not through linear cause and effect. Rather, change occurs when the energy of the system is ready — as in our own personal journeys from one prevailing archetype to another. If there is a ‘trick’ at all here it is in the realization that each of us already is the Magician – we are always in the process of creating ourselves out of many opposing forces, especially the light and the shadow aspects of each archetype.

We cannot avoid our own journeys, but we can become more deeply aware of archetypes we might be stuck in, and what alternatives there might be. After all, in reading this essay weren’t you able to see pieces of each archetype in yourself? By paying attention to the archetypes within us and around us, we are better able to take our own journeys, as professionals and as humans.


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Campbell, J. (1972). Myths to Live By. New York: Viking Press.

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Jung, C. (1964). Man and His Symbols. Garden City: Doubleday Anchor Books.

Nevis, E. (1987). A Gestalt Approach to Organization Consulting. Cleveland: GIC Press.

Pearson, C. (1989). The Hero Within. San Francisco: Harper & Row.