Unleashing Your Voice Blog


I’ve seen a lot of super hero movies this year.  Okay, I’ve seen three—but that’s probably two more than the previous 10 years combined!  If the box office results are any indication for these types of movies, I’m not alone.  I’ve joined in on a collective societal hunger to see victory play out and helped pave a golden path for producers who help us tap into it. 

We don’t just go to super-hero movies—another trend is the success of all kinds of competitive TV shows where participants get eliminated until somebody “wins.”  I pretty much just binge-watched a glass blowing competition (okay, it was really cool to see glass blowers on TV, but there had to be a winner!). 

There’s no question that triumph is exhilarating—by action or by association.  Why else was I all puffed up the day after my alma mater, Old Dominion University, won what some pundits have called the biggest underdog upset in sporting history?  ODU didn’t even have a football program when I went there, and I’ve never attended a game!  That feeling of victory was viral just because I had an affinity for the group itself.  But there are definitely some up sides and some down sides to this results-oriented kind of energy. 

Hero isn’t just dominating the entertainment world.  It’s shaping many of the positive and negative trends in our working lives.  Businesses are under constant pressure to produce short-term financial results.  Productivity and performance are the bell weather measurement standards for employee value.  Non-profits can’t get grants without evidence-based results of how you’ve achieved victory.  Let’s not even get started on politics—the polarization in today’s political climate and the horse-race mentality of media coverage is all about the Hero storyline. 

Here’s where it gets interesting and a little disturbing.  Hero is such an intoxicating storyline in American culture that there’s a whole sub-genre of movies, books and TV shows devoted to the anti-hero—the character who operates almost entirely on the disempowering side of the storyline and actually gets revered for it.  There doesn’t even have to be a redemptive arc for the protagonists in these stories (think Breaking Bad). 

So what does it mean for our workplaces if we’re so consciously and subconsciously tied to a sense of identity around results—or a need to create one if we want to look successful–that actual harm can begin to look okay (the ends truly justifying the means)?   

Getting conscious about your relationship with results

This is my second blog post in a four-part series on the empowering and disempowering faces of the most universal story types.  I’m writing a post on each of the organizing quadrants included in Dr. Carol S. Pearson’s archetype system (each of which represents one of the four most important tasks of professional life and the underlying human needs that drive them). 

This post is about the results quadrant, with its laser-like focus on human mastery and self esteem—and it’s the most potent quadrant in American culture right now.  Results rule the day in this country’s politics, business and social justice movements. We want things to happen, and we mostly want them now.  All three of the story types in this quadrant feature characters who are highly motivated to get results (although in different ways).  Heroes want to win; Revolutionaries want to change the game; Magicians want to realize big visions.  Each of those characters has juice in the world, but none of them is as ubiquitous today as the Hero. 

What does this have to do with the empowering and disempowering faces of the Hero story type?  Hero has both, just like all the other story types.  On the empowering side of the storyline, a Hero shows up prepared to compete valiantly, defend what matters most to those they hold dear, and ultimately triumph for a cause that’s bigger than themselves or the interests of their own circle.  On the disempowering side, a drive to achieve can descend into burnout, bullying others into acquiescence and seizing the spoils for themselves.    

We can also glorify the other two types in the results quadrant when we can find ourselves glorifying thieving outlaws (Revolutionary) and rooting for bad sorcerers (Magician).  This rarely happens on the disempowering side of archetypes in any of the other quadrants, which is a cautionary tale all by itself.  Take a look at the chart to see the trajectories of empowerment and disempowerment associated with each of these types:

All of this means we have to be especially vigilant and conscious of who we are when we take on the strengths and values of these characters.  Professionally, this doesn’t usually play out with the kind of drama we see in the movies.  There aren’t many car chases but there’s a real human toll. 

An unconsciously relentless drive for results can create driven workplace environments with high levels of burnout and disengagement, and/or toxically assertive cultures where employees have to be either winners or losers.  Just search for Amazon or Uber workplace culture to see exactly what this looks like.  And be well aware that you could be shaping your own mini-versions of these cultures in your very own team or group. 

Getting back to your empowering ground

What to do?  Well, this is one of the areas where I think coaching can be the most powerful.  If you’re a leader, you have to manage your own relationship with results and what that means for you and the people around you.  Consider getting a coach to work you through the kind of inquiry below, or answer the questions for yourself:

  • Does my quest for results sometimes land me in disempowering terrain?  NOTE:  Be brutally honest
  • Are the results I’m driving attached to anything meaningful besides financial gain or a self esteem boost? 
  • What are the consequences for me, my team and/or my organization?
  • THIS IS THE IMPORTANT QUESTION:  What is actually worth fighting for in your professional life?  What’s the bigger cause that has great meaning to you, the people that matter to you, and the world around you?
  • How can you shape your leadership around that, and engage others to bring the best of themselves to that purpose, mission or vision?    

Good luck.  May the force be with you. 

Okay, I’ll admit someone else has my dream job—advising Hollywood studios about the archetypal resonance of film scripts.  The guy who does this can predict a flop or a hit based on whether the storyline plays out the way the human psyche wants it to—the same way it does in the most universally known stories that people love to know and tell.  So, yep, a movie called The Breakup flopped because, well. . . the couple broke up, and learned absolutely nothing in the process.  Ever heard of this movie?  I didn’t think so.  The movie tanked because it had nothing very meaningful to say about its core storyline—the Lover’s search for connection. 

A current movie that actually nails an archetype is Yesterday, a delightful take on the Creator storyline that you can see either as a cautionary tale or a redemption arc for its main character.  No spoilers here—you’ll find out in the first 10 minutes that our struggling musician protagonist, Jack, wakes up after a freak global blackout to find out he’s the only person who remembers the Beatles or any of their songs.  Since no one knows he didn’t write the songs, Jack rises to fame by claiming and performing them as his own.  This is not as much fun as it looks, though—especially since Jack is a true Creator, and his actions have dropped him right into a disempowering version of his own most essential self. 

This happens for real people and organizations all the time as well (usually without the punchlines and heightened drama, but not always!).  I help clients define a character that represents who they are at their best—each of which has both an empowering and disempowering way of showing up in the world.  Getting conscious about both sides of that coin is a critical facet of professional and organizational development.  It’s one of the most important things a coach or consultant can learn to do with clients–or a leader can introduce–to shape a high-performance, high-contribution team or culture. 

Getting conscious about your story level

This is the first post in a four-blog series about how our core story types can empower or disempower us—and getting conscious about what that can mean.  I’ll be referencing Dr. Carol S. Pearson’s 12-archetype motivation model, which is organized into quadrants built around the four most important tasks of professional life (and the human needs that drive them). 

In this post, we’ll be looking at story types in the systems and structures quadrant (Creator, Caregiver and Ruler), which revolve around making things work better so that our lives and workplaces feel more stable and secure.  Creators do this by developing and leveraging ideas; Caregivers by developing and supporting people; Rulers by developing and using resources.  Think about which one of those three story types you’re most like as you keep reading.

The other thing to remember is that we’re all constantly shifting in and out of three perspectives as our storylines play out:  there’s a focus on the self, or on an affinity group that matters to us, or on a more expanded sense of connection with other human beings.  As I’ve worked with the model over the years, I’ve seen that our actions can be empowering or disempowering at any of these levels.  People have the ability to do great good or significant harm in the name of ourselves, the groups that are most important to us, and the larger world around us as well

Let’s see how this can look for the three story types in the making things work quadrant.  The labels in each box characterize how that person or organization might show up in each of the story levels (both empowering and disempowering).  These aren’t the only trajectories possible for each type, but they’re good examples: 

So what happened with our Creator friend Jack in Yesterday?  Instead of tinkering around with ideas—eventually making or generating things that matter to society itself—he fell into the disempowering trap of imitating those around him and eventually perpetrating actual fraud to build his own creator persona. 

It’s different for other story types.  A Caregiver can be a great supporter, an inspired developer of people or a true servant leader who prioritizes the needs of others.  That same person can also take on too much responsibility for the people around them, become a self-sacrificing martyr or even stifle self reliance and independence in others.

A Ruler type may be really effective take-charge manager, an orchestrator who helps everything run smoothly, or a steward who looks out for the good of an entire enterprise.  That same person can also become too controlling (in a way that pressures themselves and others)—eventually dominating those around them and dictating all the terms for entire groups, enterprises and cultures. 

Getting back to your empowering ground

So if you want to get yourself back on to more empowering ground, the only real path is to get more conscious about how you show up and what that means.  Think about a current situation and ask yourself these questions about your own story type:

  • Have I slipped into one of the disempowering ways of acting here?  NOTE:  Be brutally honest!
  • What does that look like and feel like (for me and others)?  NOTE:  Be brutally honest again!
  • How’s that working out for me and the people around me?
  • How can I shift my energy, attitude and action into one of the more empowering levels?
  • What could the “happy ending” be like if I did? 

Since teams and whole organizations can also form a story-based identity, these questions can also apply to any group. 

So how did Jack’s story turn out—did he live out his life as a fraudster, or a find a way to be a generator with ideas that benefitted others?  You’ll have to see the movie yourself to find out!  Just remember—there’s almost always an empowering way to show up as who you really are.  It could be a long and winding road, but a great trip! 

Cindy Atlee is a Creator type who loves to help professionals, teams and organizations understand and express who they really are in the world.  She’s the principal of The Storybranding Group and co-author of the Professional Strengths, Values & Story Survey (SVSS).  Cindy helps individual and organizational clients cast themselves in a compelling, enduring story that authentically conveys their unique value.  Take the SVSS for yourself here:  http://www.storybranding.com/take-the-svss-survey/

SPOILER ALERT:  IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE LAST SEASON OF GAME OF THRONES—AND DON’T WANT TO KNOW HOW IT ENDS—DON’T READ THIS BLOG POST! 

Last week, more than a million people signed a petition demanding a re-do of the entire final season of the wildly popular Game of Thrones TV series.  That’s more than the populations of Montana, Delaware, Rhode Island and five other states in the U.S.; more people than live in Iceland, Fiji or Luxembourg (and several hundred other countries as well). 

Why so much energy and outrage about a TV show?  There were hundreds of reasons cited via media channels, blog posts, comment threads and discussion websites, but it all boiled down to one core issue:

Game of Thrones jumped the archetype.

Archetypes are narrative grooves that are deeply etched into the human unconscious because they reflect and reinforce universal human expectations and needs.  Archetypal story lines are repeated over and over again in the tales that move people most, feature almost inevitable outcomes, and tap into motivational patterns that help us see and make meaning of what’s going on inside and around us.  Archetypal dissonance occurs when a narrative disrupts those patterns in seemingly meaningless ways—either in how it’s told or how it ends.  Game of Thrones ultimately upset the apple cart on both fronts.

Stories about power (the Ruler archetype), vision (the Magician archetype) and connection (the Lover archetype) are among the most potent of the archetypal story lines. Game of Thrones was largely a Ruler story, but it dabbled in the other themes as well, to very mixed results—and ultimately didn’t leave a clear or compelling message about its core premise.  That left a lot of questions about what kind of story people had invested in for nearly a decade.  Was it a cautionary tale?  A morality play?  A romantic tragedy?  And what, in the end, actually mattered about it?

I feel like three things happened in Game of Thrones that led to the outrage:

  • The show became plot driven instead of character driven. The show runners short circuited the storytelling in favor of plot machinations, leaving it very unclear what was motivating many of the main characters (or why those motivations changed so quickly and so decisively).  That’s especially true when it comes to Queen Daenerys, whose absolute corruption may have been foreshadowed but unfolded in a whiplash time frame.  Effective story tellers can subvert traditional narrative themes, but not in a way that wipes out most of the previous character development and almost all of the values that shaped our understanding of them. 
  • The ending mixed up the archetypes. In what had previously been a Ruler story line, the ending was essentially about a Magician gaining the power (but without a real Magician payoff).  The seer became the king—but despite having magical powers, Bran didn’t convey any vision for moving a kingdom forward to go along with them.  His ascension didn’t feel earned, either through action or through an empowering aspiration that others seemed likely to follow. 
  • The ending wasn’t really right for our times.  The story had the look of medieval times, but it was a fantasy not entirely bound by the constructs of any specific period.  Yes, it ultimately sowed the idea that a move away from monarchs towards a kind of democracy is the right direction—but its end note involved depicting its strongest female leader as rapidly succumbing to drunken power, and relegated the other to running a subsidiary rather than the whole enterprise.  Maybe not the best look for 2019? 

So, what does any of this have to do with workplace leadership, culture building or branding?  Quite a lot, actually.  People and organizations make these same kinds of mistakes all the time.  So here are some key take-aways for leaders from the Game of Thrones uproar: 

  • Take purposeful action and act from authentic motivation.  There’s a lot of propulsive action in organizations these days (like in the final episodes of Game of Thrones), and much of it is more plot driven than character driven.  Driving blindly toward results instead of purpose or mission is a great example of that.  In that case, motivation can seem very shallow to others (and certainly not empowering or engaging enough to prompt genuine commitment and contribution). 
  • Take the time to see and understand who you really are (and who your organization is)—and live by that.  This will make your authentic motivational drivers very clear—and is far more likely to shape your success than drive without any particular purpose to propel it.  It also builds trust because others know what to expect and can ultimately count on it when you stay the course.
  • Convey your values and your vision.  People want to know where you’re going and why.  They want to know what you stand for and care about.  In Game of Thrones, Bran sees the future but doesn’t share anything particularly meaningful about it or what it might mean.  We also don’t really know what values will shape his actions.  Values provide the inspiration and the guard rails for moving forward (they keep you on purpose and on brand while shaping a culture that cares to do so).
  • Tell a coherent, contemporary story.  It’s hard to build internal or external brand loyalty when your story line shifts too often—there’s nothing substantive enough to sustain engagement.  The expression of it is another matter, though.  You can live out a Ruler story line (or any other) for decades, but you should refresh how the story is told much more frequently based on what’s going on in your market, in the culture, and—most importantly—in hearts and minds. 

You don’t have to take the lessons of Game of Thrones to enterprise heart.  Then again, who wants the entire population of Fiji turning against you? 


I met Elise Mitchell, CEO of Mitchell, when I gave a keynote last month at the PRSA’s Counselors Academy (a convening of C-suite leaders throughout the public relations industry).  She has a great story, building essentially a one-woman communications practice in Fayetteville, Arkansas, into one of the top 10 fastest-growing public relations companies in the world (and winning all kinds of industry kudos along the way).  She’s also recently released her first book, Leading Through the Turn–a leadership book that cphoto cindy blog motorcycle bookombines lessons learned from her passion for motorcycles with her conviction that real professional success and significance has to be  about the journey as much as the destination.

That’s an idea that gets traction in personal growth circles, but not so much in the business world where crossing the finish line fast is often revered above all else.  Elise found a voice with an alternative view, and had both the passion and conviction to speak her truth.

Any organization, leader or professional who wants to find an authentic and inspiring voice needs to do the very same thing.  It’s about aligning your Why (the passion that motivates and fuels your journey) with your What (the conviction that shapes meaningful, destination-oriented action).  When you do that, what you say will always convey the courage of your convictions—and your communications will carry the kind of heart and determination that gets heard.   Even the more provocative things you have to say will be received differently because they’re grounded in authenticity.  Remember this:

  • If you have the courage of your convictions, you’ll find the confidence to say what you believe is right–even though other people may not agree or approve
  • If you have the courage of your convictions, you’ll become brave enough to do what you feel is right—despite any external pressure for your to act differently

You’ve got to get in touch with both your passion and your position to do this, though. Having the courage of your convictions is really about bringing both the head and the heart into play, and that’s a hard to ignore combination because it leverages both feelings/emotions and thoughts/beliefs.  Remember that passion is a strongly held feeling of enthusiasm or excitement that brings you alive for others.  Conviction is a strongly held thought or belief that lends credibility to your stance.   Enjoying the journey and reaching your destination usually doesn’t happen if you don’t have both.  Why?

  • Passion without conviction can be disempowering–generating a lot of excitement without anything actually happening. Passion without conviction can actually be baseless, overly zealous, shrill (and even dangerous if it’s blind).
  • Conviction without passion can be disengaging—generating a lot of action that may start to feel purposeless over time. Conviction without passion can actually be judgmental, dogmatic, flat (and even dangerous if it’s heartless).

If you want to get more in touch with the real courage of your convictions, take a few minutes to explore these questions and what the answers really mean.  This can be an exercise you do for yourself as a leader or with a group as a culture or brand-building activity.  Once you’ve brainstormed your answers, then consider how those insights could shape a more powerful stance, start a conversation or just get others more interested in you.  I’ll share my own answers as an example.

What are you most passionate about, and why does that matter to you?  (NOTE:  Don’t just list things you like to do at work; this exercise is about finding clues to your voice through a more holistic lens. Would that look different for a group or organization?  Sure, but brainstorm a list of individual interests to see if some collective passions emerge that might also be shaping/driving your culture).      

So, I’m passionate about expression and identity, redemptive stories, great writing and design, music with moving lyrics, color, abstract painting and collages, poetic voices, positive psychology, human motivation, causes/organizations that empower well being, mentoring, purpose and legacy.

If I think about why these things matter to me, the pattern that emerges is my core identity as a creative type who loves expression that’s meaningful and really matters (and has a positive, purposeful tone).

What do you know or believe more than anything else, and what are you willing to do because of that? (NOTE:  Remember, these are core principles that shape who you are and what actions you’ll take.  Shared beliefs would be uncovered in a group exercise to explore this question as well).

So, here are my answers:  I believe that everyone has a story to tell and a voice that deserves to be heard.  I believe that there’s something special about every individual and organization that needs to be seen and acknowledged.  I believe that we’re all part of a tapestry where every thread matters.  I believe that well being is a fundamental human right.

If I think about what I’ll do as a result—well, it feels like I’m doing this right now—authentic branding/communications work that helps individuals and organizations get heard and contribute in important ways.  I especially love working with purpose-driven organizations and non-profits that cultivate well being and serve the under-served, so that fits in as well.

When I put passion and conviction together, I think it gets back to my slogan.  My premise is that a truly authentic voice is essential for success, contribution and well being.  If that’s provocative, it’s only because a lot of communications out there are about spin and saying what we think other people want to hear.  I like helping my clients be courageous enough to lead and shape their brands with authenticity.

So where does the courage of your convictions take you?  Feel free to share any insights about your own courageous convictions with me (or tweet them to @storybrander).  And remember to enjoy the ride as you move toward that finish line!

Cindy Atlee is a Creator type who loves to help professionals, teams and organizations understand and express who they really are in the world.  She’s the principal of The Storybranding Group and co-author of the Professional Strengths, Values & Story Survey (SVSS).  Cindy helps individual and organizational clients cast themselves in a compelling, enduring story that authentically conveys their unique value.  Take the SVSS for yourself here:  http://www.storybranding.com/take-the-svss-survey/.





I love a good story.  You probably do, too.  Stories influence, inspire and capture our imaginations like nothing else.  We tell them all the time, whether we realize it or not.  And they scare the heck out of many of my clients.

I’m not talking horror stories here, and I certainly don’t mean my clients are literally afraid of narratives. What sometimes gets me a deer-in-headlights look is suggesting they need to know and live and tell their own story in the world to have a really successful brand.  Maybe it’s a little intimidating to realize that answering the question who are you? is what jump starts a compelling brand identity—but it’s the surest path to being seen, heard and apprecman and woman with 3d book pile backgroundiated for something that draws the right clients, members, donors or other important audiences to you.

Traditional branding strategy says you should start by understanding your target audiences.  And of course you absolutely do need to know what they care about and what makes them tick.  First, though, you need to understand who you are and what you’re uniquely prepared to do so that you can have a vibrant, vital, authentic, arresting conversation with the world about it.  This applies whether you’re a solo practitioner or running a firm—a “self” is either an individual with a personal identity or a collective with a discernible character and capacity (which usually adds up to a strong  group culture).

When you understand yourself, you have a foundation for creating the kind of zeal that gets attention.  So if you want to get crystal clear on your unique value, start by typecasting you or your organization as the protagonist in a story you’re truly moved to live and tell in the world.  Then frame a narrative that’s based on the two key components of a truly great story:

  • Every inspiring protagonist has a quest—it’s the purpose that captures your reason for being; a fuel that enlivens and animates you.  Getting in touch with purpose keeps you and/or your people truly engaged in your work.
  • Every great story has a happy ending—it’s the promise or outcome you can always be counted on to deliver.  Getting in touch with promise clarifies what makes your story matter to anyone else.

I’m a Creator with a quest—and a purpose— to help my clients understand and let others know who they really are in the world.  I’m a zealot for “empowering self expression”—the kind that positions organizations and people to talk about what matters most to them.  Why should anyone care about that?  Well, I promise to help clients find a voice that will inspire and influence others (added bonus:  they’ll probably experience more aliveness and even joy while they’re doing it, too).

You’ve got a story as well, and it really should be the foundation for your brand personality and messaging.  You can start the process by “story typing” your enterprise, which involves exploring what kind of protagonist you or your organization is most like—and articulating a purpose or promise its story arc suggests.  Is that kind of process really good business?  You bet it is, and here are some of the many reasons why:

  • Story-based branding is built on the motivational drivers that have inspired and engaged human beings since the beginning of time.  You can use other techniques to inform your audiences, promote your services, and even connect with them on a personal level.  Nothing motivates better than evoking a narrative that suggests how everything is going to turn out, though (and casting yourself as the protagonist who can resolve whatever conflict might get in the way).
  • A great storyline helps you leverage both your strengths and your values.  The protagonists in great stories rely on a combination of strengths (what they’re good at) and values (what they care about) to accomplish their missions.  There’s no story without both.  Strengths are critical, but they’re actually not nearly as memorable as values.  At the end of the day, you’re most likely to be defined by the value system that others associate with you.  It makes great business sense to be deliberate about how you want to be perceived instead of letting other people draw their own conclusions about what you stand for.
  • An authentic storyline is your most powerful trust-building tool.  Truth-based communications build credibility and draw others in through genuine attraction to something that has a true pull for them.  That sets up an entirely different dynamic than basing your brand on what you think your audience wants to hear, and establishes a trust-focused relationship from the outset.  Conviction and passion just ring true, and that’s what story-based branding is all about.

So let your sense of self breathe life into your brand—and let your brand become an authentic expression that creates more success and fulfillment in your world.

This post was adapted from an earlier version that appeared on http://www.caprsa.com/news/.

Cindy Atlee wrote her first (and last!) novel at the age of 13. After a brief foray into journalism (interviewing Jimmy Buffet in a bowling counts as journalism, right?), she became a brand strategist, coach and facilitator—eventually serving as SVP, Branding & Organizational Culture, at the global public relations firm Porter Novelli.  She’s now founding partner at The Storybranding Group, where she helps clients define and give voice to what’s best, most distinctive and appealing about them.