Fixer, Fighter, Friend?
When you’re in charge, your opinion takes up more space than others' — whether you intend it or not. What you say and do carries more weight. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s only a bad thing when it’s disempowering and demotivating others from finding their own voice. It's important to know this — and to know how your style is impacting your team.
You can use the three archetypes explained below—Fixer, Fighter and Friend—in more than one way. You can hopefully find that your own dominant leadership style is one more than the other two. (For example, over the course of my career I’ve occupied the role of Fixer and Friend at times, but the Fighter is my go-to theme.) You might decide that you have a Fixer culture, which will inform what kinds of culture-wide communication and behavior you focus on changing.
The Friend’s motto: “We’re all on the same team.”
The Friend is the leader with the open door and a smile on their face. Friends are always available to answer questions, to offer encouragement to someone who’s down, and try to treat each person on their team as if they’re a member of the family. Generally speaking, they’re nice to be around, and once a cultural issue is brought to their attention, they spring into action to make things better. They care deeply about the experience their team is having. When it comes to the care side of the equation, Friends have plenty in reserve. But this overflowing capacity for caring and generosity tends to backfire on Friends in the long run.
What Friend leaders don’t often see is how fraught with risk it is to talk about how we’re all in it together, or to say, as Friends often do, that the members of the team are all part of one big family. It’s a noble wish to want to create a warm, personal and welcoming vibe where people feel like they belong. But the word family is more than a little bit tricky for most people. It evokes at least as much difficult emotion as it does positive. And it sets up a very confusing mixed reality because you can’t fire a member of your family, but you absolutely have to be able to fire someone who works for you who isn’t pulling their weight. That doesn’t mean don’t ever work with family or close friends. But it does make things harder when it comes to employees feeling that accountability is for everyone and applied even-handedly. The closer you are to someone personally, the higher the standard you have to hold them too, to offset the natural tendency to give them the benefit of the doubt in a way that’s unfair to others.
That leads us to the shadow side of Friend leadership: Friends struggle to hold a consistent standard of excellence. For obvious reasons, when push comes to shove and Friends have to choose between being tough and being nice, they’ll tend to choose the nice option. This has serious ramifications for both the individuals on the team and the culture as a whole. Individuals tend not to get the kind of firm and clear boundaries they need to learn about themselves. As for teams, undue pressure is put on the stronger members to pick up the slack that results from the Friend being too lenient on the people who need some pressure. And those stronger players might resort to judging themselves, thinking along the lines of Maybe I’m just being too hard on Chris, I mean the boss doesn’t seem to think it’s a problem. That internal dialogue that each person generates, trying to sort out what they’re observing and how they feel about it—multiplied across the organization—is what creates the underlying dynamics of a company culture. By being too nice, too accommodating, and too willing to look the other way, Friends will tend to create and support cultural dynamics that lack accountability and clear expectations around performance.
There’s also a counterintuitive thing that happens often in Friend-led cultures. As a result of the lax standards and agreements around accountability, the problems that aren’t being talked about need a place to go. This leads to gossip and politics, often just below the surface of what looks like a happy and positive culture. People have a hard time being honest with each other because the culture mandates harmony over honesty. Even people who have strong opinions in other parts of their lives will adapt to the cultural mandate out of self-preservation. Better that than to risk being judged or criticized as “too intense.” When the conversation can’t be real, everybody loses.
As with the other two leadership archetypes, the Friend takes on too much responsibility for creating the vibe, worries about how others feel, and goes over the top to portray things in a positive and collegial way. The task for Friends is to pull back on that tendency and to do less active culture- and team-building themselves; with what you’ve already learned about strengths and weaknesses, you’ve probably made the connection. By shifting their focus, by pulling back on their strengths and the micro-behaviors that they’re used to relying on, Friends open up space for others to take on some of those strengths and behaviors for themselves. And let’s be clear: This pivot is not an easy one to make.
To create the culture they want, Friends have to deal with a fear, which we all have of course, but which drives Friends more than it does the other archetypes: the fear of not being liked. Friends have to be willing to accept the simple, uncomfortable truth: When you have people’s paychecks in your hands, you don’t get to be one of the gang. That’s the price of leadership. When you do accept that reality, something very interesting can happen. Your team, feeling your clarity and purpose around the business, has the space to grow and change in the ways they’re looking for as well. Friends can discover a good new kind of professional relationship as a result, not as friendly or casual as before but far more alive and rewarding. Let’s summarize the Friend leadership archetype and outline their unique journey from Superman to Yoda:
The Friend’s Gift
Friends have a natural care for people and don’t need anyone to tell them about the importance of focusing on culture. They’re service-oriented, often have deep religious or spiritual convictions, and will be the first to say, “Culture is everything.” Friends value human relationships and picking up someone up when they’re down. Friends believe everyone deserves a second chance and have the heart to give it to them.
The Friend’s Challenge
Friends struggle with creating a culture of accountability. Their worst nightmare is to be seen as a tyrant. Their compassion for people makes it hard to impose what feels like harsh consequences, even when they aren’t in reality. In their reluctance to be seen as the bad guy (male or female), Friends deprive their team of one of the key elements of good authority: being willing to stand for the thing that needs to change and requiring each team member to do their own personal work to change it.
The Friend’s Journey
To inhabit their strengths fully, Friends need to do some work to deepen their relationships outside of work, so that they need less friendship from the people on their team and are better able to tolerate the inevitable loneliness that comes with being in a leadership position, especially if they find themselves in the role of CEO. To reset the accountability dynamic internally, Friends should have a level-setting conversation with each member of their team, to clarify goals, roles and responsibilities. And, crucially for all leaders who are learning about themselves, Friends must take 100 percent ownership for the dynamic they’ve created up to this point. You earn the right to ask people to adapt to a new agreement by acknowledging your role in creating and perpetuating the old one.
The Friend’s Yoda Moment
Friend types are usually strong and self-deprecating communicators; they know how to talk about important things in a way that’s lighthearted and straightforward. Here’s the kind of thing Friend leaders might say, in their own words of course, to restart the culture conversation: “Hey, so you know me and how much I want this place to be great and for you guys to have fun here. But I’m really at a loss about what to do. It’s just one example but we’ve gotten this specific service complaint three times now, and I feel like nobody is really taking it seriously or taking responsibility for looking into why it’s happening so we can do something about it. Fun is great, but it has to be a byproduct of doing great work. Do you know what I mean?”
How Can You Help a Friend?
If you’re a coach, consultant or mentor to a Friend-type leader, the best way you can help is by holding them accountable for accepting the reality that it’s lonely at the top—whether that’s in the CEO seat or as a leader of a team within a larger organization. They’ll need you to point out specific examples of how they’ve gotten too close to the people on their team, whether that’s the tendency to be in too many meetings, the tone of their voice or the way they socialize with people on the team. In the age of social media, bosses should be especially careful of how boundaries can get blurred if they become friends with employees on Facebook and so on, which happens all too often. No example is too small. Help them discover the courage to lead from a healthy distance, and you’ll help them get back on the road to creating the culture they really want.
A Final Thought for the Friend
Here’s a piece of advice especially useful for Friends who are taking over a new team or starting a new business, though it’s worth keeping in mind regardless of your leadership style: There’s no harm in starting out a little bit on the cool side, a little more formal and businesslike than you might want to be down the road. It’s easier to warm up and become more vulnerable and transparent in your style over time. It’s harder to go the other way, to reclaim the solid ground of authority you need once you’ve made yourself too much a part of the team at the outset.
The Fighter’s motto: “Why wouldn’t we?”
The Fighter is the leader with an overflowing cup of new ideas. And that’s not restricted to the obvious things like inventing a new product or renaming the company. Fighters see ideas—i.e., opportunities for improvement—in every corner, from refinements to the business model, to small tweaks of existing products and processes, to the micro-moments on the customer journey. Fighters live in the truth that no matter what it is, it can always get better, you can always get a notch closer to the goal. The Fighter sees their business the way Michelangelo saw his famous statue: They have to remove every bit of stone that isn’t David.
That is why working for a Fighter can be so enlivening. Fighters are the most naturally inspiring of the three archetypes: Their teams and organizations have purpose; they’re going somewhere. If you work for a Fighter, you feel like great work and innovative ideas matter. Fighters see opportunity and possibility at every turn. But, at some point, even though the Fighter might not run out of energy, the team will.
The shadow side of the Fighter is that they’re hard to keep up with or compete with. It’s not because they’re faster or smarter than the other types; it’s because they don’t appreciate how much work they are creating in their wake. They don’t realize how much space their ideas take up, leaving less room for the ideas of others. Fighters don’t see how much they disempower their teams with their very presence. What Friends do by taking too much responsibility for being the social glue, Fighters do by taking too much responsibility for coming up with ideas. When a leader is so quick with ideas there’s less motivation for the team to come up with their own ideas. And even if they do, on a Fighter-led team they won’t have time to do anything with them.
New ideas take a lot of work to implement, and Fighters don’t appreciate how that extra work affects people and takes them away from other, equally important, responsibilities. This work-creation element was off my radar as a Fighter-type leader for most of my career. I didn’t realize that one idea from the CEO can easily create five projects, draw a dozen people into the loop, and drag them away from other priorities. Not to mention the very real cost of all that extra task-switching that’s already out of control in the modern office.
Here’s the irony: When Fighters learn to see these impacts and refine their approach by listening carefully to others, they get to see their two or three best ideas followed through on, as opposed to seeing their six or seven ideas all remaining in half-finished form. But the self-discipline to slow down has to come first. Being acknowledged and valued for coming up with ideas over a lifetime, Fighters rarely encounter someone who is strong enough to hold them accountable for reigning in their creativity. I was fortunate enough to have a mentor do that for me at a critical moment in my career.
There are two ways in which Fighters typically don’t follow through. First, they generate ideas and tend not to complete them. While the Fighter has moved on to the next idea, the next great adventure or new technology, the team is left holding the bag. This causes frustration for the team, and over the long haul undermines the inspirational and motivational qualities the Fighter otherwise brings to the table. Second, Fighters rarely get to the post-game analysis. Even when their ideas do get implemented, they don’t pause to understand and quantify the results, so those results do not inform subsequent ideas they generate, which leads to more wasted effort, and on and on.
The Fighter’s Gift
Fighters never stop asking why. They’re always pushing for things to get better. They’re naturally inspiring, often idealistic, and have a knack for seeing potential in others that they don’t see in themselves. They’re driven by a desire to make the world a better place.
The Fighter’s Challenge
Fighters struggle to see the value of the little things. They’re reluctant to go to the next decimal point, to track projects down to their real costs in time, money and morale, because they don’t want to be sidetracked from implementing their next idea. The Fighter’s worst nightmare is the status quo.
The Fighter’s Journey
The transformative moment for Fighters is to accept the world as it is, and learn that change happens with small steps and ongoing refinement. They need to build up the muscle of going to that next decimal point, to see that doing so doesn’t take away creativity or self-expression but rather liberates it. They will initially see deadlines, limited resources, and existing inefficiencies as lumps of coal, but as they make the pivot, Fighters will begin to see them as the source of the diamonds within.
The Fighter’s First Step
For most Fighters the first step is to clean up the past with their team, to acknowledge the toll that their style has taken to date, and to be willing to see how overwhelmed everyone has become. It might sound like this: “Hey, guys, I’ve been doing some thinking and I realize how fast I’ve been going, how hard I’ve been pushing you. I didn’t see it till now. I’m really sorry. I know some of you have tried to tell me and I wasn’t listening. I’d really like to turn that around and I’d love your ideas for how to do that. One idea that I had, I promise it’s not more work, is for us all to get together and figure out which projects we can archive, which ideas we can delete, and so on, to clean out all of our inboxes and make more space for the right things to get the attention they deserve. How does that sound?”
How Can You Help a Fighter?
The best gift you can give a Fighter is a strong accountability partner. That could be a manager strong on data-driven process and improvement, a strong-minded coach or mentor who will push back when their minds wander. Whoever it is, they have to be someone who can meet and match the Fighters’ energy, who can build trust and then show the Fighter how to redirect that energy more effectively. Hold them accountable to pull back, and to keep pulling back, until others start to emerge with ideas and initiatives of their own. In this way you will help Fighters achieve their dream: to build a team driven by ideas and not afraid to risk the unknown on the road to creating something great.
A Final Word for the Fighter
Granularity is your new best friend. Take the time to break down problems into their component parts. Then break the components down into their parts, and look for the patterns and connections between them. What if you change the sequence? What if you took out step three entirely? The smaller you’re willing to get, the more power your ideas will have in the end.
The Fixer’s motto: “If you want it done right, you have to do it yourself.”
The Fixer is the archetype that will sound most familiar. I’ve left Fixers until last because of all that’s been written about them over the years. They’re the most misunderstood of the three—the leaders and managers who tend to the micromanagement side of life, who live in the world of tasks, crossing things off the list, catching others’ mistakes and their own. Fixers check everything personally before it goes out the door. They spend their days polishing things until they’re perfect, and are finely attuned to the little problems that are coming down the pike that others will tend to brush off. Fixers fix whatever they can find that’s broken. That gift, once unleashed, is the leadership path for the Fixer. Because of the skill and attention to detail that comes naturally to them more than to the other two types, Fixers can become the embodiment of excellence. That is, once they get out of the way of excellence in others.
There’s a question I used to ask to flush out the Fixers in an audience of leaders. “Don’t you just hate how you have to jump in and fix problems for your team, how if you don’t get in there and do it, it won’t get done right?” The Fixers will reveal themselves instantly (though not after they read this!) with a knowing groan or woe-is-me sigh that says, “Don’t I know it…. If only I could find good people who cared about excellence as much as I do.”
“Liars, all of you!” I would say, playfully of course. “You love being the hero! You love jumping in and saving the day.” Then knowing laughter fills the room, the laughter of allowing ourselves to be seen and feeling liberated by it. Fixers feel better in the act of fixing. It scratches an itch, it makes them feel valued, important, and useful. The pivot for Fixers is to see how much they’re filling the space, in the same way Fighters and Friends do in their ways. Except instead of trying to be the social glue or the idea glue, Fixers try to hold things together with excellence glue. But their standards are so high that, over time, the rest of the team will give up on even trying to reach them.
The Fixer’s Gift
Fixers are consummate professionals, artisans in their chosen craft. They take the time to do it right. At their best, they invest in the last centimeter of the customer experience, or in a moment of mentoring to take the time to fully explain what they mean, because that’s what care looks like to them. They’re delighted by subtle experiences and make a point of delivering that kind of delight to others. They have the capacity—though they often have to learn the patience— to mentor, train and challenge people to a standard of excellence that is greatly sought after in our world.
The Fixer’s Challenge
The flipside of this standard of care is that Fixers often lose the forest for the trees. They’re so busy fixing typos, calling back disgruntled customers, and double-checking everything that they have trouble zooming out and putting themselves in the shoes of someone who is going through something that they don’t understand or haven’t experienced themselves. When they’re not vigilant, Fixers’ desire for control and order blinds them to the messier, more personal, and more human elements of leading a team.
The Fixer’s Journey
Fixers transform their leadership style by learning to let go of the need for too much control. Instead of learning to let go of being the one with ideas, or being the one who cheers people up, they need to let go of being the one in charge of company-wide quality control.
The Fixer’s First Step
To begin their journey from Superman to Yoda, Fixers need new experiences. They’ll benefit more than the other two types from time outside the office, retreats of any kind, structured or not. The path of Fixers is to fall back into themselves, to take a two-week cellphone-free vacation, to indulge themselves in what will feel like reckless amounts of self-care, a massage after work before coming home for dinner. Here’s a declaration a Fixer might make when they’re ready to change things:
“So, I’ll be out next month for a few weeks. Let’s spend some time making sure you guys have everything you need before I go, because I won’t be taking my phone with me. I’m not going to lie; this is going to be hard for me, but I want to take a step to show you how much I mean what I say… that I trust you to take care of things in my absence. You guys have great judgment, better than I give you credit for sometimes. And this is one small step in the direction of making some more room around here.”
How Can You Help a Fixer?
Fixers need to be held accountable for strategic thinking. If you manage or coach a Fixer, it will often feel like you’re having to pull their fingers off the steering wheel one by one. Do it with a smile on your face and keep it lighthearted. Each time you do, let them know why, and make sure to remind them whose job it is to do the thing they were about to do themselves. Keep reminding them that each step they take away from fixing is a step closer to leading. They’ll thank you for it in the end.
A Final Word for the Fixer
Don’t look. As hard as it will be at first, find opportunities to not look at other people’s work. Ask to be removed from the cc field on email threads. Encourage your team to use each other for a second look on things instead of coming to you. Bow out of meetings that are about process or implementation. Make yourself available for the big-picture stuff. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you’ll have time for strategic work and big-picture thinking when you’re done checking off your list.
Whichever of the leadership archetypes best fits you—Fixer, Fighter or Friend—don’t use it as a tool to self-criticize, though who doesn’t benefit from a little lighthearted teasing coming from people who love them? As you think about these ideas in the days ahead, remember that leadership is not a destination; It’s a process. It’s each of us learning a little bit more each day about who we are, who we want to be tomorrow, and what we can do today to get a little bit closer. And if you’re ever in doubt—whether you’re a Fixer, Fighter or a Friend—less is almost always more.