Archers, Captains, and Strategists

Talking with a colleague, I was trying to draw a distinction between the different kinds of questions people ask when looking for direction. A simple lens materialized. I hope it will be as  useful for you as it has been for me.

Imagine a fun medieval-themed board game, where we all draw different cards. Based on the cards we draw, we want to know different things and want to see different parts of the overall picture. There are three archetypes: Archers, Captains, and Strategists.

When we draw the Archer card, we don’t really care about the larger picture or the depth of nuance within the situation. We just want to have clarity on what needs to be done. For Archers, the question is “Where do we shoot?” As an example, when I sign up for volunteer work, I tend to draw the Archer card. I just want to chip in, relying on others to organize me. Wash dishes? Okay. Clean tables? Sure. Stack chairs? You’ve got it. When I have the Archer card, my satisfaction comes from getting stuff done. 

When we draw the Captain card, we are asked to see enough of a larger picture to make sure that all those arrows not just hit the target, but that each round of our game progresses in service of some sort of intention. Captains lead. Stepping into a TL role is like drawing a Captain card: you are given a broad mandate of some sort, and it’s on you to figure out how to organize your colleague’s collective capabilities to fulfill it. Captains ask the “What are we winning?” question. In my example of TLs, the clarity of that mandate is paramount. All their reasoning sits on top of it. If the mandate is loose, so are the winning conditions – which rarely leads to desired outcomes.

Occasionally, I get confused and, when given the Archer card, I try to act as a Captain. This can be somewhat stressful. When given a target, Captains aren’t content until they understand the problem being solved and make their own conclusion that this is indeed the right target at which to aim. And if it’s not, it can be quite draining to see everyone around me blissfully shooting arrows in what I believe is the wrong direction. I am guessing this happens to you, too?

Finally, when we draw the Strategist card, we are asked to situate all underlying intentions of Captains and Archers in the larger picture of the game.  If we do indeed win, why is that significant? What happens next? What is the longer arc of this adventure? Strategists want to see it all. Strategists assume that targets will be chosen and rounds won or lost, skipping over to the effects of these moves on the larger environment. It’s the overall change in this environment that they are most interested in. Strategists discern a system of rules within the game and help Captains frame problems into mandates. The question Strategists ask is “What is the game?

If I were to make such a game more life-like, I would employ the likes of that UNO Attack! shuffler, which tosses cards at us in handfuls. We’re always an Archer, a Captain, and a Strategist — and often, it’s hard to tell which card we’re currently holding. To add to the chaos, some of us lean toward Archer, and some Captain or Strategist, acting the archetype even if it’s different from the card we’re dealt. It’s a crazy game.

One of the many insights that this lens produced for me was that when communicating direction within an organization, it may be useful to structure it as a layering of these questions. We start with a brief answer to “Where do we shoot?”, then provide a more broad “What are we winning?” and close with the expansive “What is the game?” This way, when I am an Archer, I can quickly get my target list and go at it. When I am a Captain, I can dig a bit deeper and find clarity of my mandate. Last but not least, as a Strategist, I will appreciate the full rigor of exploring the system in which this particular direction is located.

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