Archetypes for creative leadership

How to define the behaviors you value

Categories: Behind the Scenes, Perspectives — Matt Chamberlain, Anna Peraino, and John Campbell

“Leadership” is a tricky notion, especially in a business context. Catch your average creative professional in a moment of candor and don’t be surprised if they tell you that “leadership” feels like a vague idea hackneyed by business and self-help books. A term best left in quotes. What’s worse, during performance reviews, we’re asked to quantify leadership—a thing that feels inherently qualitative. It’s a recipe for skepticism and reluctant assent.

Leadership is also often talked about as a kind of character trait rather than a set of behaviors, which can box out people who don’t think of themselves, or immediately come across to others, as “natural leaders.” And if we spend a few minutes imagining what a “natural leader” looks like, many of us are likely to end up with a characterization that feels far from inclusive. We also often talk about leadership as a gatekeeper to success or as a universal virtue we should all aspire to. So there’s our diagnosis. Then what’s the prescription?

At Airbnb, we on the UX writing team saw this problem firsthand—by not defining what leadership means to our team, many of us felt alienated by the idea of leadership and our place within it. We wanted to demonstrate—once and for all—that there’s no one path to or model of leadership. That there are different ways to show up as a leader, and they’re all equally valued and important, and that we’ll treat them that way when discussing performance and aspirations with team members.

We’ve also always wanted a culture where it’s OK for people to not feel obligated to aspire to leadership roles; where leadership isn’t treated as a quality they have to comport themselves to, especially for the sake of inauthentic growth. But even this crowd can and should be rightful critics of the leadership on display at the company and in this sense, they deserve to know what it looks like.

In the end, we arrived at a set of 6 archetypes that describe behaviors people might lean toward or identify in themselves that they could then cultivate with the support of their manager. While these archetypes were created for UX writing in particular, we think this archetypal model has something to offer other large-scale creative organizations, too.

Our hope, too, was that these archetypes would offer those who don’t aspire to a formal leadership role more terminology to describe, critique, build up, and admire the leaders they work with every day.

Leadership archetypes


How they lead
By establishing and nurturing strong partnerships. Their peers recognize their ability to develop rapport and promote psychological safety on their teams.

When they thrive
Developing solutions for issues related to morale, burnout, communication, and collaboration. Organizing team-building events and retros.

Support they need
Validation and acknowledgement of their work—that it’s visible, that it’s needed, that it’s of great value.


How they lead
By playing a central role in creating and guiding the strategy for their product area(s). Their collaborators—product managers, designers, and others—frequently look to them for direction on UX and product, or to vet their own ideas.

When they thrive
Writing 1-pagers, championing new projects, participating in roadmapping, guiding their team to work that has the most impact.

Support they need
Some cross-functional partners may feel their contributions overstep the role of a writer; their peers and manager should dispel this by advocating on their behalf with leadership.


How they lead
By developing and demonstrating a deep subject matter expertise that is reflected in the product. Their teammates trust them to thoughtfully position and communicate intricate topics, and people across the company come to them for new projects that fall within their subject area.

When they thrive
Creating content standards unique to their subject matter, sharing knowledge by developing courses/trainings, and taking courses on their area of expertise.

Support they need
Validation that their subject expertise has staying power and is valuable to the company, as well as indications that others trust their perspective.


How they lead
Through the craft—with writing and content strategy, they shape the product direction and influence their peers. The people they work with love to tap into their special alchemy, and turn to “masters of craft” to solve the issues that are stumping everyone else.

When they thrive
Creating content standards, crafting product narratives, developing content and messaging frameworks, working on brand new product experiences, landing key phrases that make the experience shine.

Support they need
Reassurance that their dedication to craft stands as a form of leadership on its own, and that nothing extra beyond demonstrating it is required.


How they lead
By improving the efficiency of their team’s ways of building products together. Their teammates lean on them to diagnose and offer solutions to problems with how they work together and their product development process.

When they thrive
Developing or improving processes like project retrospectives or standups, introducing new tools, finding new ways to work more efficiently.

Support they need
Like the “product strategy pro,” these folks may suffer the impression that they’re overstepping the role of a writer. Their collaborators, manager, and others who want to catalyze this person’s strengths should help dispel that idea with leadership.


How they lead
By using their deep knowledge of UX theory to shape all aspects of the user experience. People on their team look to them for guidance on UX strategy, approach, and UI implementation in addition to content strategy and copy.

When they thrive
Leading UX strategy conversations, acting as design lead for projects/teams/presentations, running design sprints, executing research sessions, creating flows with design tools.

Support they need
To be made aware when they’re overextending themselves and thus limiting their effectiveness.

Development and implementation

We think the intention and application of these archetypes are what’s interesting, but perhaps a few words about how we created them will be helpful.

We arrived at these 6 archetypes though a simple crowdsourcing process: we shared our desire for an expansive view of leadership with the rest of the UX writing team at Airbnb and sent out a survey asking about ways they felt they led within their areas of focus. We also asked for their personal assessment of how leadership is commonly displayed at the company as a way to contrast our new models of leadership. We collated the survey responses and arrived at a few common themes that we then labeled and codified into sets of behaviors.

Since we rolled these archetypes out last year, the UX writing team has used them to highlight the ways they contribute to projects, point to the type of work they want to take on, and identify the ways in which they want to grow and advance their careers.

Hopes for the future

We hope the archetypes prove to be durable—relevant for UX writers of the future to draw upon—and can continue to spark discussion about inclusive working styles. It’s still early in the lifecycle of this new approach to leadership, but we’re optimistic about the staying power.

Our experience tells us that there are other creative organizations out there that would benefit from a similar manner of interrogation about what constitutes leadership. The process to arrive at a set of archetypes would look different for everyone, but these things were important for us:

  • An honest account of the state of leadership in your organization
  • Input from your team to guide the direction; the more prescriptive and top-down the process the less likely the results will be useful to the people they’re meant to serve
  • A supportive team leader to validate and champion the work
  • A clearly articulated plan for how you’ll use them

If what we’ve shared rings true for you, consider what your team needs to be their best selves at work. Not only will it build up the careers of others, but you may also end up clarifying some things about your own path—and maybe even boost your stamina for improving the leadership culture within your organization.

Matt Chamberlain is a UX writing manager at Airbnb. He's previously led creative teams at Quartz, Esquire, and Saveur, and, in retrospect, wishes he'd used archetypes to convey cultural values.
Anna Peraino is a Senior UX Writing Manager on Airbnb’s Hosting team. When she isn’t working, Anna is most likely reading fiction, watching Formula 1 racing, or talking to other people's dogs.
John Campbell is a Lead UX Writer at Airbnb. He likes to think of himself as a man of contrasts: drinking tea while reading Cormac McCarthy, listening to Robyn while driving around a racetrack, climbing mountains and reading poems at the top, valuing both stability and impulse. All in service of keeping things interesting.

Up Next