Knowing You’re in Water

How to transform your leadership style

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’

David Foster Wallace, author

I chuckled with amusement when I first heard this story. It speaks to the fact that sometimes the most obvious realities can be the most difficult to see, thus becoming the water we swim in. One of the realities many of us swim in is the victim mindset.

You might say, “What? Me reacting to life as a victim? Not possible.” This was the reaction I had when I had first learned about the drama/victim triangle, and how it applies to leadership and performance. 

However skeptical I was in the beginning, I will be the first to admit that learning about the drama triangle has dramatically changed my relationships and communication in my professional and personal life. I believe you will find it to be a game changer as well.

Stephen Karpman, a psychiatrist and teacher, developed the drama triangle in the 1960s to describe the roles we play in our interactions with others — as well as the internal dialogues we have with ourselves.

The three roles on the victim triangle are the persecutor, the rescuer and the victim. Karpman explained that all three of these roles are different aspects (or “faces”) of playing a victim. We can even find ourselves rotating positions around the triangle during a single conversation with one person. As leaders, most of us are unaware we are interacting with colleagues, team members and even loved ones from these three primary roles. You will most likely identify with one or two of the following primary roles. 


People who seek to help and take care of others. They need and look for someone to rescue (i.e. a victim). The act of rescuing another person supports an unconscious need to feel valued and important. Outwardly, they appear to others as the person who can do it all and has their act together. They also struggle with saying no and setting boundaries.

On a psychological level, rescuers often have primary caretakers in their past who neglected their needs as a child. And because of this, they unconsciously treat themselves with the same degree of negligence and avoidance they experienced as children. Their personal desires go unnoticed and unattended to as they focus instead on taking care of others. 

However, this behavior results in victims depending on them even more. Rescuers often feel exhausted, overwhelmed and emotionally depleted. 

An example: One of my women leader clients was constantly on the lookout for underdog employees. She invested extra time and energy in building up these employees, despite them continuing to show up late and appearing to lack motivation at work. She believed deeply in their potential, and hopelessly kept assuming that her time and attention would support them in turning things around.

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People who blame others in an ongoing dance of fault-finding and finger-pointing. They resemble a harsh, critical parent and identify primarily as victims. Surprisingly, many are completely unaware of their blaming tactics. If someone points out they are being condescending or accusatory, they will most likely argue that they are merely defending themselves. 

In childhood, a persecutor is likely to have received overt criticism. They deny their own vulnerability and ability to share in an authentic, transparent and connective way. Persecutors can be rigid and authoritative. 

An example: One person on a leadership team constantly criticized the other members and would find fault with not only their ideas and plans, but their character as well. This leader would talk about the other team members behind their backs, causing stress and friction not only in the group but also among the employees. When the owner eventually fired the leader, the leadership team, as well as the employees, heaved a collective sigh of relief. As a result, there was a dramatic upleveling in the cohesiveness and performance of the entire leadership team. 


People who often feel helpless and hopeless, incompetent and incapable. They constantly doubt themselves and erroneously believe they have to depend on someone else to take care of them. They deny their problem-solving abilities and see themselves as inept at handling life. They mistakenly believe they need a rescuer to save them, while inwardly resenting the person who so eagerly comes to their rescue, because it reminds them of their own deficiencies.

An example: One particular leader I worked with had low self-confidence and was always looking to others to validate her as a leader. She believed that regardless of how hard she tried, she was doomed to fail. This kept her stuck. She wouldn’t hold herself accountable because she didn’t believe she was competent and capable.

Action Steps

Ask yourself the following questions: 

What role do I tend to take on with my colleagues and/or team members? 

What role do I tend to take on with my significant other? 

Remember, you can and will rotate among all three roles in a single conversation. The key is to look for your primary role.  

Be on the lookout in your next conversation, and notice what role you are taking on. Awareness is the first step. As soon as you recognize you’re playing a particular role, ask yourself how you might approach the conversation differently. From this shift in awareness, you can access new actions, behaviors and breakthroughs that wouldn’t have otherwise been available to you.

If you’d like to learn more about the drama/victim triangle, consider joining our upcoming Power Women’s Leadership Circle, where we empower women leaders in the hot tub industry to speak up, step out, and stand in their full authority and power at work and in life.