Most people who know me will know that I am a huge believer in the Internal Family Systems model of psychotherapy. developed by Dr. Richard Schwartz. IFS is a non-patholagizing modality of therapy that embraces the plural nature of the mind; that is, the idea that the human mind is complex and composed of multiple sub-personalities (which IFS calls “parts”), each with their own motives, desires, awarenesses, etc.
It’s fascinating stuff, and as someone who’s worked with an IFS therapist for months now for my own personal growth and mental health, it’s mind-blowingly effective and downright life changing.
But this is an article about leadership, not my personal demons, so where are we going here?
IFS, though meant for internal healing and understanding, is none the less, a fully developed systems approach to relationships. As such, it provides some useful concepts that can be helpful when approaching team dynamics and the unique problems we face as leaders. In this article, I’ll explore one of those core IFS concepts, in particular, the idea of leading from Self.
Disclaimer: I’m not an IFS professional, nor am I IFS trained or certified in any way. I’m a people leader who happens to be the client of an amazing IFS therapist. These thoughts, conclusions, and ideas are ones I have derived from my own experiences in both of these capicities and are an explanation of how I’ve applied tools I’ve personally learned in therapy to my work as a leader.
At the heart of the IFS model is the concept of “Self” (big S), an inner nature that exists within all of us and holds certain innate qualities that, when accessed, allow us to approach the world in positive, productive, and healty ways.
This “Self” energy, consists of the following:
These qualities are collectively known as the 8 C’s of Self. I’ve marked the first three in bold, because those are the ones I want to focus on. We’re going to explore what happens when we are being calm, curious, and compassionate as leaders.
One of the most useful skills I’ve learned in life is how to stay calm in a crisis. It took me a little longer to learn how to stay calm in everyday situations that didn’t quite reach crisis level, but it was worth the effort.
When we are calm, we give space for ourselves and others to be heard. We make decisions based on facts, not emotions, and we are more accepting of others around us; both their views, and their faults.
As leaders, we are sometimes required to take quick action, however, we should strive to be decisive, not reactionary. Staying calm helps us make those decisions quickly, from a place of confidence and clarity.
Calm allows us to more accurately assess the situation we’re in and act accordingly.
Calm also trickles down (curiosity and compassion do too, by the way). When we are calm, it is easier for those around us to remain calm. Simply through our presence in the room, we can be a reassurance to others that things will be alright. In this way, we are likely to naturally spread our calmness to others, and when necessary, we can more easily take action to move others toward a place of calmness.
Curiosity helps us get to the root of our problems. Many times, the issues we see at the surface level are not the true cause of our problems, but are only symptoms of larger systemic issues.
For example, perhaps a show stopping bug slips through a code review and into production. At first glance, it may look as if the issue is that the developer reviewing the code was not thorough enough. But if we keep digging, we’ll learn that the developer is over-taxed, because they were struggling to meet a deadline. We then learn that they were struggling beecause their project is running behind due to scope creep. Thus, the root cause of “bug makes it to production” in this instance is a failure at the project planning stages in which the elements resulting in scope creep were not discovered and planned for.
Furthermore, we’ve uncovered problems with communication in which the developer is not or does not feel empowered to discuss changing the project timeline. We’ve also learned that our developer is over-worked and may be nearing burnout or may require additional support.
These are all additional avenues we could pursue with continued curiosity and they are all issues that, as leaders, we will want to address.
The modern work environment, especially within the startup landscape, is often intense. At the same time, employees care more than ever about maintaining a healthy work/life balance (as they should). Compassion toward others is how we support the emotions and needs of the people we lead. It’s how we bring people together, and how we make sure everyone feels heard and validated.
For me, compassion for my co-workers is the understanding that nothing they’re doing at work matters nearly as much as anything that’s happening with them or their families at home. The priorities of work and home aren’t even in the same ballpark. It means understanding that language and cultural barriers can sometimes make communication and collaboration difficult, but that the person on the other end of the conversation has the same wants, fears, and needs that I do. It means accepting that some days are just going to be hard and we should aknowledge that and provide support when needed. It also means we should recognize people for their efforts and show appreciation to our team members for showing up day after day and doing their best.
But compassion shouldn’t just stop at our co-workers. We must also have and foster in others, compassion for our customers. They, like us, have families and fears, and real needs and desires that they expect us to provide. Taking the time to put ourselves in their shoes and understand the business from their perspective helps us be intentional about our work.
How do we put these things into practice in our everyday work lives? It should be no surprise that my recommendation is to lead from a place of true Self energy in the way that IFS defines being Self-lead. After having experienced both for some time now, I truly feel that anyone who is in a position to lead people should first learn how to lead with their Self, either through self-guided work of through working with a therapist.
However, you probably did not come here for a recommendation for an expensive form of psychotherapy. You came looking for action items that would make you a better leader. Fortunately, calm, curious, and creative can very much be “fake it ‘til you make it” qualities.
If you’re in a stressful situation at work, take a few deep breaths and remind yourself to be intentionally calm. Get educated about what’s going on, focus on a goal, and be willing to be flexible.
Here’s a great article about communicating effectively in a crisis.
How do you stay curious? When looking at a situation, it’s easy to jump to conclusions and that’s a shortcut our brain likes to make. We’re evolutionarly built to do things as efficiently as possible. However, since quick conclusions can obscure deeper issues, these situations are great for a Five Whys conversation.
Staying compassionate, I’ll admit, is probably one that you can’t easily fake. It does require that you have some actual concern for the people around you, but I know you do, or you wouldn’t be leading them. You certainly woldn’t be reading this article. So when things get rough, lean into that side of you. Take a moment to stop and remember the people, not the roles. Make time to engage with your team socially, in groups, and one on one. Get to know them. You’ll be glad you did, and so will they.
Here are some simple tips for cultivating compassion within yourself, and in others.
Calm, Curious, Compassionate - these are the three corners of a powerful leadership trinagle from which you will grow closer to your team, make better decisions, and foster a healthier work environment.
Once you have reached a point where you can bring forward all of these attributes regularly, you will find that your role as a leader is not only easier and more effective, but also more fulfilling.
These three qualities, combined with the other 5 C’s of Self energy are not only valuable for healing relationships within ourselves, they foster stronger relationships with others, and help us reach a mental state that allows for great problem solving and greater clarity.