Leading a company often goes something like this:
- Set goals
- Miss our plan
- Blame others externally
- Blame myself internally
- Work even harder this time.
- Rinse & repeat 🙁
It wasn’t until I discovered Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory that it clicked for me what I was doing wrong as a leader.
The I, The We, and The It
In particular, his concept of I/WE/IT as the three fundamental lenses for development and growth was what showed me the way:
- I (The personal): Your thoughts, emotions, mindset, values, perceptions, and behaviors.
- WE (The interpersonal): Relationships between people, which includes shared values, communication styles, and behaviors.
- IT (The impersonal): The business, the product, systems, tech, the metrics, and the goals.
Seeing this framing, I noticed that almost all of my leadership efforts were IT-focused.
Every ounce of energy went toward achieving the goals. To building the business. To shipping the next product feature. To finding the next customer. Always working on moving our metrics up and to the right.
It seemed noble to me.
But doing so, I treated myself (the I) as a little more than the person responsible for making things (the IT) happen. And, I’m a bit ashamed to write it, but I treated others (the WE) as an inconvenience along the way.
“Why didn’t people just do what they needed to to make it work? They knew the goals so why didn’t they hit them?”
I was willing to sacrifice the I and the WE in the name of IT.
But the three all work together. You can only develop one so much without the others in support. This was why we underperformed. Why I failed.
Leadership First Comes From Within
Leaders who aren’t developing themselves will always struggle – both with others and in sustainably achieving business results.
You’re either learning and growing, or you’re stuck with the same patterns, doubts, and fears tripping you up.
This is why we’ve seen such an explosion in coaching and therapy for leaders in recent years. It’s also a big reason why we’ve seen more awareness and research around founder depression (which I’ve personally wrestled with).
The inner journey happens whether you want it to or not. It’s an opportunity to grow. But without taking that opportunity, it’s hard to be the leader that your team and the company needs.
Leadership Inherently Requires Others
Bringing a bunch of human beings together is easy. But it takes real leadership to do so in a way that is both healthy and effective.
The key here is to build trust.
For us, we found out later that most of our team never believed that our goals were achievable, but no one felt comfortable saying so. This is what happens when the IT overshadows the WE and the I. The collective wasn’t a safe place to voice opinions so everyone was left alone with their concerns. There were better ideas just waiting to be tapped, but no leader (myself especially) making that possible.
And in building trust, there’s so much more than just dissenting opinions at stake. A team connected and working together can mean so much to one another and accomplish incredible things too.
Leadership Creates Systems to Generate Results
Not only had I failed to bring the best out of both individuals (I) and the collective (WE) but also the extreme goal-focus created blind spots around the supporting processes and systems needed for our growth. We underinvested in internal tools, never had a clear grasp on our metrics, our onboarding was so-so at best, and (as mentioned) no method for dissenting opinions to be shared. And that’s just to name a few.
We were obsessive over being goal-focused, but brute force doesn’t get you there.
It’s individuals and leaders who are empowered (I), a connected team working well together (WE), and systems to support us (IT) that do.
It’s all interconnected. Overemphasis on one always creates an imbalance.
It’s your job as a leader to manage the I, the WE, and the IT so that all three develop to support one another.
Not easy, but neither is consistently missing your goals.
Trying on the Three Lenses Yourself
If you’re curious to see how I/WE/IT might support you, try this out…
- Pick a current challenge you’re facing at work or in life.
- Next, step through each of the three lenses spending a few minutes with these questions and writing your responses:
- I: What do I value in this situation? What feelings are coming up for me? How am I (or am I not) taking responsibility for the situation?
- WE: Who is impacted by this challenge? What do (or don’t) I know about their current stance on this? What isn’t being said that needs to be said?
- IT: What is the most important outcome here? How will I know when we’ve reached that outcome? Are there processes, systems, or structures that are needed to support getting there?
- Now, having done that, what are the next steps?
Often deliberately stepping through the three lenses not only surfaces new perspectives but also untangles some things that can get wrapped together. Using it is certainly a practice, but one that I’ve found valuable. I hope the same is true for you.