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What Has Your Emotional Baggage Got To Do With Your Leadership Style? What Refreshing Leaders Need To Know

Kate Brassington brings the nervous system to life for leaders, and anyone under pressure. She published academic research in 2020, regularly blogs about this emerging field, and is the host of the Refreshing Leadership podcast.

 
Executive Contributor Kate Brassington

We all bring baggage with us. That rucksack we all carry that is full of memories, reactions, energies, worries. This article provides you an introspective moment to consider the baggage we all have, and the impact this can have on our leadership style. Let me introduce you to the Internal Family System model to unpack what actually lies inside our emotional baggage, how it can catch us unawares, and open up a powerful and fun (you might even say refreshing) way to look at it instead, so that you and your team can move towards a healthy, happy and profitable future.


A pile of luggage sitting next to a building

Everyone learns along the way –Sometimes it’s messy

Whatever our leadership roles, the human biology and psychology that underpins us all is the same – we all spend life learning behaviours and strategies to cope with a huge range of scenarios. Literally, our brain wired together patterns of neurons specifically to help us learn and remember ‘for next time’.


However sometimes it's as if our brain finishes its own sentence. It jumps to a conclusion based on ‘what happened last time’. This happens faster than thought. In fact, it's a reaction. It is this network of memory and learning patterns that subtly influence our decision-making, communication style, and overall approach to every other human we engage with.


It is this intricate collection of memories and learning that is sometimes called our ‘baggage’, whether acknowledged or hidden. But because it’s been hard-wired into our brains, we might not even know it’s there.


Taking self-awareness to a new level

Without self-awareness, it’s highly likely that there will be times, especially under pressure, when our hard wiring (or baggage) will hop into the driving seat, and run the show. This is going to work out just fine if every situation you encounter is the same as before. But in today's fast-paced and flexible world, with increasing requirements for leaders to be authentic, transformative, and forward-thinking, it’ll at best, keep you stunted and, at worst, could seriously detract from your effectiveness.


Navigating the internal family: Understanding our parts

The Internal Family System Model, a paradigm developed by psychiatrist Dr. Richard Schwartz (to listen to him talk about his work click here), unveils the multidimensional nature of our minds. In short, your mind is not one voice. It is many voices, or “Parts” of you built from your experiences, roles, and the grit of life. Just as your external Family System is made of the people around you, so your Internal Family System is a vivid network of voices (Parts) in your mind. There’s no need to pathologise (find out what is wrong with) you if you do this, it is healthy and natural.


Having done my early training as a Couple Counsellor, I was already familiar with Family Systems Theory. It makes complete sense to me that just as you can work with the individual family members in a family system, so you can work with the individual Parts of your mind. What is great is that it is something anyone can learn (I find children get it most easily of all). And when I’m coaching Leaders, it forms a core skill for how they manage, not only conflict within their teams, but also within themselves. 


We are not mono-mind. Every one of us, every day, has multiple opinions, thoughts, feelings and ideas. These can disagree. Some are in a voice we know well, “the inner critic,” others give sage warnings. These Parts play key roles though, they aren’t just random voices. Mostly they are protectors, whether they are proactive (like steady managers) or reactive (like emergency firefighters).


What are they protecting, you ask? Simply put, they all develop from times in our lives when we were faced with shame and/or guilt. These familiar emotions and thoughts can cause such pain in our internal system, especially when laid down along with painful memories.


Painful experiences, encoded as memory, remain with us as a type of baggage, or ‘burden’. Imagine this scene (taken from my own memory bank, but you may have one similar). You are a child called to the front of the class, but your mind goes blank and you look like a fool for not knowing an answer. Everyone laughs and jeers. Memory from this experience would be laid down in several different ways. For example, not only must we learn to think quickly and clearly when put on the spot, but remember for next time the burning shame of what happened when we didn’t.


In this scenario the Protectors might have developed a number of strategies – being the funny one; the clever one; the sharp wit; the aggressive one…They are all different coping strategies of your Protectors doing their best to achieve one goal; so people never guess at your shame.


Unfortunately these Protectors can backfire too – ever been passed over for promotion because you aren’t serious enough? Or too serious? Ever burnt out because you over-try so hard? Ever found out that people are a little wary of you? Ever been told you are too aggressive? A bit “too much”? It could simply be your Protectors working overtime.


So who is doing the listening?

The great news is, busy as this family of Protectors is, they are not the True Self (the “real” you). The Self is called different things in different traditions and methodologies. In the IFS model it is a core essence of who we are that is a constant throughout life. You know those times when you are listening to the voices in your mind and you suddenly ask yourself, wait a minute, who is doing the listening?


Because the Self can be called many things in different fields. I’d say don’t get caught in the jargon, just listen quietly inside yourself for the calm, curious, compassionate listener. You could check out this article by Kylie Feller on How Internal Family Systems Can Help You Connect To Your True Self.)


When you connect with your Self-energy, you can lead your Parts through any storm in life. You can ease the burdens of the baggage they carry. And you can in turn lead your teams and organsiations from the same Self-energy, rather than your reactive Protectors. It’s a game-changer. (Try this guided visualisation for connecting with Self-energy from TherapywithAlessio.com.)


There is nothing wrong with you

Coaching Psychology, too, is a non-pathologising approach. It is the application of science and research into what is right, not wrong, with you! Instead, we view people as able to rebalance and perform at their best, even in (or after) adversity. Trauma-informed leadership is a refreshing approach because it, too, doesn’t pathologise. Instead, it is a powerful way to find the strengths and energies that work well in all of us (the “Self” energy of the IFS model, if you will), and draw them out for good. This is great not just for individuals and teams to function well, but organisations, with a ripple effect that continues far beyond.


Trauma-informed leadership In a nutshell


Being a trauma-informed leader means two things


  1. Developing kindness and self-compassion towards yourself, for the hard lessons you’ve learnt along the way, and the tough times that made you who you are today;

  2. Developing a culture around you where others can be the same.


A trauma-informed leader is a refreshing leader, read my earlier article on what exactly I mean by being trauma-informed, and how this perspective can bring compassion and a breath of fresh air to you, yourself, your family, your team, and beyond.


Still not sure how being trauma-informed can help? Have a listen to one of my earliest podcast episodes where I talk about why trauma is transdiagnostic, (doesn’t fit into one diagnostic box) and how I agree with this great article by Liam Farquhar on why it needs a re-brand!


Changing a broken system from within is tough

Refreshing Leadership acknowledges that often it is the system that we are in that is broken. Solutions lie in resolving systematic problems, not pathologising the individuals impacted by them. It is a common criticism of psychology that it can view individuals as both problem and solution, and something I look at in my research paper “Can resilience training improve well-being for people in high-risk occupations? A systematic review through a multidimensional lens”, published in 2020.


However, my clients tell me that they are still facing the struggle of living or working within a broken or toxic system. And when this is the case, it can feel super overwhelming to try and tackle it yourself. The 2022 McKinsey report on The Great Resignation (survey n=13,382 employees in 5 countries) found that the 3rd most often-stated reason why employees resign is uncaring/uninspiring leaders.


Does the scale of the problem make you angry? I’m glad to say that you can turn this into a positive force for good, and even drive change. Check out this great Tedx talk by Tanya Heasley who is a researcher, writer for Brainz., and speaker on positive anger.


You can start with yourself

You can take steps to support yourself, before trying to tackle the system. And the exciting news is, when more people in a group start working on themselves, the ripple effect intensifies. What you learn from supporting yourself you can translate to the wider system you are in.


And if you are the “uncaring/uninspiring leader”, I’m glad you are reading this. Come closer, there is a lot you can do right away to crank up your efforts to resolve that. Instead of sinking energy into hiding the shame and guilt of your past, you can have fun getting to know yourself well. How you operate best under pressure, what happens when things ease off, and how you change as you interact with different people. You don’t need IFS or psychology jargon! Just know yourself well, invite your team to do the same, and foster safety and openness. Ask yourself, “Was that a Protector trying to help me just now?” “Do I want to behave this way?”; “Would I prefer to behave differently?”. It starts with you.


This may seem a big ask; it is. It will call you to push yourself to move outside of what may have previously been taught or modelled, to break new ground. And this means we must start within ourselves, so that the side effect of our own development under pressure is not toxic for others. Instead, your bravery and self-compassion as you deal with your baggage creates a ripple effect: a brave space for creativity and progress.


You don’t have to do this alone

A Refreshing Leader does not have to do all this alone! Helping people gain insight and self awareness, alongside healing where needed, is something I bring to my work as a Coaching Psychologist. Indeed, there are increasing numbers of us who bring the psychology of coaching to life in work with clients from private individuals, to teams in huge organisations.


I speak online and in-person to share the wisdom of trauma-informed leadership, but the real magic of what I offer is one-with-one coaching. In this brave, discreet space I help people release their emotional “baggage”, not just once, but repeatedly, getting lighter and lighter. Better still, I help you learn how to do it for yourself, so you aren’t tied to coaching for the rest of your life!


Re-packing your rucksack (of emotional baggage) is something immediately effective you can do for yourself. This sets the tone for the people you lead (and those you work for) to step into this brave space too. The ripple effect is the most powerful part of the whole thing.


Get in touch with me through my website below to get the conversation started today.


Yes, I’m talking to you

Remember, when we talk about Refreshing Leaders, we're not just talking about those in traditional leadership positions.


We're talking about leaders in all areas of life – in our communities, in our families, in groups.


What defines a refreshing leader is something deeper, something that transcends titles and roles. It's about embodying qualities that bring about positive change while inspiring others to do the same.


And it starts with you.


Watch this space – Coming soon

I host my podcast Refreshing Leadership, and my blog, on my website. You can contact me via the website to talk about coaching one-with-one for yourself or your team member, or to enquire about me speaking at your event in person or online.


I’m working towards starting a Doctorate in trauma-informed leadership coaching next year. If your organisation would be interested in exploring partnering on this, get in touch!


Through this year I’ll be publishing a series of articles with Brainz covering many aspects of Refreshing Leadership. Bookmark my profile on Brainz so you can read each article as they drop.


Please share this article, we need more trauma-informed leaders to make a better world together!


 

Kate Brassington, Coaching Psychologist and Trauma-Informed Leadership Coach

Kate Brassington is a Coaching Psychologist and Trauma-Informed Leadership Coach. Listed as one of the Top 10 professional coaches in Luxembourg by The For Better Institute, she coaches people all over the world from her attic zoom room. She helps leaders learn to withstand high pressure environments, while sustainably producing great results. Her mission is to ease suffering and get the fun back! 

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