Leading with authenticity and connectivity

Joachim Stempfle

The interplay between two our fundamental human needs: Need for attachment and our need for autonomy.

Life is a growth journey. All of us have started life from a point of complete vulnerability: As infants, we cannot take care of ourselves and are fully dependent on our caretakers. To what extent our needs are met during this early stage of life has a lasting impact on our relationships – whether we feel we can trust others, whether we perceive relationships as a supportive or threatening. As we grow up, we grow our capabilities, and our desire for autonomy increases. We are able to take care of ourselves and want to stand on our own two feet.
Attachment and autonomy are two fundamental human needs. How we express these needs through our lifetime shapes who we become, and how we interact and lead.

Basic human needs: attachment and autonomy

Compared to animals, it takes a very long time for human children to become fully independent. That’s why, from an evolutionary perspective, caring emerged as a fundamental human need. Parents care about their children, and children are attached to their parents – this is how children can survive. Attachment is a basic human need – none of us are able to survive without relationships. This biological need to bond with others allowed humans to protect each other against threats, collaborate, and form communities. In many ways, the human need for attachment is the basis of our civilization.

The other side of the coin is our need for autonomy. As our capabilities grow, we want to express ourselves, grow our skills, explore, and take care of our own lives. In middle and late childhood, children are slowly granted more freedom over their decisions, and teenagers usually long for greater independence. We all want to become self-reliant. When this happens, we get a sense of fulfillment. Our need for autonomy may evolve into the desire to shape our environment and contribute to a bigger purpose.

Attachment and autonomy are like two legs that we stand on. Thriving requires fulfilment of both our need to be connected and our desire to be our authentic selves. But the circumstances of our lives can jeopardize this. Some children never experience truly being cared for – they are forced to stand on their own two feet way too early in life. Others have been forced to “fit in” and have never been encouraged to develop their own authentic selves.

The life lessons we extract from our experiences will end up determining how we bond and understand any kind of relationship later on in life, as well as how we express our autonomy.

For leaders, understanding how we relate to others and how we express our autonomy is crucially important. We might unconsciously replicate relationship dynamics we have learned in the past. Recognizing these patterns enables us to lead consciously.
I will share three stories of leaders to demonstrate how life shapes how we act and lead. These stories are fictional – a blend of stories that I have encountered as a facilitator and coach.

Story 1: Against all odds

Our first leader grew up in a hostile family environment. He was the second, unplanned child and from his earliest memories, he was overlooked in favor of his older brother. His parents were struggling with life and devoted the little time and attention they could afford to his older brother – his brother was expected to do well, while he was neglected. He did not receive much love or support and had to fight for everything he ever received.

Amazingly, the hostile environment in which he grew up, caused him to develop an incredibly strong drive and unique capabilities. He learned not to rely on others, but instead became self-sufficient early on as a child. He worked hard to grow his own skills and shaped his life in a very deliberate way. Not surprisingly, when he entered the work environment, people admired him for his willingness to take ownership, his work ethic and endurance, and his courage to address difficult topics. He moved up the ranks easily and was very successful in any role he took on. Nevertheless, he was acutely aware that something was missing: his own happiness. Deep down, even though he was wildly successful, he always felt alone. He felt he could not really trust anyone. When eventually he started working with a boss who made life difficult for him, his deep mistrust was triggered and confirmed. He felt he could trust no one and started to increasingly withdraw from interactions and relationships. He felt that he could only trust himself.

As he was reflecting on his life experiences, he understood that he was over-relying on his autonomy – not because he wanted to, but because he had to from a very early stage in life. Growth for him meant that he wanted to learn to deepen relationships and start to trust people. This was initially very difficult for him – he had to overcome a deep-rooted fear to be hurt or passed over. As he did this, he learned that there were people who he could trust and on whom he could rely, and he eventually started to share the burden of leadership with his team. He kept his courage and his independent thinking, but at the same time became a more inclusive leader who provided more space for others. He stopped over-relying on his need for autonomy and brought more connectedness into his life. This made him happier, but it also made him a more effective leader.

Story II: Competing for love

Another leader grew up in a family where life was all about being successful. Her parents were successful entrepreneurs who delegated raising their only child to professional caretakers – they were too busy to attend to their child. Love from her parents was contingent on her showing extraordinary performance – as a young adult, this leader found herself under intense pressure to be extraordinary, to prove to her parents that she could follow in their footsteps. She soon found herself in professional sports, practicing more than 8 hours a day. She developed an extremely competitive profile and from her early childhood, life was a competition for her.

Entering the corporate world, people appreciated her steady work ethic, her drive and tenacity. She quickly moved up and whatever project or role she took on, she performed incredibly well. But there was a downside: for her, everything was about winning and losing. She also approached relationships with colleagues as a competition. Whenever she was part of a team, others felt suppressed and sidelined – she always needed to show that she was the best, and she always expected to get more rewards than others. At one point, her career came to a standstill, as the organization realized that although she performed really well individually, she created and aggravated conflict with peers and had a negative influence on the performance of the team and the broader organization. She was denied a promotion and increasingly received signals from the organization that no matter how hard she worked, she was not seen as someone with potential for more responsible roles. This pushed her into an existential threat situation – she had to face the hard truth that although she pushed herself beyond her limits, she was seen as damaging others’ growth and performance. Her career had come to a standstill.

She realized that the absoluteness of her competitive drive was instilled into her during her childhood – winning was the only way for the child to receive love, attention, and respect. Once she saw how things connected, she was able to step back and re-organize her life. She gave herself and others more space to breathe, restored balance into her family life, and spent more time understanding others’ needs. Doing so required her to confront her deep-rooted fear of not being “good enough”, not measuring up to others’ expectations. Confronting this fear enabled her to move from a “me first” to an “us together” approach. It also enabled her to stop pushing for her own advancement and recognition and instead put her extensive skills and experience to work in service of the organization.

Story III: Finding myself

Another leader grew up in a troubled family setting. Her mother had experienced a difficult childhood and always seemed fragile and vulnerable, in need of protection. Her father spent most of his time at work and was not very present. As the oldest child with two younger siblings, she felt responsible for her siblings, acting like a mother to them. During school years, the brothers struggled quite a bit and the attention of the family was always on the them. While she was still young herself, she personally took on the responsibility to help them overcome their struggles and grow up.

As a result, she developed a self-sacrificing approach to life. She always focused on others’ needs and emotions, – her mother, her bothers – and put her own needs last. She was busy sensing others’ needs and emotions and worked in a diligent manner to make everyone safe and happy. She was always the shoulder that others cried on.

When she entered the business world, she quickly became the “go to” person for others, no matter which role she took. Her caring, mindful, and selfless approach made her many friends and brought her into highly responsible roles. However, as the complexity of her work increased, she over-extended herself, working extreme hours and going beyond her limits. She also realized that while making everyone else happy, she lost herself.

When her team had to face an important transformation, many employees reacted with resistance. And in trying to make everyone happy, she found herself unable to put her foot down and provide a clear direction to her team.

She realized it was time for her to change her approach. She needed to get frank with her team. She explained that the transformation was taking place, why it was happening and what was expected of them. She sought feedback and actively invited contribution, but her stance was strong. To be able to do so, she had to confront her fear of damaging relationships, the fear of not being liked by others, the fear of not being useful. Turns out, her employees had needed that sort of clarity, and the transformation was well-received in the end.

This change was possible because this leader realized that she was never given the opportunity to develop her own autonomy. Her growth journey implied listening to her own needs, developing self-compassion, finding her voice, and learning to express herself in a clear and honest manner. She also learned to set boundaries and strive for balanced relationships. She had to grow her autonomy and learn not to be absorbed by others. Today, she is still a very caring and empathetic leader, but she is also able to state her position and set clear boundaries. This enabled her to achieve more balance in her life while improving her leadership impact.

Know thyself

A quote by Abraham Maslow says, “you cannot choose wisely for a life unless you dare to listen to yourself, your own self, at each moment of your life.”

If we want to grow to our full potential, we must look in the rearview mirror. We must reflect on our own growth journey with acceptance and compassion and recognize how our life experiences have shaped us. This process of deep introspection enables us to understand our autopilots and gain inner freedom and choice.

For those of us who tend to over-emphasize autonomy over attachment, growth implies letting go of our strong need for control and achievement. It often means confronting the fear of not being successful, respected, recognized. It implies recognizing that we are good enough. This process of letting go enables us to step back from needing to protect our ego and lead from a place of authenticity. It enables us to let go of the need to defend and position ourselves and instead connect to our deeper self. Letting go of our own need for control also opens us up to listen and truly take in the needs of others.

When we realize that we over-emphasize attachment over autonomy, we need to face up to the fact that we are neglecting our own needs, always trying to meet others’ expectations, putting others first. Growth implies developing compassion, caring, and nurturing for ourselves, embracing our own needs, and expressing ourselves with full authenticity. We need to stop walking on eggshells and let go of the fear of damaging relationships or making others unhappy. Sharing openly what we truly believe in enables us to build honest and balanced relationships.

Life is a never-ending growth journey that challenges us to balance our two fundamental human needs: the need to be deeply connected to others and the need to develop our authentic selves. In times when we notice that we are either not being ourselves or that we are disconnecting from others, we are challenged to reflect and re-balance consciously.

(Written with the support of Inés Escobar Borruel)