The Search for belonging
Founders and entrepreneurs need a great deal of energy in order to create and then sustain an organisational system. That energy is often connected to their private sense of their place, or lack of it, in their family-system-of-origin.
Some have a desire to stay separate from their origins. That energy to get away, to create a sense of separateness, may fuel them towards significant external success. Overtly distanced, they are however covertly deeply connected. Just out of their conscious awareness they wish to belong and feel a part of something, part of a relationship system. As a result, many get their sense of place, safety and belonging from the organisational systems which they create.
They may even describe their business and staff as ‘like a family’, bringing their unmet needs and unresolved dynamics into their organisations. This places a burden into the system and can lead to complex and limiting dynamics.
Others set up businesses in an unconscious attempt to get their parents’ attention, to be seen, recognised and acknowledged.
They may become commercially successful and build empires in the hope of being seen and accepted. Those who describe themselves as ‘serial entrepreneurs’ may be repeating this search for recognition and belonging in different ways, in different contexts, multiple attempts to show and prove that they are ‘enough’ to belong.
Leadership with these kinds of hidden dynamics often peaks at mid-life where the founder/entrepreneur who has rejected or is ‘on the run’ from their past, begins to become exhausted and their behaviour erratic, depressed or controlling. These are all signs of a deeper need to connect and so can be useful as indicators of an unmet need that can be resolved through a systemic perspective and methodology.
Nobody escapes some wounding and unmet needs in childhood and one way of expressing and trying to resolve them is to start an organisational system. This article explores some of the dynamics and patterns that can emerge as a result.
Founder Syndrome is a well-documented phenomenon. However the connection between the energy it takes to create an organisation and the founder’s family-of-origin is often overlooked in professional development and coaching.
When an individual with an unresolved family dynamic sets up an organisational system, patterns will emerge that can be seen particularly clearly in the way the system is founded.
For example a man who gets caught in his mother’s sphere of influence, either because he rejects her as a ‘punishment’ for hurt he feels she caused him – a covert bond – or because he is very close to her, like a surrogate partner – an overt bond – can be described as ‘Mother’s sons‘.
Mother’s sons get activated by any new life-giving system, so may find themselves creating new organisational systems and often describe themselves as ‘serial entrepreneurs’. In fact it is often simply a search for connection, an existential search for a more balanced relationship with the source of their life.
For female founders there may often also be a search for connection with a parent or family system. Women create life and so the potential for confusion and overlay between a family and a business system are high. And all patterns repeat.
Many of the most wealthy individuals in the world have been driven to significant levels of outer success as a result of this need to be seen, recognised by or re-connected to their father or mother. (This is pattern is particularly strong when adoption is a part of the system-of-origin.)
The drive and energy consumed in these ways rarely has the desired effect or meets the need to be seen, to be recognised, to belong.
Founder-led and other organisations also attract people with their own unresolved connections into their families and their need to belong. They project onto the founder and the organisation all kinds of needs that they appear to be able to meet.
This is particularly apparent when there are opposite sex founders or leaders in partnership, who may get mistaken as ‘ideal parents’ and a ‘perfect home/family for me’ by those employees with that search in their psyche. These dynamics place a burden on the leaders and the organisational systems, which aren’t designed to meet them.
Organisational systems with these dynamics may begin to suffer from inertia, confusion around role clarity and difficult leavings.
Many founders with this pattern hold and enact a just-out-of-conscious-awareness ‘Life Sentence’ something like this: “I’ll show you! (what I can do alone / that I deserve to belong.)“ This inner unspoken commitment often combines with a judgment over one or both of their parents as if to say “I’m better than you.” If the deep need to belong and the unconscious loyalties that emerge from it are seen and recognised they can enable and resource the individual and the wider system in surprising ways.
It is at this point that founders are sometimes ready to listen to and engage with a systemic perspective on their exhaustion or frustration. Systemic coaching and workshop constellations are designed to work where systems dynamics entangle and influence each other. From the entangled picture great insight and fresh resources can emerge. The approach offers founders the opportunity to restore the flow of life, of leadership and organisational health.
This article explores some of the common patterns and dynamics in founders and entrepreneurs with unmet recognition and belonging needs. Others can be found in this article, for coaches and consultants who work with founders and founder-led systems.
“I’ll show you”
If a founder doesn’t feel seen, or feels misunderstood or unacknowledged by a parent and/or siblings, they may spend their working lives creating systems which are designed to attract their attention. They may also work hard to show their parents that they are better than them, alone. If the pattern originates in the family system then it is likely to repeat in the organisational systems they join and be connected to the way they belong, taking the dynamic forward. This “I’ll show you” dynamic can also emerge as a result of a belonging in an organisational system where there was a difficult ending, or the leaving process was not attended to in a way that honoured the contributions they made.
✣ These founders may often have a charismatic quality and are often described and experienced as visionaries. They often make succesful pioneers and innovators of new ways of doing things. Their internal experience however may be that they are ‘not enough’ and that the parent(s) (and/or a former employer) from whom they longed for attention has not acknowledged them or their success in a way which resonates or can be accepted. Despite great outward success their inner monologue, their inner ‘Life Sentence’ is something like: ‘Even with all that I have accomplished they still don’t really understand or acknowledge me / I am still not good enough….(to belong)’
✣ If the attempt to attract the attention of their parents/other ancestors fails they may turn that focus onto their staff and work harder and harder in an attempt to impress them. Whilst the staff may be impressed to some extent the founder can’t trust their reaction as he/she knows they are employees, so must show their loyalty. In this case the founder may turn to their own family system and try and impress them. They may be interested but it may not feel ‘enough’ for the founder who is trying to get something that was not available from their own parents. This can have the effect of alienating the entrepreneur’s children who sense that their parent is in some way wanting their approval. This reversal of the natural order of things is one of the catalysts for ‘parentification’ and can leave the children confused and entangled with their parents.
✣ The first step to resolving this dynamic is to acknowledge what is, exactly the way it is and then to look back, with compassion and a systemic perspective, to the reasons why the parents were not able to be fully available to the founder in the way she/he would have liked them to be. When that comes into the light the founder can begin to see the hidden dynamics, integrate the understanding and then their need for recognition softens. The founder and their organisational system can then expand and develop.
‘Sentences for Life’ can play an important role here.
These sentences, offered as part of a constellation in a systemic coaching are context specific but may, for example, be something like:
“Dear parent(s), even though you were not available in the way I would have loved, my life came through you. Thank-you. It was enough and I am doing something special with it.”
“As long as we reject, exclude or devalue parents or other members of our family, we are forced, whenever we enter other social fields, to repeat, to continue and to reenact our struggle”
“Unresolved dynamics in the founder’s personal relationship system will always show up in the organisations they lead.”
“I’m in charge now!”
Many founders and entrepreneurial leaders experienced high levels of control, restriction or compromise as a child, either at home, at school, or both. This is often a key source of energy with which they can build a business in which they gradually eliminate anything or anyone that threatens to control them.
✣ This can lead to an organisational culture of sycophancy that feels nonthreatening for the founder, but also creates feelings of isolation and loneliness.
Teamwork and a culture of trust and psychological safety are compromised in favour of top-down decision-making.
✣ This autocratic style can work well at start-up or in an emergency but rarely leads to organisational system health or enduring business vitality.
✣ The founder realises that they are surrounded by people who say what they think he/she wants to hear and then can’t trust them, deepening their inner sense of isolation rather than healing it.
✣ The first step to resolving this painful dynamic is to look back, with compassion and a systemic perspective, to the reasons why their parents or teachers felt the need to control so strongly. Or why they had to step in themselves and control.
When that comes into the light the founder can soften their need for control and the system can expand and thrive.
“I’m famous. Now I belong”
In organisations led by founders who are or become famous, but who also have unmet childhood needs to be truly recognised and belong in their family-of-origin, life at work can become complex for them and then their employees.
✣ If an individual makes an inner decision to become famous it’s often a strong indicator that they are in a family system in which they don’t feel they belong, don’t feel acknowledged or really understood, feel judged or in some other way diminished or marginilised.
✣ Fame and celebrity appear to offer safety and belonging as well as the acknowledgment, love and sense of inclusion that’s missing. This pattern is often mixed with perfectionism and a drive to maintain the outer image at all costs.
✣ If a strong drive to become famous, or more famous, is coupled with the leading of a business system, it can deepen a sense of isolation and increase the fear of experiencing shame. Businesses led by individuals who have sought fame to shore up their inner sense of worth are challenging to work with or in.
✣ Fame and entreprenuership may often create complex dynamics for employees as organisational roles get confused with family roles and feelings. Internal organisational structure, role clarity/authority and culture may be compromised as the founder focuses their attention on the outer world of image and reputation to shore up their need for approval, acceptance and belonging.
✣ Famous founders may be be especially vulnerable to shame as their sense of self-worth is now deeply coupled with their reputation, which they have to work increasingly hard to build and maintain. Leaving a founder is often challenging (see ‘Don’t leave me’ below) and this can be amplified where fame masking shame is added to the mix. in these circumstances it becomes very hard to create a ‘good leaving’ from their organisation. This in turn creates complex dynamics in the business and limiting patterns start to repeat. The system may get larger but it also gets harder to survive or thrive within.
“I’ll fail just like you”
It’s difficult to become more successful than your parents or other ancestors. This is especially true if the ancestors were not successful, suffered a trauma or somehow ‘failed’ in life achievements or business. When a parent or other ancestor has failed in business, was cheated out of a successful business or wronged in some other way the descendant may try and compensate, even though doing so unconsciously. By limiting themselves or actually failing too. It’s a deeply unconscious act of loyalty – an act of blind love – that is an attempt to protect belonging within the family system, an attempt to stay the right relative size in the system.
Founders and entrepreneurs sometimes entangle themselves and their employees in a dynamic where they are desperately trying to ensure success so that, this time, ‘everyone will survive and thrive’. This is particularly common in individuals who are from immigrant backgrounds, where survival itslef was an imperaitive and for single children on whose shoulders there may be a sense of ‘I must do it all myslef.’ Being caught up in any systemic dynamic like that can lead to great success, initially, but later on a difficulty with personal energy, resourcing and perhaps then burnout. In this way the pattern repeats rather than being resolved.
To become more successful than was possible for your parents or other ancestors you must ask them, psychologically speaking, for permission, for a kind of blessing to be more successful than was possible for them. The kind of ‘sentence for life’ that you might hear in a facilitated constellation, but also one that can be used for a kind of silent personal meditation may be something like this: ‘Dear ancestors, please look kindly on me if I am able to flourish and be succesful in a way that wasn’t possible for you.‘
✣ An unconscious loyalty to failure – a blind loyalty – creates a pattern that may manifest at the same age or stage as in the original person or system.
It’s easier, in the sense that it feels loyal, to repeat failure and stay connected to the comfort of that familiar pattern, than it is to become successful.
The loyalty to the system, to protect belonging, is stronger than the loyalty to growth and success.
✣ For example if a woman’s grandmother was unable to create a success out of the business that she led or owned, the entrepreneur may be loyal to the unconscious ‘life sentence’ ‘Dear grandmother, I’ll fail in business too… (that will keep me loyal to you, close to you, so I still belong in the family system.)’
✣ The search for success can also be mixed up, entangled with, a search for love. So in some cases the real search is for permission to feel more loved, or simply happier than your parents were able.
✣ By bringing these hidden dynamics into the light their impact can soften as the adult child realises that their suffering in collusion doesn’t serve the world or respect that fate of the one with whom it began, to whom they are staying blindly loyal. Then the whole system can move towards better flow and sustainable success.
The sort of ‘sentence for life‘ that can be useful here is something like this “Dear ancestor, I have access to resources that were not available to you. Please look kindly on me if I use them and smile on me if I’m able to do just a little better than was possible for you.”
“I am better than you”
Founders sometimes judge someone in their family-of-origin. The unspoken judgment on their family also often comes with a sense that their business system is better than their family system. The formation of an organisational system can be an unconscious attempt to become ‘bigger and better’ than the parent(s). To show them how to do it ‘properly’ or how to lead properly.
✣ Leaders with this dynamic in their system often have a charismatic energy but struggle to create healthy organisational systems where people feel seen or safe from judgment. Burn-out is common and there may tend to be political power games and employees looking for a safe place in fear of sudden exclusion.
“There is no house like the house of belonging”
Poet and author
✣ Men who are disappointed by or feel judged by their fathers may become reclusive and/or angry as leaders. They may appoint and then reject a succession of male consultants, mentors or leaders in the unconscious search for connection with their father. In other words they look for ‘golden boys’ who can be ‘Father’ but who are also soon rejected just like father, when they too disappoint.
✣ Women who are disappointed by or feel judged by their mothers may become autocratic and/or short-tempered when under stress. They may appoint and then reject a succession of female leaders, mentors or consultants in the unconscious search for connection with their mothers. In other words they look for ‘golden girls’ who can be ‘Mother’ but who are also soon rejected just like mother, when they too disappoint.
✣ In all these scenarios the founder tends to become more and more like the person they are judging. For what you judge you become. The inner ‘Life Sentence’ is often something like this: “I judge you. I will do much better than you to show you how much better I am.”
Within this dynamic is also shame, an inner awareness of guilt for judging the parents or ancestors. As a result these founders can easily be shamed and may be brittle, quick to anger as a result. A path out of this pattern can be to integrate and embody a different inner stance, a ‘Sentence for Life’. For example: “Dear (judged parent) I’m no better than you.” And then, later in a process: “I have resources and choices that were not available to you. Please look kindly on me if I carefully use them. In this way I’ll stay respectfully connected to you.”
“Don’t leave me”
The way that people leave organisational systems is an important area to focus on if you are interested in supporting the flow of leadership and organisational health. Healthy leavings are particularly important in founder-led organisations and need special attention. Very often founder-led businesses have a ‘difficult leaving’ right at the start, the formation stages, of the system. If this is handled in a way that respects the individual and the organising forces in systems then future leavings may also be successful. However founders often exclude people or rush the process of getting someone to leave in the excitement and risk of the start-up phase and this always leads to difficulties in the system later on.
When employees leave a founder-led organisation it can also be complex because the founder often can’t bear the sense of betrayal when someone says they want to leave, so people stay, or don’t leave cleanly, and so become more entangled in the founder’s unconscious process. Those founders with unmet childhood needs, who strongly judged their family-of-origin or were judged by them, may also be particularly sensitive to shame. They may shame others in order to defend themselves from their own feelings, especially when someone leaves their organisation. They may take a leaving, particularly if it is someone senior, very personally – as if they have been judged as ‘not good enough’ to stay with. The roots of this dynamic are usually in the system of origin where a bonding, recognition and belonging trauma is left unresolved.
Because founder-led organisations often attract employees with similar hidden dynamics around the need to belong and be included, there are often many difficult leavings and the ones who leave may struggle to settle and integrate their experience. Additionally, founder led business systems often have members of the founder’s family and thier descendants within the system and this makes leavings particularly chalenging as both the family and the organisational system dynamics overlap and often entangle. A systemic perspective together with clarity about which system takes precedence can have a useful impact here.
✣ Some founders secretly want to leave shortly after starting. This truth remains unspoken in the system as the founder gets less and less engaged but finds it impossible to voice their truth. Others say they want to leave or do formally leave, but it is felt as if they haven’t and their presence and energy remain in the system.
Creating a context in which the founder can process these complex dynamics and feelings can release them and the whole system, allowing it to flourish. Systemic coaching and facilitation that respect these truths and the human need to belong can release founders stuck in these cycles of confusion and inertia.
The dynamics identified in this short article can cause inertia and other difficulties in founder-led organisational systems. However, they also shine a light on the hidden patterns and dynamics so can be a source of deep and lasting resolution. If you can illuminate the source of the original difficulty then you will find a path to lasting resolution.
The need to belong has to be seen and addressed for enduring resolution of these complex founder dynamics. With compassionate systemic intervention life and leadership can flow in the founder and through the whole organisational system.
This article was authored by John Whittington.
The articles in this series do not offer specific advice but stimulus for your own reflections. They provide only an introduction into what’s possible in a systemic coaching or workshop constellations process. This way of looking and working can be combined with others to give an understanding of the human condition. The writing is always a work in progress as the authors continue to observe and articulate the dynamics in human relationship systems.
Reading and links with a systemic perspective:
A systemic perspective is one that takes the whole relationship system into account and and is underpinned by an understanding of the human need to belong, the hidden loyalties, repeating patterns and entangling or resourcing dynamics that arise as a result.
For coaches and facilitators who work with founders please explore further here.
Reading and links from other perspectives:
These external links are provided as additional reading material but are not written by or endorsed by LLL and may not include a systemic perspective. They are offered only as further reading and offer other information and perspectives.
A link to ‘Founders at Work’, a book about start-ups and founder dynamics.
A link to an article about how founders can disengage, when it’s time to exit.