Kari is a founder and the Executive Director of Atlas. In her role with Atlas, Kari recruits and manages a network of partners who act as supports for founders and founder-types. Atlas is an expression of Kari’s grand vision to promote integrative wellbeing in our culture by starting with leaders. Her education and experience positions Atlas at the intersection of authentic human connection and data-driven success. Her doctoral dissertation work around Organizational Factors of Self-Care demonstrated the power of intervening with leadership to drive a trickle-down approach to overall company wellbeing and success.
Prior to her work with Atlas, Kari worked to develop programming for the YWCA. She has worked as an independent consultant to various for-profit and non-profit companies to help improve their communication, company culture, team structure, and build effective program evaluation strategies. In addition to her work with Atlas, Kari acts as a yoga instructor and founding member of Yoga X, a special initiative of the Stanford University School of Medicine to increase integration in healthcare. When Kari is not working, she enjoys hiking and practicing and teaching yoga.
A Real Concerning Phenomenon Among Founders
Founders experience some common and many unique traits that put them at high risk of mental health disruption, burnout and difficult relationships. As I work on building my current company, called Atlas, I intend to use a solution which is referred to as Integrative Leadership. Integrative Leadership, among other things, is based on Gestalt Therapy, Yoga Philosophy, Integral Theory and Integrative Medicine and I will explain how these different techniques work with one another to tackle a serious challenge in our ecosystems.
Integrative Leadership and Examples
Integrative leadership is the idea that the physical, emotional, mental, and relational wellbeing of a leader are intimately and positively correlated with leadership and business success. When I say it out loud to colleagues, founders, VCs and others in the startup space, we all develop this sort of knowing smile, “Yeah, that makes sense.” However, this has never been a dominant trope in the startup community, instead we hear stories of founders living on $1/day, sleeping under their desks, working 23 hours per day, and sacrificing everything to win. In fact, my business partners, the GPs of Alpha Bridge Ventures used to say that they invested in founders who were willing to “Win at all costs”. However, what we’ve all come to realize is that “… at all costs” often means the severe loss of quality of life and leadership due to self and other-neglect and sometimes means the loss of a founder’s life by suicide.
Integrative leadership recognizes that quippy and popular buzz words like, “self-care” “work-life balance” “slow down to speed up” don’t quite capture the deep need of humans to be whole, integrated and connected. There are 3 particular philosophical frameworks that help us to transcend the lip service of our new self-care culture and support leaders on their paths to integration. There are many ways to get to integration- these are the ideas, philosophies, and practices that make sense to me and those I work with. My aim is give you some tools to unblocking yourself so you may reach your most expansive and most genuine version of yourself for the benefit of your company and our societies.
Gestalt is really a philosophy of wholeness. Discovered by a German psychologist who was studying cognitive psychology. Gestalt came to mean the “whole is different than the sum of its parts.” This is sometimes translated as saying that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. All of this to say that we are creatures who ascribe meaning to the events of our lives.
What do you see?
Many people say that they see a triangle. However, this is really just three round dots, not at all a triangle.
So, if we are more than our component parts that also means that our component parts are related. Like a chair isn’t a chair if it’s just a heap of chair parts. They must be connected and organized in a very specific (and functional) manner. For example, if one leg is loose or the mesh in the seat is weak, then the meaning and function of the chair is compromised.
This is not different for humans, each piece of us is interdependent. We are essentially complicated interconnected communities of cells, organisms, electrical and chemical impulses organized in such a way to make things like love, purpose, and leadership possible constructs.
The body-mind-and absolutely every part of who we are is connected to all of the other parts and requires tending to. This idea was really nicely captured in Integral Theory developed, humbly, by Ken Wilber in his book called “The Theory of Everything”.
Ken Wilber set out to create a theory that would unify all other theories and this work has the potential to be incredibly muddy, at best. However, there are two concepts worth putting into your back pocket and pulling out whenever you wish to contemplate the way of the world. The first is the All Quadrants All Levels (AQAL) framework. One of our favorite VC coaches, Steve Schlafman has this amazing image tattooed on his body, lest he ever forget. AQAL demonstrates, in a more granular way, what Gestalt theory discovered, that everything is connected. Here’s how Ken Wilber describes the important buckets of interconnection (model borrowed from www.integrallife.com).
The four quadrants are organized based on the individual—collective and the subjective—objective. The individual quadrants are the I (individual subjective) and the It (individual objective). These refer to our psychology and biology respectfully. In our modern wellness industries, we spend a lot of time talking about these two. Integrative Leadership often starts with these two by managing, first, the leader’s building blocks of health including sleep, nutrition, exercise, and subtle health as well as self-talk, emotional intelligence, and each person’s unique psychology. These are important for startup leaders who are far more likely than the general population to experience mental health disruptions and, anecdotally and logically, more prone to stress-linked health disorders including autoimmune and digestive disorders.
Travel to the bottom right. This quadrant is “Its” the objective collective quadrant. Here lives access to resources. The practical—objective—things that humans need to thrive. At a base level we all need access to safety, shelter, food, and water. To thrive in this society we also need access to adequate money, education, and opportunity. There are many who do not have access to these basic needs and a handful more in the entrepreneurial community who are guilty of depriving themselves from adequate resources such as not paying themselves enough, living in overcrowded spaces, and/or skimping on healthy food options. As social justice issue, as it is still for minority, female and underrepresented entrepreneurs, groups like SoGal Foundation, Backstage Capital, and Female Founders Fund are leading the charge with a long way still to go. When the perpetrator of injustice is a member of our own internal community, we begin to see the interconnectedness of these quadrants. In this case we have to address the psychology that deprives us, and we see the results of this in our lack of physical wellbeing.
The final quadrant is one that is particularly squishy and insanely powerful. This is the “We” quadrant or the collective subjective. This is where culture and connection lives. In the Atlas model we call this Relational wellbeing. Culture is often where we create our foundational values that are the soil for the flowering plant of our individual psychology. Culture is also the place where humans gain a sense of connection and meaning.
We are complex creatures who require physical health, psychological health, access to resources, and meaningful connection. Without any one of these the other three begin to fail.
There’s one more then we’ll talk about what all of this has to do with leadership.
Yoga is an ancient lifestyle system that puts legs on the heady foundational theories of Mr. Gestalt and Ken Wilber. Both of these systems make recommendations for working within these theories, however, Yoga philosophy stands as the oldest system of integration that I know of. There are a number of facets of this. For the purpose of this discussion we’ll talk about the developmental model of the Koshas. The Koshas are the sheaths or layers of development. The developmental trajectory through the Koshas is a holarchy (Ken Wilber, 1969) NOT a hierarchy. This is important because hierarchies allow us to say, now you are at this level and not at the last. A holarchy requires people to transcend and integrate. This means that you don’t only move to the next level but fully integrate and take with you the previous level.
I love the Koshas as a road map (and they fit really nicely on top of the four quadrants).
Specifically the Koshas start with the food we put into our bodies (annamaya kosha). For all of us food, air, and water provide the building blocks for the necessary neurotransmitters and functional systems that give rise to everything. The next layer is energy and emotions (pranamaya kosha) this includes the manner by which you manage your available energy and express yourself. The third is our mind layer, which creates meaning and thought (manamaya kosha). This is particularly important given Gestalt philosophy and incredibly important in leadership. The fourth is our intuition, which can be practiced and developed (vijnanamaya kosha). Finally, the outer most sheath of the koshas is anandamaya kosha. This refers to “bliss” and can result in unshakable equanimity and connectedness. Excellent leaders walk with the calm confidence of anandamaya kosha.
You can see how we, as humans, develop from being preoccupied by our bodies (especially when we are babies) to humans who have thoughts and meaning and some of us develop our intuition and even our ability to become unshakable and kind simultaneously.
Using these Theories to Personalized Your Leadership Style
So, what does all of this have to do with leadership? I think there are tools and gifts inherent in all of these theories. In fact, I pull on all of the aforementioned theories when helping leaders to find their own personal leadership style. But, that’s what’s key, personalized leadership. We are all infinitely complex systems comprised of 5 levels of body, mind, emotions, intuition, and connectedness, rounded out by the objective and subjective aspects of our individual and collective environments. Finally, all of these pieces put together equal something greater than can be described by simple addition. When we talk about integrative leadership, all of these pieces are important. At Atlas, we seek to attend to every level, quadrant, and dot without missing the greater than the whole part.
This is just the beginning. Learn more about integrative leadership by following our newsletter, join us for a training, or build your own integrative leadership program with Atlas.