The Congruent Leader – Personal Iceberg

As described in previous posts, Congruence comes from balancing Self with Other and Context. This post goes more into depth (pun intended) about the depth of Self.

Whereas the Self Mandala from my previous post shows the breadth of what Self entails, the Personal Iceberg is a metaphor for the depth of Self and about caring for Self on all different levels. Each level represents a layer of experience that will affect the ones above it. Similar to the way an iceberg is mostly hidden beneath the surface, most of what we experience is hidden beneath a surface of our actions and behavior. At a first glance it is impossible for a bystander to see what is going on behind the actions of another person. Actually, most of the time we ourselves are blind to why we act and react in certain ways. To get below the surface we must often ask ourselves and others a series of (sometimes uncomfortable) questions. 

The Personal Iceberg consists of many different layers of experiences that each explain part of who we are and who we want to be. The core of the iceberg is the Self, who we are: “I AM”. No matter what our belief system is, there is something that defines us uniquely as individual living beings, something that symbolizes our life force. This what all the other layers are formed around and externalize.

The Personal Iceberg

The layer closest to the Self is our Yearnings, our longing for acceptance, love and validation. We all share these yearnings but our tools for having them fulfilled will vary profoundly depending on the circumstances we have been given since birth. If we had these needs met as kids, we will be more likely to have the self-esteem and agency needed to show the world that we are worthy of having them met in the future. Being closest to our true Self, our yearnings are also our most vulnerable point. It is difficult to get more vulnerable than when asking for love and acceptance from other people. Luckily, this is also where most of us are willing to meet other people since it is such a universal need that we all can identify with.

Above our yearnings lie our Expectations. This is what we expect from the world based on our previous experiences, good or bad. Some of us expect the world to be fair while others expect it to be unfair. Having experienced a lot of unmet expectations as a child can lead to shifting the expectations toward what we might have become used to. Another source of expectations are comparisons with other people, we want to have what other have as well.

There is a paradox in here that seldom works in our favor when we fail to voice our expectations; when we expect the world to be good and fair, we are presuming that the world will change for us without us changing internally,  and when we expect to be treated unfairly we might actually help in driving that behavior. “She never does what I asks for so this time I won’t help her out.” This will perpetuate and validate assumptions that don’t need to be true but we are making them come true for us.

Giving our expectations a voice is often a great way to clear misunderstandings and to prevent them from happening at all. But we also need to cope with not getting them met at all times. The latter however, is usually easier to do if we can talk about them openly.

On top of our Expectations lies the layer that represents our Perceptions. Perceptions, or beliefs, values and thoughts, are the things we think that we think we know based on the (limited) perspectives that we have had so far. We all hold a large number of things for true because that is how we have perceived them during our encounters. Some of them will probably hold true under scrutiny but a lot of them are probably misunderstandings on our part. The perceptions we hold can be both about ourselves as well as others and the world around us. They can include factual as well as moral beliefs. This is also where we hold, what Chris Argyris called, our espoused theories (I will return to this concept in a later post). Argyris separated our theories in action, what we actually do, from our espoused theories, what we want to do because it aligns with our values. We will return to discuss this more in depth later in the book since having a value system that does not match our actions is a common source of incongruence.

The next two levels are a two-fold dimension that contains our Feelings as well as our Feelings About Our Feelings. The first one might be more intuitive but the second one often plays a bigger part in defining us. Let us take them one at a time.

Our feelings are mostly reactive and based in our past. We can relive our feelings when similar events take place far apart in time. Many of us also struggle with a language for our feelings. We tend to mix our thoughts and feelings because of the language that we use. I have often said that feelings are like salads; it doesn’t become one just because you put the word next to it. An “ice cream-salad” is not a salad in much the same way as “I feel like having a cup of coffee” is not a feeling. The former is still ice cream and the latter is a thought. When we have a language that clearly expresses feelings it becomes easier for us to hold them up to the light and try to figure out what to do with them.

As if feelings were not difficult enough in themselves, we also have to deal with the stigma of a lot of them. Our feelings are often surrounded by complicated rule systems that have been formed by culture, family, friends and our own expectations on ourselves. This means that we also have to deal with our Feelings About Our Feelings. The unwritten and usually unnamed rules that we have learned growing up will limit our set of actions on a daily basis. Most of these rules made sense at some point in time but they became a problem for us when we made them rules and our only choices. Examples of these rules can be “boys don’t cry” or “always look cheerful”. Satir called them “family rules” or “survival rules” since we learned many of them from our families and the importance of them as children were often perceived as of life or death importance since we were so dependent on the people around us for survival. Our feelings about our feelings will strongly filter our responses to what happens around us and often drive incongruent behavior where our actions don’t align at all with our feelings.

At the surface level of the iceberg are our strategies for Coping with ourselves and the world around us. There are several patterns for coping under stress that I will describe in later posts but this is where they manifest themselves. When we are subjected to some stimulus, most of the time we have a bag full of goto-responses that we pick from without giving them much thought. These are pre-filtered approaches that might have been, or at least seemed, successful at some time in the past but usually stand in our way when they become our only options.

On top of this is the Behavior that we expose. The behavior is the physical responses that we share with the rest of the world but they are all based on the underlying layers that are parts of our personal history and who we are.

Congruence in our behavior and actions starts with recognition and acceptance of who we are beneath the surface. The depth of our Congruence determines its potency. 

The Congruent Leader – An Exercise

The Congruent Leader – An Exercise

This is not my next real post in the series, it is just an amuse-bouche delivered to cleanse your palate between regular posts.

After my first post in The Congruent Leader series I got a request to give an example of Congruence and my spontaneous reaction was “Oh yes, of course.” I’ve been considering the topic since and I realized that an example will not make the topic justice. It’s quite easy to give examples of incongruence, for example whenever we blame, placate or ignore around important issues. Congruence though is all about the Self, the Other and the Context and all of these perspectives are so complex in themselves that it’s impossible to convey the preconditions in such a way that we even begin to do them justice in a way where we all see the same situation. What is Congruent to me might not be your Congruent response to the same situation because it will not be the same situation when we switch places. After thinking about this I decided to offer an exercise instead for you to self evaluate your responses and options to see which ones you find most Congruent. Feel free to reach out if you’re interested in talking about your ideas after doing this exercise. My hope is that the upcoming posts in this series will help you with tools to come up with even more Congruent options in the future if you follow my blog. If anyone finds this exercise valuable I will try to come up with more in the future and I think it might be interesting to revisit them as I add on tools.

The exercise I’ll describe is taken from a real world example with additional complexity that I won’t disclose here but I found the situation in itself useful as a thought experiment. If the person who shared this with me originally happens to find their way here I hope that you’re ok with me borrowing some of the set-up.


Empty movie theater

Imagine yourself sitting in a movie theater. Mid-movie you get a phone call and it turns out that you had forgotten to set you phone on silent. While you’re fumbling with your phone to turn it off the person next to you in the theater stares at you and loudly in a very disdainful tone proclaims: “You need to stop that crap immediately!”

Consider that the person next to you is:

  • A family member
  • A person you’re with on a first date
  • An unknown old man
  • An unknown teenage girl
  • A biker with a vest signaling membership in a criminal gang

The movie is:

  • A silly rom-com
  • Schindler’s list

Questions to consider in the different scenarios:

  • What would be your spontaneous response in this situation?
  • What could be a more Congruent response to the situation?
  • Do you have access to all possible responses or are there external factors that limit your choices? What are they and why?
  • Are there internal factors where you yourself are taking away the possibility of certain responses? What are they and why?
  • How does your age, gender, ethnicity and social status affect the situation and your response? To whom might this be an entirely different situation?

Keep in mind how Congruence is about taking Self, Other and Context into account. What is the Context and how does it affect the situation? Who is the Other and in what ways do you account for them?

Can you be apologetic without placating? Can you be angry without blaming? Can you be objective without acting like a robot? Can you acknowledge all your feelings? Can you empathize with the other? 

What is Congruence to you in this movie theater?

The Congruent Leader – Self Mandala

The Congruent Leader – Self Mandala

If this is your first visit to this blog series, a bit of background might be useful for you but I hope that each post will be able to bring value on its own as well.

Previous posts:

In my previous post on Congruence I mentioned the importance of balancing Self, Other and Context in our communication. I’m planning on going more in depth on what these different parts entail in the next few posts. First out is the Self.  

Being fully Congruent to oneself is extremely difficult since it involves having access to a breadth of tools while at the same time being conscious about all the different depths of the unique person that I am. It takes conscious effort to do this and we won’t have the will or energy to do it all the time so Congruence is a gift that we can offer ourselves and other people but it can not be taken for granted. Please remember that; Congruence is always a conscious effort that we can make, we may not always consider every person and every situation worthwhile our effort to be congruent but the choice that we make will always affect the quality of our interactions.

Virginia had one metaphor for describing our breadth of resources; the Self Mandala, and one metaphor for talking about the depth of our person; the Iceberg. They are not orthogonal to each other but rather affect each other on all levels but I will treat them a bit more simplistic as I describe these metaphors in this and my next post. 

The Self Mandala

The Self mandala was Virginias way of talking about the breadth of tools we can access to use all aspects of ourselves. She divided the Mandala into eight different dimensions; the Spiritual, the Contextual, the Nutritional, the Interactional, the Sensual, the Emotional, the Intellectual and the Physical. Each dimension represents one of our resources in isolation, but the dimensions are also deeply interconnected with each other and affect one another in reinforcing ways both positive and negative.

Illustration of Satir Self Mandala

Spiritual – this part of the Mandala relates to our relationships to whatever each of us identifies as bigger than ourselves. It could be a belief system, some thoughts about meaning of life or whatever life force we might acknowledge. For religious people this might be easy to fathom but for those of us having a secular worldview this part of the Mandala can seem difficult to grasp or even redundant. Personally I find it as a way for me to consider if I can have a purpose in anything ‘good’ that is larger than myself and that will hopefully survive myself. Perhaps something as simple as this quote by Elton Trueblood:
“A man has made at least a start on discovering the meaning of human life when he plants shade trees under which he knows full well he will never sit.”

No matter what our view on the Spiritual side is, it will be an important part of our value system and in being Congruent to ourselves we must acknowledge these values and nurture them with our integrity. It doesn’t mean that they can’t change and that we shouldn’t stay curious to alternatives, but at any given moment, our current value system are a large part of what defines us.

Physical – our body, all parts of it, has always been one of our greatest resources. It has been intrinsic in both taking us to the communications but also as an expression for a large part of the communication. This makes it an essential part of our Congruent communication. A body that does not deliver the same message as our words and intention, is at its best only confusing but at its worst a signal that we’re not being true to ourselves or the Other. Today we are able to meet other people without being there in person as well but the wellbeing of our bodies is still on top of the list of importance. When our body is taken care of we have a much higher chance of being rewarded with it responding to our needs with good health and working abilities. The dependencies between our physical wellbeing and all other parts of the Self Mandala are strong and it’s often not obvious why the physical parts of ourselves are not working or responding in the ways we want them to, so in order to keep one of our most important tools for communication in good shape we also need to attend to all of our other resources.

Intellectual – our reasoning parts. This is the part of us that does conscious processing and planning, the part that we use for deliberate learning and reflecting. If we lack curiosity, this is the part that will be stifled in its’ growth most obviously. We need to keep feeding our intellectual dimension by asking questions and listening attentively to the answers in order for it to stay in balance and work in our favor. It is also important to remember that intellect without empathy and compassion just puts us in the same league as computers and robots. We need our thoughts and our emotions to collaborate for us to stay Congruent and when there’s a dissonance between the two, we need to acknowledge that and be able to reflect on why. 

Emotional – this is everything that relates to our feelings and inner emotions. Unlike our physical body, our emotions will not be broken but our relationships with them can be more or less healthy and they may work more or less well for us. When this part of the Mandala is in imbalance, it is not the feelings themselves that are wrong but we might have to look at our acceptance of them and also why we are having them. An honesty towards why we are having certain feelings might reveal new ways of coping with them which in turn might change the feelings themselves.

Sensual – our senses that help us perceive the world around us through sound, sight, taste, smell and touch. These are often seen as ‘objective’ sensors that are reading data from our environment but their objectiveness is strongly skewed by both physical limitations as well as our past that has taught us to filter and interpret the data in ways that might have been beneficial to us at some point in time. The touch of a loved one might feel completely different from a similar but unwanted touch by someone we don’t like. To be Congruent we need to employ all our senses to understand what is going on but we also need to be aware of their imperfectness. The alliance with physical well-being is important for our senses but sometimes we have to cope with them slowly or suddenly degenerating by illness, accident, genetics or just age. This makes it even more important for our Congruence to be transparent with the limitations of our senses to Other and Self and be open to the fact that things are not always what they seem to be.

Interactional – this represents our relationships and interactions with the people we meet but also our inner dialogue. We are all dependent on healthy relationships with people around us and many of us suffer deeply when these relationships are hurting, starving or as during the Corona pandemic, being cut off to a large extent. It is often through our relationships with other people that we get both mental as well as physical input to our lives. While our needs for interactions with other people may differ from person to person, none of us grow from loneliness. We grow as individuals and as a society through interactions and Congruence without interactions is just a small broken chip out of a beautiful piece of art.

Nutritional – this part of the Mandala relates to what we feed our bodies, the food, drinks and other substances that we consume in various ways. Certain parts are vital for survival and other things might increase our enjoyment while some might be feeding an addiction. All of them together will affect our well-being strongly but the balance is difficult to strike since some indulgence might increase our physical and mental health while other is directly detrimental to it. The nutritional dimension will strongly affect our physical parts and our emotional parts often affects how we approach the nutritional dimension. The nutritional part of the Self Mandala is to a large extent about nurturing other parts.

Contextual – this is about the physical surroundings here and now. We will be talking about Context in a wider sense in later posts but for the Mandala, Context involves time, light, sound, space, color, temperature and other physical traits of our environment. The environment that we currently reside in will affect all other parts of the Mandala. Remembering history and being able to plan for the future are extremely important skills but in staying Congruent it is crucial that we are present in the Here and the Now.

Caring for Self is about caring for all of these aspects, striving for a balance within them and between them. The Mandala is like a wheel that needs to be balanced and even all around. It is a system where all parts interact and any attempt to optimize one aspect will most likely end up shaping the wheel unevenly and ensure a bumpy ride. Congruence comes from our ability to be aware of, cater to and to have access to all of these different parts. 

The Congruent Leader – Self-Esteem

Self-Esteem, self-worth or the ability to love one-self is important to all of us and it’s a crucial quality for the Congruent Leader. As a leader in any form, our main objective is to empower people around us and to help them grow. If we try to lead from a place of low self-worth where we are unable to love ourselves and unable to see how we bring value to the world, we expect other people to see us the same way and treat us accordingly. With low self-esteem we will meet the world and everyone around us with fear and distrust. On the other hand, when we come from a place where we love ourselves, we know that we are worthy of other people’s love and respect as well. We want people around us to feel the same way and can afford them the space to feel lovable and competent.

People with high self-esteem are able to accept and appreciate all different feelings that they experience. They own those feelings and don’t have a need to apply inflexible rules to them such as “men can not cry”, “I can not show anger” or “vulnerability is a weakness”. High self-esteem allows people to act on the entire spectrum of feelings but also gives us the confidence and understanding that we don’t always have to act them out. With high self-esteem we get access to endless possibilities and choices that low self-esteem takes away. By having a healthy sense of self-worth we can move beyond reacting to events around us and start responding out of many choices, even be proactive in creating the reality we want to live in. 


According to Virgina Satir, Congruence could only emerge from a state of high self-esteem so in addition to giving us a plethora of small tools that can help us deal with the present, Virginia also had the longterm goal of helping her clients, and really all of us, to strengthen our self-esteem. 

An important idea in Virginia’s teaching was that we all have the tools needed to make changes, to make better choices, for healthier communication and to become more Congruent. Examples of these tools are the ability to learn new things, the ability to take action even when we feel intimidated and the ability to let other people know what we need (more on the Self-Esteem Toolkit in a later post). Our ability to access these tools may vary though and usually based on the level of worth we are able to ascribe to ourselves. With a good sense of self-esteem we have better access to these tools and with a low level of self-esteem we tend to lose touch with them. This builds re-enforcing feedback loops between our self-esteem and our tools for seeing options and making healthy choices. These tools are also strongly connected to a growth mindset and our sense of self-efficacy. If we see challenges as something we can master rather than threats to be avoided we generally increase our sense of self-esteem. Self-esteem is not about our ability to solve particular problems, however it is strongly connected to how we see ourselves as having the ability to, as Virginia wrote, “survive, to be close to others, to be productive, and to make sense and order out of the world of people and things outside of me”.

Our starting points may differ widely. We learn to define our self-worth from our parents and other family members, from peers in school and at work. Depending on the love and validation we received as kids, the tools for being Congruent and for dealing with change will either be given to us or hidden from us. Virginia wrote “Feelings of worth can only flourish in an atmosphere where individual differences are appreciated, mistakes are tolerated, communication is open, and rules are flexible – the kind of atmosphere that is found in a nurturing family.” The good news are that even if we were dealt a poor hand to begin with, we can always relearn and grow our self-esteem. Surrounding ourselves with the right people is a good starting place and Congruent leaders, the ones who are already capable of loving themselves, can often be the right people.