We want better leaders and we want to become better leaders. Unfortunately, commonly referenced statistics suggest that the majority of leaders are falling significantly below expectations.
Improving our leadership and that of others should be a priority.
In this series I am going to make a bold claim that I believe is key to transformationally elevating our leadership effectiveness. The claim is:
Leadership ineffectiveness is rooted in leaders’ trauma
If this is true, it has a very powerful implication:
In order to help leaders significantly transform, we need to help them heal from their past trauma
I invite you to join me over the next set of articles to explore this claim, its implications, and ultimately learn how we can help ourselves and other leaders heal to unlock the full potential in our leadership effectiveness.
This week, I’ll start laying the groundwork by exploring: What is trauma?
What is Trauma?
To understand what trauma is and ultimately the negative effect that trauma has on leaders, we must start by talking about stress.
Stress is not bad. Our body and its nervous system are designed to help us experience stress and recover from stress. For example, if we find ourselves in a potentially dangerous situation, our nervous system will shoot adrenaline into our body, preparing us to unleash the Jason Bourne within us. Once we are out of this situation, our nervous system will work to help us regulate.
Unfortunately, our body and its nervous system cannot take on an unlimited stress load. In fact, everyone has a different stress bearing capacity.
When the stress that we experience exceeds our stress-bearing capacity, our body’s nervous system is pushed beyond its limits, and the consequences are quite severe and semi-permanent.
In the next couple of articles, I will dive deeper and more specifically into these consequences. But, to concisely summarize these consequences, trauma causes our stress response system, which includes the wiring in our brain, to be overly sensitive and inaccurate.
A healthy stress response system will accurately interpret dangerous situations as being dangerous and safe situations as being safe.
But, a trauma-affected stress response system will commonly interpret safe situations as dangerous (for example, we might interpret admitting that we are wrong as being dangerous) and dangerous situations as being safe (such as engaging in drug or alcohol abuse).
All this being said, trauma is not about what one experiences. For example, a fire at a school can be very traumatic for a teacher or student, but it may not be traumatic at all for the fire fighters attending to the fire. Instead, trauma is about experiencing significant and inhibiting changes to our stress response system.
Three Sources of Trauma
Research on trauma has found that there are three primary sources of trauma, or three primary causes of stress response system deficiencies. These are:
- Prenatal stress – This most commonly occurs when a pregnant mother engages in drug or alcohol use or experiences physical abuse
- Significant stress – These are single-situation experiences that are intensely stressful. Possible examples include experiencing physical or sexual abuse or seeing someone murdered or raped.
- Prolonged stress – This occurs when someone experiences prolonged stress (can range from low to high) that is uncontrollable and unpredictable. Possible examples include neglect or poor workplace culture.
Research estimates suggest that 75% of people have experienced one of the three forms of trauma above. This means that most of us likely have stress response systems that are inhibited. And, most of the people around us do as well.
Knowing of these statistics, we should not be surprised that most leaders have stress response systems that are inhibited. And, what I am going to suggest through the rest of this series is that it is these faulty stress response systems that cause leaders to commonly operate in detrimental ways. I am personally learning this more and more as I awaken more fully to my trauma and role it currently plays in how I see and make meaning of my world.
While it is never fun to talk about trauma, there is something very beautiful about making this connection between trauma and leader ineffectiveness:
Leadership development becomes about helping people to heal
For that reason, I am excited to engage in this series with you.
If this is something that is resonating with you, please (1) let me know and/or (2) share this with others. If this is something that is not resonating with you, I would love any perspectives or information that might suggest to me that this line of reasoning is off-base.