In this series, I am making 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

This is the third article in a series on the connection between trauma and leadership (in)effectiveness and how we can help ourselves and other leaders heal to unlock the full potential in our leadership effectiveness.

If you haven’t read the first two articles, you can read them here:

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.

Quick Catch Up

Trauma occurs when we experience situations that overwhelm our body’s stress response system.

When this occurs, our body takes drastic measures to protect ourselves from the pain of the experience in the moment as well as into the future. These drastic measures are the primary consequences of trauma, and they occur in a chain reaction as follows:

  • Domino 1 – Disassociation – Our mind and body disconnect. Essentially, our nervous system shuts down and we go numb.
  • Domino 2 – Disintegration – When disassociation occurs, there are neurological changes that occur in our mind. Specifically, our reptilian and mammalian regions of our brain become oversensitive and our human brain ( home of logic and conscious thought) becomes unable to regulate the emotions and reactions of our more primitive brain regions. This disintegration topples the next two dominos.
  • Domino 3 – Misencoding – A healthy nervous system sees safe things as being safe and dangerous things as being dangerous. Disintegration causes us to start to see safe things as being dangerous (e.g., admitting we are wrong) and dangerous things as being safe (e.g., alcohol abuse).
  • Domino 4 – Shrinking Window of Tolerance – When we compare an integrated mind to a disintegrated mind, an integrated mind can absorb a higher level of stress and complexity before being thrown in the fight, flight, or freeze mode.


Trauma’s Impact on Leaders’ (In)Effectiveness

How do these dominos show up in leaders?

The answer is simply: Lower Emotional Intelligence.

Let me explain.

Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence (EQ) is having the capacity to do two things:

  1. Accurately recognize and effectively manage one’s internal emotions
  2. Accurately recognize and effectively navigate the emotions of others

Essentially, EQ is having both self-awareness and other-awareness.

Emotional intelligence is critical to leadership effectiveness. Here are some research findings associated with EQ:

  • Of internal attributes assessed, EQ was the strongest predictor of overall success
  • EQ is 4x more important than IQ
  • 90% of top performers have high EQ
  • EQ is responsible for 58% of job performance
  • People with high EQ make $29,000 more annually than their low EQ counterparts
  • 75% of career derailments are due to an issue related to emotional intelligence

team at work

Trauma’s Impact on EQ

So how does trauma impact a leader’s EQ?

To answer that, we need to dive back into the primary consequences, or dominos, of trauma.

The first domino was disassociation, the disconnection between mind and body. When leaders are disassociated, they have a hard time connecting to their body, or in other words, being self-aware.

Have you ever met a leader that is not willing to admit faults or be vulnerable? This is a self-protection mechanism that is rooted in disassociation. In fact, their disassociation prevents them from even seeing and recognizing their thoughts.

In summary, disassociation causes a lack of self-awareness.

The second, third, and fourth dominos are related to disintegration. When a leader is disintegrated (and has a small window of tolerance and tends to misencode their world around them), they struggle to attune to others. The become so absorbed in their own needs, that they are unable to see and appreciate the needs of others.

In summary, disintegration causes a lack of other-awareness.

Together, trauma inhibits us from being emotionally intelligent.


Let me share a powerful example of how this might play out. This comes from The Body Keeps the Score. In this book, Bessel Van Der Kolk discusses a videotaped interaction between a mother and baby as follows:

“[This video features] a young mother playing with her three-month-old infant. Everything was going well until the baby pulled back and turned his head away, signaling that he needed a break. But the mother did not pick up on his cue, and she intensified her efforts to engage him by bringing her face closer to his and increasing the volume of her voice. When he recoiled even more, she kept bouncing and poking him. Finally, he started to scream, at which point the mother put him down and walked away, looking crestfallen.”

What is interesting in this example is that the mother walked away from this situation feeling like the child didn’t love her. But, the reality is very different. Because she was unable to accurately encode her child’s initial cues, she engaged in well-intended behaviors that were essentially the opposite of what the child needed in that moment. In other words, she saw the baby as the problem, but it was her that was the problem.

baby looking at book

This phenomenon is not unique to parents. It happens all the time in the relationship between leaders and their subordinates. This is why 65% of employees say that they would rather have a new boss over more pay. Leaders are frequently misencoding their situations and providing direction and attention in a way that is frustrating instead of helpful.

Enhancing Emotional Intelligence

When we make this connection between trauma and EQ, it becomes very obvious that EQ is a vertical development construct. Unfortunately, most EQ development programs engage in horizontal development approaches (e.g., learning about EQ and practicing EQ-related behaviors).

When EQ is treated like a horizontal development construct, we don’t provide the opportunities that are necessary to actually develop EQ.

If we want to elevate the EQ of our leaders, we have to help them heal their minds. This requires vertical development.


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.