Leadership and Trauma: Uniting Paradigms to Heal and Empower Conscious Leaders

By Dirk Jan Versluis for Enlivening Edge Magazine

The subtitle of Frederic Laloux’s popular book Reinventing Organizations includes the phrase ‘next stage of human consciousness.’ A next stage of consciousness inevitably introduces new paradigms of thought. In this article I will shed some light on a new paradigm that integrates two apparently different concepts from different fields: Leadership and Trauma.

Unresolved traces of trauma and the resulting destructive patterns often have a simple effect: they stand in the way of expansion and self-actualization. Being aware of our own trauma-created wounds, blocks and shadow-parts is inevitably part of our ‘striving for wholeness’ and is of great relevance to leaders who work from ‘being.’.

As more of one’s traumas come to light and if one can hold themselves with compassion in the process, a form of Inner Leadership is born that holds the wisdom and power to transform not just on a personal level but also in a group context. Therefore the higher the consciousness of an organizational family, the more important integration of these particular life aspects becomes.

Leadership and Trauma

Both ‘Leadership’ and ‘Trauma’ suffer quite a bit from what Nick Haslam describes as concept creep: a term is used so extensively that it becomes increasingly inaccurate.[1]

Leadership as a term has left the boardroom, resulting in much attention to Leadership and Personal Leadership as expressions of power and intention in a wide array of more personal processes and behaviors. Trauma as a psychiatric term has been familiarized by ordinary people expressing their suffering and struggling from emotional wounds and high-impact experiences, without necessarily referring to the classifications that are used in the field of clinical psychology.

Moreover, the concept of Leadership is easily associated with the corporate world, with growth and success, whereas the concept of Trauma is easily associated with personal life, with suffering or even being a victim. On a personal level this sometimes makes it hard for successful business people to identify themselves with the concept of trauma.

Client Example

Margharite was a successful high-performance coach working with businesspeople who contracted her because of her powerful presence and high standards. Few people knew that behind her success was a history of manipulation and humiliation in a toxic relationship with a violent boyfriend. She couldn’t be vulnerable in her own life, and attracted clients who couldn’t either. There was a moment she longed for more, but she couldn’t attain that, and had to face the wounds she was carrying behind her role mask.

She herself, as well as her mother and grandmother, carried the burden of suppressed femininity and neglected female spirituality. In the course of a few years of life including therapy, her powerful presence remained, but the high standards transformed into a more loving and attuned approach that also lead to a somewhat different clientele with more existential questions.

Trauma and Consciousness

There are various definitions and approaches to what Trauma essentially is. The simplest would be that it is the same as the traumatic event that takes place, for example rape, war, or other overwhelming experiences that directly threaten our existence. We could also define trauma by the consequences: the impact that shows in in our life and bodily system (e.g. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder).

We could also look at trauma from a more internal perspective: Dr. Gabor Maté frequently puts into words that trauma is not equal to what happens to us, but that it is defined by what happens inside us (as a result of what happened to us).[2] To me, trauma means ‘wound’ and therefore the use of the term as what happens to us is justified as well as defined by the wound itself.

The metaphor of a fist might be useful here. The impact of a traumatic experience (or a range of harmful experiences over the course of several years) leads to a white-knuckle clenched fist: the emotional system as well as the nervous system and our consciousness show a great amount of tension and ‘closedness’. The process of healing and processing in whatever way should by contrast lead to ‘openness’.

Therapists like me see daily that this opening up holds dramatic potential that has been described as Post-Traumatic Growth.[3] Somehow this term appeals to our common (although scientifically imprecise) knowledge of ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’

Client Example

Always working with clenched fists was reality for Isabella in her personal life, as well as in her successful career as a finance professional: not really opening up to anyone else Making loads of money didn’t help her overcome her fear of losing it all, as the more success came, the greater the weight of this burden seemed to be.

Working with the intergenerational traumas she carried on her shoulders made clear that the emotional content didn’t come from nowhere: her family really lost it all, and there never turned out to be a safe place to exist, to be oneself and still be connected. Healing the traces of an untold post-war story helped her greatly to follow her heart and live her true self on an almost daily basis.

Suffering and Success in Conscious Leaders

The polarity or duality that is easily seen between suffering and success or personal and business often doesn’t stand when consciousness develops into more fundamental depths and heights.

Conscious Leaders may develop their sense of wholeness to a point where everything ‘is’ and all life experiences are to be integrated in a consciously and intentionally lived life. Wounds and scars also tend to open up the spiritual capabilities of those who suffer, thereby dramatically increasing their access to more fundamental realms of consciousness as soon as healing takes place.

Healing also means empowerment since vast amounts of previously separated or unintegrated consciousness become available for personal use. Think of it as an extra unit of conscious motor power that, although on board, could not be utilized for a long time.

This empowerment transcends the individual perspective and can easily ripple out into all living systems those leaders are part of. Shaped by their individual history, transformational journeys tend to offer a greater perspective on spreading consciousness, helping others find their own path, and recognizing the essence of personal suffering on a much larger scale—all capacities of a conscious leader.

Client Example

The early life experiences of sexual abuse never left Vanessa’s body, although she managed herself and functioned quite well as the director of a healthcare institution. When she applied for a new position in a different team, the initial challenge of management difficulties appealed to her but it soon became clear that there was a legacy in her colleagues of mistrust and of a total lack of safety that only came to the surface as soon as workplace relationships started to build.

The secondary exposure to these feelings greatly triggered an until-then unseen layer of attachment trauma in Vanessa, being unsafe with people she as a three-year old was supposed to trust. In two difficult years she worked on healing much of the wounds and even made it her specialty to work with special-needs teams in healthcare and education settings, a mission that did full justice to both her own history and the unseen suffering that always kept touching her.

Leadership and Trauma in Relation to Personal and Organizational Growth

Holding both concepts, Leadership as well as Trauma, can be an important step in building the organizations and businesses of the future. It can enable us to see the larger patterns of trauma and brokenness that challenge us on our path to greater expansion, both individually and in our organizations.

With open eyes for this impact, we will see patterns of what is unseen and hidden to the ordinary eye but is nevertheless of crucial importance for being a conscious leader. We will also see and thus be able to address the traces of disconnectedness and loss of love and wholeness emerging in groups and within ourselves. Finally it will direct us to overcome the destructive impulses that often derive from unresolved trauma and to transform them into the power to build what’s new and better..

Suggested reading on wounds and self: No Bad Parts (Richard C. Schwartz) and The Body Keeps the Score (Bessel van der Kolk). Some further listening available at the Wounded Leaders Podcast – Lessons on Leadership and Trauma.

[1] Haslam, Nick (2016-01-02). “Concept Creep: Psychology’s Expanding Concepts of Harm and Pathology”. Psychological Inquiry. 27 (1): 1–17. doi:10.1080/1047840X.2016.1082418. ISSN 1047-840X. S2CID 147479811.

[2] ‘The trauma doctor’ Gabor Maté on happiness, hope and how to heal our deepest wounds The Guardian, 12 Apr 2023 (by Ellie Violet Bramley) https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2023/apr/12/the-trauma-doctor-gabor-mate-on-happiness-hope-and-how-to-heal-our-deepest-wounds

[3] Linley PA, Joseph S (February 2004). “Positive change following trauma and adversity: a review”. Journal of Traumatic Stress. 17 (1): 11–21. doi:10.1023/B:JOTS.0000014671.27856.7e. PMID 15027788. S2CID 19585205.

Dirk Jan Versluis (MM, MSc) is a Dutch psychologist and executive coach specializing in the field of Trauma, Leadership and Performance (www.triunify.com).




Featured Image by Gioele Fazzeri from Pixabay