Trauma, Awareness and Leadership Coaching

The movement to get people talking about Mental Health has been that, a movement, including broad scale organizational campaigns and corporate sponsorship. Change is taking root around this. It’s working, people are talking more about mental health and we even have a mental health week dedicated to it. We have come a long way.

A particular aspect of mental health and part of the conversation that I hope to hear more about is the branch that includes trauma. I see it everywhere, with friends, colleagues, clients and in myself. As a transformational leadership coach it is the essence of what I have been helping my clients grapple with for the past two decades but I have not used the word trauma to describe it until now.

I have recently re-acquainted my relationship to trauma. For a long time, I related to trauma as events that had happened, that were in the past, that I was healing from and that I would get over. I have learned however, through my personal and professional journey, that trauma is not about an event but is about how that event has been imprinted into your very being, thoughts, feelings and physiology. The traumas we experience in our lives are programmed into our bodies and are part of our DNA. They are what the body remembers. We don’t get over them  we learn to live with them.

Our bodies are what and how we react to the world. The knot in the stomach, the rush in our heart, the flush in our cheeks. For years’ science focused principally on the view that our thinking minds are what primarily informs us as human beings and that is shifting to more fully embrace that our body is really where much of our  wisdom resides. We need our  heads AND  our bodies to experience and make sense of the world around us.

I have been actively reading and training in the area of somatic/transformational coaching and trauma for the past several years. I have learnt about bringing the body and what the body experiences into the coaching conversation as much as bringing the head and thinking process  to it. As part of this experience I have embraced the practices myself and seen how transformational they are. It has impacted my life significantly and it has also influenced how I coach.

When I explore coaching engagements with clients, I ask my clients what is bringing them to the coaching engagement and what they are hoping to achieve. I then proceed to explain my approach and my expectations of them. Many of my clients are leaders of one sort or another and the conversation tends to usually start something like this: When people tell me  they want to be more strategic, more decisive, more innovative, to develop their executive presence or be more authentic as a leader, I respond that their objective is what I see as the “project” that can drive the change they are seeking. However, to truly make that change transformative there will be deep and committed work that needs to take place. Under every change objective there  will be a corresponding change in the personal identity that the individual shares about how they come to the world that will need to be explored in the process, and a layer beneath that will be the curriculum work that holds the keys to unlocking the shifts required for transformation to occur.

Curriculum work is our family of origin stuff as well as the socio, economic and cultural ways we have been groomed and shaped. The stories we carry, the experiences that shaped us, how we see ourselves in the world, the wounds, the limiting beliefs, the biases, the habits – the whole mess of what makes us unique. This is what I truly believe transformative leadership coaching is all about. Good leaders tackle their curriculum work; they deal with their traumas. If they don’t then it tends to eventually sabotage their best efforts as a leader particular when they are being stretched out of their comfort zone.

At the conclusion of a recent coaching engagement I shared my ideas for this blog with one  of my clients. She is a 36-year-old highly valued leader who had been promoted rapidly in her organization over a short period of time. She came to me with the objective of becoming more confident with executive presence as she worked at the most senior levels of the  organization for the first time. Stepping fully into her work she experienced significant transformation as a result. I asked her if she would be willing to share her experience as a part of this post and she agreed. Here is what she had to say.

“One year ago I was promoted to my first executive leadership position. I jumped in to my new position undaunted and fearless with my new responsibilities. However, as I was stretched out of my depth and faced with unfamiliar challenges, I soon found myself facing a crash of confidence and overwhelming vulnerability. In support of my leadership development I was offered coaching to support the transition into my new role. I jumped at the opportunity. 

In our coaching sessions we talked about ME as a leader: my strengths, and challenges when faced with specific events and situations where executive presence was required. Our discussions allowed me to dig deep into the challenges facing me and explore my emotions, feelings, thoughts, triggers and the stories inside me that surfaced in my body each time I was placed in these situations. It was clear to me by the end of our second session that something was stopping me from moving forward to the next level of my leadership development. 

Over time, I came to the  realization that  what  was  stopping  me was  fear that  “I was  not good enough”. The fear, the  stories,  the  emotions,  the  thoughts  when I  was asked  to perform at an executive level felt like I was reliving my life as a 5-year-old, as a 10-year-old, as a 15-year-old where the word around me was telling and treating me like “I wasn’t good enough”. It  was trauma re-surfacing. Seeing that, how the anxiety in my body was sabotaging my thought processes, how old stories and wounds were getting in the way of how I was showing up in my work changed everything. I now knew what I was dealing with and had tools and awareness for managing it as opposed to it managing me. 

I now see clearly that to become an effective transformational leader, requires courage, dedication and recognition of your values and beliefs. Most importantly it requires a deep understanding of who you are, why you are and where you come from. Authenticity and Self- Awareness are key ingredients.” Nadine Leblanc, Vice-President, Crown Corporation

As our world becomes more competitive and fast paced, what is required for leaders to succeed increases accordingly. The outer game of leadership is demanding more and more as far as strategy, flexibility, resilience, appetite for risk, collaboration, creativity and innovation. However, if we are not developing the inner game of our leaders to the same extent then we are failing them and ourselves in the process. Recognizing that leadership is equally about developing our inner game and personal transformation is critical and includes talking about it. This is my hope, that we will continue to talk about and invest in it as a critical leadership development strategy.

Acknowledgements: Experts who have influenced my thinking for this piece include: Doug Silsbee, Richard Strozzi, Gabor Mate, Eugene T.Gendlin, Bessel Van der Kolk, A.H. Almass, Carl Rogers, Fritz Perls and William Bridges. My deepest thanks goes to Nadine for her willingness and courage to share her story.