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Turning Leadership Post Traumatic Stress into Leadership Post Traumatic Growth

TIGNUM Thoughts

June 22nd, 2019
By Scott Peltin and Rob Lively

Recently, while connecting with an old friend and a very accomplished retired special operations commander that I had served with from the late 90s to the late 2000s, I found myself in a very interesting discussion about leadership. As we caught up, we started discussing some of our past leaders which led to both a surprising and sad conversation. Without realizing it, my friend had been severely hurt and negatively impacted by some very bad leadership. Even a decade post-retirement, he was able to name every single leader and summarize how they had left a bitterness in him that quite frankly tarnished the memory of his decorated service that was full of valor and accomplishment.

Can you imagine passionately serving your country for decades and having the memory of that service tainted by a few leaders who never understood the impact of their leadership behaviors? After over a decade of coaching a diverse population of executives and reflecting on over fifty years of Fire Department and US Military Special Operations experience, there is one common obstacle to success that we have consistently seen - bad leaders.

Before we talk about the impact of bad leaders, let’s first share our definition of a good or great leader. An effective leader is someone who usually begins with positional authority but rather than just flexing that authority, focuses on people, relationships, and influence in order to build a great team to serve a greater good. A nuance of great leaders is that they are also always developing the people they lead into great leaders, followers, and team members themselves.

At first glance, it's easy to see the positive impact of great leaders. But, it's just as easy to underestimate the negative impact of bad leaders. As you look deeper, you realize that there is something more profound happening unbeknownst to either party (the leaders and the team members). Bad leadership instills trauma into the nervous system of those they lead and the organizations they are a part of. Leaders are special people who have earned and/or been gifted with the position to influence others. They are matriarchal and patriarchal figures in the lives of those they lead; their influence goes far deeper than just the projects and teams they direct.

In the high performance, high stakes, and highly stressful fields we come from, there is an all too common condition we see called PTS (Post Traumatic Stress). This complex syndrome is the product of an insult (real or perceived) on the safety of the nervous system and can lead to devastating detrimental symptoms. One thing that makes PTS so complex is that 5 people can go through the same event and all 5 will be impacted in different ways. Why does this happen? The outcome is the result of a very intricate relationship between the trigger and the respondent.

The unique relationship between leader and their teams take us to an often overlooked trigger/respondent situation where we see PTS - those impacted by bad leadership. This form of PTS can leave a lasting path of destruction. Some who were led in destructive ways continue the negative cycle and go on to become destructive leaders themselves. Some overcompensate and become leaders who want to be liked rather than do the difficult yet necessary things that come with the job. Others never become leaders themselves, carrying the scars of their PTS or becoming hypersensitive to any semblance of a repeating pattern from their new leader. The “Oh no, here we go again!” or “I’ve seen this before....” reactions often inhibit the team member's ability to take direction or accept the feedback required in order to grow and develop.

Statistically, we can assume that anyone reading this has experienced some form of poor leadership in their lifetime. So, how do we stop the effects of bad leadership?

It starts with the image you create of yourself since humans can't outperform their own self-image. The first step is creating who you want to be as a leader and as a follower. Next, turn Leadership PTS into Leadership Post Traumatic Stress Growth (PTSG). While we don’t want to diminish, or oversimplify, the lasting impact of stress, we do want to recognize that some people become stronger, better, and highly successful executives after being negatively impacted by some very poor leadership.

Here are some strategies to take you from Leadership PTS to Leadership PTSG:

  • _Assume that your previous bad leader was doing the best they could. They were overwhelmed, under-skilled, and possibly the product of destructive leadership. Forgive them because carrying any ill feelings towards them will hold you back from turning this trauma into a growth opportunity.
  • _Rewrite your memory of your experiences under this person as if it was highly supportive, directing, and educational. Ask yourself, "What would their leadership have looked like if it were really good?" Rewriting this in your mind from a logical perspective will help get you started when developing your own leadership capabilities.
  • _Create your own leadership self-image. Using what you have learned from every leader you have ever worked for (good, bad, and ugly), the lessons from every leadership book you've read, and your thoughts on what a great leader should be, write several paragraphs that articulate your leadership ethos, values, and overall philosophy. Start with, "As a leader I am…….."
  • _Visualize yourself as this leader over and over again until you can feel that your emotional brain is not only accepting of this image but also energized and inspired by it. See yourself not as being held hostage by your previous Leadership PTS but rather as being a better leader, follower, team member, etc. because of it.

Throughout our lives, we are all leaders and followers at one time or another. We owe it to ourselves and those that we lead to not cause Leadership Post Traumatic Stress. We must turn our own Leadership Post Traumatic Stress into Leadership Post Traumatic Stress Growth to help our teams Rule Their Impact.

As always we would love to hear your thoughts.

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