CEO Trickle Down Trauma

Updated: Sep 28, 2020

Leaders play a vital role in creating and shaping company culture. What happens when your CEO, vice president, business owner, general manager, executive organizational leader or boss creates toxic churn and culture? What occurs when he or she unconsciously trickles down their unresolved trauma and dysfunctional coping habits into the organization? Briefly step into my world as a leadership development resiliency coach.

The Scenario

Travis, who’s a mid GenXer, was considered a successful leader because he’s a GTDer (Gets Things Done) kind of guy. However, the company hired my coaching services because Travis’ OHI number, which is a number this group uses to measure the organizational health index of a group or team, bottomed. It sat in the low 60’s. He got the job done. He hit his numbers. Unfortunately, his 40% attrition rate got glares. The organization could no longer ignore the vast expenses being siphoned from the budget to continually train and onboard new employees. Or ignore the exiting interview comments that seemed to portray a toxic environment.

Energetically, like attracts like.

After conducting a few leadership assessments, we decided that coaching emotional intelligence skills, empathy strategies, creating buy-in and conflict resolution management were the focus for the next six to nine months. Quickly building rapport, respecting my non-disclosure clause and viewing my trauma-informed certification on the wall, Travis shared something relevant. He was a male survivor of childhood abuse and neglect also. He had worked through the initial traumas and discharged by his therapist years ago. Good to go! However, from my personal insight, experiences and coaching male survivors for over 20 years, he had imprints. Unconsciously, he lived a myriad of self-preserving dysfunctional coping mechanisms that over time developed into habits. Those lived habits created toxic cultures.

What can you do? If your leadership life seems similar to Travis’ here are a few suggestions

Admit the reality. In my coaching, the number one issue high-functioning survivors like Travis experience is admitting the abuse history still impacts the present. I had a candid conversation with my friend Dr. David Lisak a few months ago. We both shared how years after the abuse, issues or small blips still arise. This is part of the journey. The more woke you are to this reality the greater motivation and initiative to continue to overcome.

Tap into your support network. Having worked for and coached individual survivors in Fortune 500 companies, I understand the challenges of creating a safe network. In this leadership arena toxic masculinity is often perceived as being the normal mindset. Vulnerability is not often respected. Yet, to diminish creating toxic cultures we must build healthy safe places where camaraderie and vulnerability are welcomed and expected. Years ago, I created a leadership haven for survivors at my workplace. Today, I receive emails from former CEOs who share the impact in being part of that network and what it has meant in bettering their leadership skills and advancing their career.

Stop trying to control everything and everyone. Years after the abuse one remnant that has a powerful staying force is the desire to control. It’s often the next common issue I coach leaders who are survivors. As I mentioned like seems to attract like. I easily remember my days in corporate as an abuse survivor. I was a high-functioning achiever with plan A, B, C, D through O because I could not yet fully trust my team to get the work done. Done exactly the way I wanted. There was much frustration and angst. It's the perfect storm for leader burnout and breakdown. My wake-up call came in the form of a health crisis. Don’t wait that long!

Get a relevant coach! I’m a coach who has a coach. You probably can’t tell that I'm passionate and I ooze and exude resiliency coaching through my pores. Let me be vulnerable. I know what it’s like to experience the extreme pressures to perform in the corporate world. Sleeping in your office, never saying “no” due to boundary issues, working to receive the acceptance and belonging you crave. Trying to fit into the stereotypical masculine confident corporate leader peg hole while living with the underpinnings of being a survivor of abuse. That’s one reason I do what I do. I can relate.

Travis' story

At the end of our time together Travis raised his OHI number to the mid eighties. His attrition rate decreased to 12.2% which is close to the average 10%. He promoted several more times before being recruited to be the CEO of another tech company.


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