How trauma affects self-worth in adults in leadership roles

The current COVID-19 pandemic is a major cause of traumatic stress for many of us, which may trigger past traumatic experiences. When we think of childhood trauma, we automatically think of what goes on at home, school, and in the community but do we ever consider how this impacts our adult professional life including life in leadership roles?

Over the years, there has been an increased focus in psychology on understanding the effects of childhood trauma, and the need to bring both empathy and support in understanding lifelong ramifications of trauma.

In coaching meetings, I often ask leaders to share their earliest memories and there are often challenges based on either birth order or not having an unavailable parent (through work addiction, or too much activity or too many people around).  Many of the traumas can be less event-driven but more about the long years spent without full acceptance and the resulting impact on self-esteem. After all parents were not taught how to develop the mind, brain and confidence of a young person through their actions and words.

Seeing the wood for the trees

During COVID-19, I recall a leader telling me that early in his life, he had become the major caretaker for his parents by the time he was 10 years old. This had led to him developing an overly high sense of responsibility from a young age.

In the workplace, how this shows up is that he is considered both as a high achiever who can do a task better than anyone else, but also his inability to trust any colleague is holding him back.  In this and other examples of leaders, it is important to find a way of understanding through the thick forest of our past histories. We literally need to see the wood for the trees.


From trauma to leadership

It is easy to forget that children become adults some of whom go on to become an integral part of society and often gravitate towards leadership roles. Without secure relationships in the early years, children grow up to be adults who can struggle with feelings of low self-esteem and have a variety of emotional barriers.

Unprocessed childhood trauma affects us in adulthood, leading to a wide variety of possible problems including addictions, mental health issues, depression, anxiety, anger, and relationship problems. Within the workplace, childhood experiences can impact how we cope with stress and relationships with our                                                                                                colleagues. And in the current environment which can be particularly stressful                                                                                                           for many leaders, this can be particularly difficult.



To help us create a better, highly productive workplace, business leaders can begin to understand the impact of their own childhood trauma when in leadership roles. Childhood experiences help us to form a particular attachment style, and this then affects how we bond with other people and how we respond emotionally in situations in both the workplace and at home.

Secure Attachment

Securely attached individuals usually grow up in a supportive family environment where parents were continually responsive to their needs. Securely attached individuals will have a high sense of self-esteem and good social skills.

A securely attached business leader will allow employees to lean on them at an emotional level and have no issue with having open and honest discussions; they will have a positive outlook and try to keep their workforce positive in adverse situations.

Dismissive-avoidant Attachment

Children usually develop dismissive-avoidant attachment when their primary carer rejects or is not responsive to their needs. This can lead to adults that distance themselves emotionally from people to avoid rejection. 

Dismissive-avoidant business leaders are highly self-sufficient but where this could be a problem is that they will find it difficult to trust and depend on their workforce to achieve targets. They are also more likely to have narcissistic traits, making them overly critical of others; however, this can sometimes be to protect a fragile ego that finds it challenging to deal with criticism.

Fearful-avoidant Attachment

Fearful-avoidant attachment refers to children who have been exposed to abuse and neglect. This can lead to adults who find it hard to open up and fear having close relationships with people.

Fearful-avoidant leaders will sometimes be in a state of feeling overwhelmed, which can lead to fear. They have a level of wanting human interaction but find it challenging to initiate it through fear of rejection or criticism. This leads to them being unable to form personal and professional relationships, one of the most essential things needed to lead a business or team. 

Anxious-preoccupied Attachment

Anxious-preoccupied attachment develops when a child’s parents have been inconsistent in how they behave towards their child. The parent can go from being caring and attentive to cold and emotionally detached. This can lead to them being clingy and chasing connections within their relationships. Individuals who have anxious-preoccupied attachment require more validation than other attachment styles.

Anxious-preoccupied leaders can be high maintenance and continually wanting to be heard. This leads to conflict and a lack of respect for other employees’ feelings and opinions. This can create conflict in the workspace and ultimately lead to employees lacking trust in their leader.


In leaders, when considering all these attachment styles, we have seen in our coaching work that trauma can materialise in three different inner personalities or voices, each present and operating in everyday life, causing havoc for the internal resilience of the leader. In fact, leaders can have a psychological make-up where these sub-personalities are effectively in charge and driving the action in everyday life; each personality has its own development challenge.

Critical Parent – in stressful situations the ‘inner critical parent voice’ can become very loud, causing leaders to lose confidence and struggle to manage others. They are likely to question their motivations, are highly likely to suffer from anxiety and will pay less attention to others’ emotions. Given that this voice of the critical parent may have come from messages that were passed down from parents criticizing the child, and now the leader might be in a role where it is not other’s role to validate them, this personality can be very deep-rooted and unsettling.

The development challenge for the leader is how to provide a level of self-affirmation for themselves, so they can be confident in their own skills and function effectively, without becoming narcissistic.

Rebellious Child – the more severe the early life trauma, the more a child is likely to feel different to everyone else and will struggle to observe rules and reporting lines. In this natural non-conformance, leaders may adopt the persona of a ‘rebellious child’ and find difficulty following structured reporting lines and relationships with superiors or key stakeholders will suffer.

The development challenge for the leader is how to integrate the past, so that they are able to bring the right level of discernment to all decisions and to exercise proper judgement in all situations that are ambiguous, keeping their own emotions in check at all times.

False Self – where someone who has suffered trauma creates an artificial persona to protect themselves. No one knows who the authentic leader is, often professionally and in their personal life. The leader may be wearing multiple masks at the workplace, so their authentic full self, is hidden from view of all colleagues. The development challenge for the leader is how to land on their authentic self, that is both connected with the past and future, so they can function at their full potential. A first step is to become clear about your leadership brand.

We all have childhood trauma that shapes who we are, which isn’t anything to be ashamed of; however, the most important thing is that we have the self-awareness to understand who we are and how our behaviour may affect our way of leading. Having self-awareness is the first step to making a positive change and improving our present style of interactions in a leadership context. For example, to combat any anxious or pre-occupied tendencies, you could start to set boundaries, exercise, or look for support from a seasoned executive coach.

About the Author

Dr. Geetu Bharwaney is Founder and CEO of Ei World, a 21-year old boutique consulting firm helping clients to enable the performance of their people.  Geetu is the author of “Emotional Resilience” and she helps executive leaders and their teams to achieve growth by coaching Emotional Intelligence, Resilience and Team Effectiveness to help them gain a competitive advantage. Geetu believes that the future of work is about rethinking the way in which work gets done.

Ei World have developed the STARS app as a platform for enabling behaviour change, grounded in Ei World’s . It can support organisations that want to invest in their people to function at their best. We have successfully used STARS to develop Team Resilience, Leadership Skills and Self Awareness but is also fully customisable to your organisations’ needs.  

Join us for our upcoming Free Thought Leadership Webinar event, “Executive Team Dilemmas”, Wednesday, 25 November 2020, 3pm (GMT)


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