The power of a trauma to drive positive change

January 19, 2017

By: Richard Haller

Executive in Residence Blog Series


“Adversity introduces a man to himself” – Anonymous

How does your journey shape the person you are, or better yet, expose the person you are?

Monthly, my colleagues at the Center for Positive Organizations get together for Executive in Residence Salons. The salons are an opportunity for one of us (someone different each month takes on the responsibility as thought leader) to present a topic for discussion. Basically, we frame it and create a thought-starter to engage a discussion, leading to unique perspectives based on our personal career experiences.

Last month I lead the discussion to explore the qualities of leadership. The study of leadership is my personal interest. For me it is more than just a desire to understand the common qualities of leadership. It is a desire to understand how we evolve into this state of leadership, recognizing that it is a personal journey toward a unique profile—one forged through traumas, pain, and circumstances that lead to evolution or death (metaphorically speaking).

I strongly believe that there occurs in every leader’s life some milestone experience(s), challenge(s), or passage(s) … a journey through some darkness that potentially leads to a place as Robert Quinn describes as the “fundamental state of leadership.” A place where the best version of one’s self as leader emerges.

I initiated our salon discussion with the idea that selflessness is an important quality of leadership. I hoped my understanding of this quality – and my developing portrait of leadership – would expand as my colleagues suggested other qualities.

However, this didn’t happen. Instead we delved deeply into why I believe selflessness is an important leadership quality. Ultimately it brought me to a place in my life some 25 years ago, where resides my most painful of memories. A place where my whole life was in a crisis on all fronts: marriage, family, and career. Everything came to a crushing nexus in 1993.

I’m not prepared, nor willing, to share my story in any further detail but to say this isn’t a fleeting memory. It is a defining milestone – a trauma of life changing proportions that placed me at a crossroads. I had to either change or experience the Quinn’s “slow death.”

Looking back, I see how there were two paths open to me. I could have changed or collapsed under the painful realities that followed this traumatic event. By no means am I blaming my personal trauma on unfortunate circumstances, the root of this milestone was all my own doing so I’m not seeking your emotional response. But I do want to point out the potential or the choice we have when living through a milestone trauma or life passage event. These milestones allow the possibility to initiate a choice for deep change (Quinn, Deep Change: Discovering the Leader Within, 1996) and it is in initiating that change that one enters the fundamental state of leadership (Quinn, Building the Bridge As You Walk On It: A guide for Leading Change, 2004).

Quinn describes this place or state as a function of origination not a function of imitation so you can’t model it from watching others. It is derived from one’s personal experience leading to deliberate transformation and action.

When I think back to the milestones in my life that initiated change/awareness (and led me towards that fundamental state of leadership), I see that in spite of the traumas, pains, and dark nights there are positive aspects – you just have to look for them.

When we change ourselves, we change how people see us and how they respond to us. When we change ourselves, we change the world. This is the legacy of the fundamental state of leadership. – Robert Quinn, Building The Bridge As You Walk On It

What are the sources of these traumas or passages? Here are some examples as described by Dotlich, Noel, and Walker in their work Leadership Passages.

  • Moving into a leadership role
  • Accepting a stretch assignment
  • Dealing with a significant failure for which you are responsible
  • Losing your job or being passed over for a promotion
  • Personal upheaval; relationship, family, health, crisis of belief, etc.
  • Losing faith in the system

Each of the above situations present a trauma or event of passage that requires reflection. You choose what happens next!

One of my wise mentors (the ‘old nun’ introduced in my last blog) might suggest the following path:

Change requires your complete presence to the situation. Internalize! Don’t look outward for cause but rather look deeply inward.

She would go on by urging my active engagement. Participate in understanding this milestone, circumstance, or experience. Tear it apart or as my quality friends might say “fishbone” the situation.

Further, she would demand persistence – if you don’t dig deep you only gloss over the potential for meaningful and lasting change. Then she would tell me to prepare for the potential of acquiring new skills and finally, my ‘old nun’ mentor would encourage me to pray or however you, the reader, might create a mindful state of consciousness that focuses on the potential of there being something greater than yourself in the cosmos. This engages your heart. As a journey through my life, I have come to realize my heart is a major contributor to leading change.

Before you cringe and delete this reflection because of my last point let me point out that yes, there is a spiritual dimension to leadership and it’s been studied for decades. I suggest you explore Gary Strack’s research published in an article entitled “Spirituality and Effective Leadership in Health Care: Is there a connection?” His work offers a good summary of the connection and influences of spirituality and leadership.

Our lives are a journey of self-discovery and our leadership journey isn’t an easy, well-planned, gentle walk in the park. For some it’s tougher than others, but the outcome of reaching that place where we are other-focused, externally open, internally directed, and purposed-centered is peaceful and fulfilling. The fundamental state of leadership is life fulfillment in its highest state.

Rick Haller, the retired president and COO of Walbridge, is an Executive in Residence at the Center for Positive Organizations.