Is Your Past Keeping You from Being a Better Team-Building Leader?

Kelly L. Campbell, author of Heal to Lead, discusses how a past trauma can be ever-present

“You don’t know what you don’t know” should make any leader nervous. As Kelly L. Campbell points out in her new book, Heal to Lead: Revolutionizing Leadership Through Trauma Healing, psychological trauma from your past can affect your effectiveness in any leadership role, whether it’s in the office, in your community, or at home.

Campbell is a Trauma-Informed Leadership Coach and is the founder of Consciousness Leaders, the world’s most diverse and equitable speakers agency. In her book she draws on her own journey as an entrepreneur to illustrate how healing emotional wounds leads to personal growth and organizational success.

She sat down with Watson Adventures founder Bret Watson to share more about her work and her new book.

Author Kelly Campbell

Who is this book for?

This book is for emerging and established team-building leaders who have some sense that they may have work to do because they’re encountering some kind of friction. They’re onto themselves. Maybe they’re starting to connect some dots, “Hmm, I might be the problem here.” And if there’s any ounce of curiosity, this is a great book to start with.

I say emerging and established leaders because there are a lot of older leaders who have been operating a certain way for a long time, and maybe there was some measure of success, but that’s getting harder and harder. They’re finding more friction because the world is changing.

And then the emerging leaders, the younger leaders who are maybe managing for the first time or in brand new leadership roles, maybe they’ve become an entrepreneur at a young age like I did. Maybe they’ve been in therapy and are more open to this idea of exploration of the self and self development. [They’re asking] “How do I make sure that I’m leading from a place where if I can lead myself, I can better lead other people?”

I’m not talking about only those at the top of organizations. Even if you have no one reporting to you, you might be a leader in your family, in your social group, in your spiritual group, in your community. Their leadership exists on multiple planes.

And these are all people who have enough self awareness to say I want to be a better leader.

[They are people who realize] “I think my past trauma is at play here. I’ve been to therapy, I’ve unpacked a bunch of stuff, but that is not helping me to correlate that trauma with my leadership style. I want better tools and resources and practices to become a more effective leader.”

You cite a study that found that 94% of C suite executives believe they are very or somewhat conscious, while only half of working adults observe highly conscious behavior in their leaders. How can leaders close that perception gap?

When I was doing a lot of work as a consultant, it was always fascinating to me that the leaders saw themselves in this particular light. Sometimes there was this blaming of “I tried to do this for my employees, but they don’t appreciate it,” or “They don’t know what kind of stress I’m under.”

Then you talk to the employees who say, “This leader is not trustworthy because they’re unreliable, they’re overextended, they’re overwhelmed.” And the leaders are thinking that they’re masking that so masterfully. But they’re not at all, which impacts the culture, which impacts the trust, which impacts the bottom line eventually.

You use the phrase “championing vulnerability in our leaders.” Why should a leader do that?

You wouldn’t trust someone who said, “I have all the answers.” The more vulnerable or human that you are, the easier it is for the people you’re leading to feel safe to bring up threats or risks or concerns that they might see.

If they don’t feel like they can share those things, they’re holding on to them because you haven’t created a safe enough environment.

It’s not just being vulnerable in terms of talking. It’s a way of being where you are more approachable, you are more human, and you’re creating spaces where people feel that they can bring their full selves.

So, how does the team-building leader model or demonstrate vulnerability?

That leader does not need to be a therapist, does not need to be making sure that they fix all of the issues that are being brought to them. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about having some compassion for what people are actually going through and then getting them the support that they need, and then setting those really healthy boundaries to say “Here’s where I can help you, and we’re running a business and I need everyone to help me lead.”

The more that you get buy-in, and the more that people really understand and see and experience your care for them, they will be more loyal. There will be less attrition.

The ripple effect of that does impact the bottom line. We know profitability is a lagging indicator. In this case it’s a lagging indicator of that compassionate leadership style.

Embodying some of these things really helps in all different relationships and teams within your life. It’s directly influencing your level of collaboration—your creativity, your ability to think differently, because there is that trust.

We seem to be in a time where people are questioning what they want from leaders.

The timing of this book is serendipitous, especially in this particular election year. There’s a lot in this book about low-conscious leaders and unconscious leaders.

My hope is that there are people who do start to wake up, to see how their trauma is impacting all sorts of realms in their life. And that might even mean how they’re voting.

Are you prepared for questions you might get about current leaders?

I can go back to some of the research that came from Dr. Paul Brown and Sol Davidson. Their research is being published in my book for the very first time. [From Heal to Lead: “Emerging neuroscience research shows how continuous trauma throughout childhood can lead to a shutdown of the genetic capacity to produce only adrenaline and cortisol, the implication is that some leaders could be locked into operating unconsciously from a place of threat perception.”] With some leaders like Putin and even Elon Musk, their childhood trauma, and how they were sort of saturated in adrenaline and cortisol, impacts how much empathy and compassion is even possible for them.

I would love to have hormonal testing for leaders. If your adrenaline and cortisol levels are through the roof on a consistent basis, you don’t actually have the capacity or the capability to lead people in a fair and just way. Obviously that’s not going to get any traction, but it’s a fascinating idea.

You don’t shy away from controversial issues. At one point you write, “Please read this chapter three times before you decide to get offended.

That’s also a trauma-informed approach, right? I don’t want to put something in the book without saying, “Heads up, there’s going to be some content that might be activating for you.” If that’s the case, go slow with it.

I think it’s okay to lean into a little bit of discomfort. Because if we don’t lean into that discomfort, we don’t actually know what our capacity is for inviting different viewpoints and different perspectives.

I’m not invested in changing anyone’s mind. What I am invested in is people dialing up their curiosity.

More About Kelly L. Campbell

For more information, visit Campbell’s website or join her Substack, The New TLC.