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Do you see me as a leader who is scared?

No sooner had I asked that question than one of three colleagues around the table burst out laughing:

“No.” A pause. “No way. You’re one of the most confident people I’ve ever met!”  

One of my other colleagues, George, leaned back and said: “Ah, yes. Now it makes sense.”  

And with that I finally began to get clarity on the single biggest barrier to me being a better leader.

When I asked the question I was on the last day of a leadership course where my colleagues shared that I came across as both domineering and yet full of empathy. A lot of the feedback I got questioned how I could behave in such contrasting ways? I really struggled to understand why I sought to take control in this way.

With the help of my colleagues – and my coach, George - I was able to take steps to understand that it all came back to me being bullied nearly two decades ago.  

Trauma is a weird thing.  It’s too big and painful for the brain to digest so it cuts it up and buries it in other parts of the brain. That’s why people who’ve been through traumatic experiences can be thrown back with just a word, a feeling, a sound or a sensation.  

Trauma is also deeply shameful, this helps it stay buried. What I’ve come to understand is that my urge to control is a defence mechanism that was developed when I was a teenager in response to the trauma of being bullied for being gay. 

And the link to leadership?  

How do you think a leader who was subconsciously scared of being judged, excluded and ‘attacked’ would act? I can tell you because I found where the trauma was buried. I was a know-it-all, a smart-arse, I was brash, I didn’t listen. I fought the ideas of others and kept going until I ‘won’. It worked in the short-term, but in the long-term I came to realise that it meant that my team members felt excluded or that things were done ‘to’ them and not ‘with’ them.  

The problem I had was not that I was bullied but that I hadn't realised that it showed up every day of my life afterwards and no more so than when a group (team) and eyes on me (for leadership). It sent me straight back to being literally surrounded by bullies. This is why one-on-one I could be myself but in groups why I always seemed so aggressive.

I found myself acting as the leader I wanted to be, one who nurtured and supported others, someone who helps people with their problems and who listens to and takes on feedback and suggestions of others. I was finally able to leave my defensive armour on the floor.  

Not only did all of this help me to become a better leader but it also opened the door to me being able to work with others on their leadership so that they can show up for their teams in the way that they want to.