Business schools can help leaders and executives process historical consciousness to help them bring meaning and empathy into their organizations.
Kenneth Frazier was the first African American President of Merck & Co., a major multinational pharmaceutical corporation, and one of the only three Black Fortune 500 CEOs. In 2017, he quit Trump’s Manufacturing Council as a response to the white nationalist violence in Charlotsville, and his outgoing statement was “America’s leaders must honor our fundamental values of clearly rejecting expressions of hatred, bigotry and group supremacy”.
Frazier’s grandfather was born into slavery and segregation, and despite the historical trauma his ancestors survived. Frazier became infamous for his stance against intolerance and bigotry, and his message that “businesses should exist to deliver value to society”.
Frazier, like many leaders, is a descendant of a collective trauma, but instead of being negatively shaped by the emotional wounds carried by his forefathers, he used his painful history as a force for good. To better understand the ways in which leaders develop their values and decision-making qualities, we were curious to understand if historical collective traumas would in any ways shape leaders who were descendants of collective traumas.
Collective trauma is a wound that many people carry due to the collective atrocities and calamities experienced either by them directly or indirectly (by their ancestors). Collective trauma is a ‘large-scale’ atrocity such as war, civil unrest, genocide, slavery, colonization, ethnic deportations, dictatorships, explosions or natural disasters experienced in the present, or in the past. Many of us have parents, grandparents or ancestors who have experienced or witnessed these calamities, and their painful memories are absorbed by their descendants and part of the family biographical stories. Emotions and thoughts shaped by past traumatic events can be consciously or unconsciously passed on to descendants even when the latter may have not witnessed the event. These are known as transgenerational transmission of collective traumas.
If man-made or nature-made atrocities continue to be part of our lives, then how much of our leadership styles could possibly be shaped, consciously and unconsciously, by the memories, stories or even emotions shared by our families who have survived global calamities? To go deeper, what value does historical collective traumas bring to executives when they tap into their family collective traumas, inherited values and emotions?
How much of our leadership styles could possibly be shaped, consciously and unconsciously, by the memories, stories or even emotions shared by our families who have survived global calamities?
To take a deep dive into these questions, and as part of my research journey, I explored this matter and recently published an article together with my colleagues, Svetlana N. Khapova and Erik van de Loo in the Academy of Management Learning & Education. We studied executive leaders in an international business school to learn how we experience historical consciousness when we explore the topic of collective traumas. Historical consciousness is a concept and a process that enables individuals to think about historical events (in our case, collective traumas), make a connection with these calamities, and make meaning on how their past relates to them in the present. More importantly, this process helps individuals identify ways in which they wish to actively contextualize historical stories in the future.
We engaged 60 international executive participants in two cohorts of an internationally renowned executive program and together studied the topic of transgenerational transmission of collective traumas. From these two cohorts, 18 executives volunteered to take part in our research by writing reflection papers and by participating in two separate interviews in two time segments. Volunteers were requested to reflect on what stories they recall hearing or feeling about their collective traumas as children and assess the ways in which these stories or collective memories could have affected them directly.
During the first interviews, executives initiated a personal connection with their historical collective traumas. Additionally, they reflected on the perceived specific effects that may have been transgenerationally transmitted to them as a consequences of the collective traumas, and acquired the ability to make meaning of their collective trauma stories.
The most thought-provoking and noteworthy aspect of the research takes place in a time-lapsed encounter two years after the first reflections and interviews with the participants. Here, we question if they perceived any changes or underwent any meaning-making opportunities that may have taken place as a result of reflecting on their historical narratives or collective trauma memories. We uncover that our participants not only remembered stories but remembered relevant emotions felt or shared. They cultivated a stronger sense of self-awareness and identified blind spots, patterns and triggers experienced within their organizational setting. Contending with their collective traumas, they felt more empowered to emotionally connect or relate with others’ experiences.
In the frames of this research, we were able to understand the value of reflexive approaches and the importance of carefully exploring their emotional world in executive educational programs. As such, historical consciousness can help individuals in leadership positions obtain a deeper understanding of themselves, encourage the use of new or unused lenses, learn from vulnerable emotions and increase their sense of emotional intelligence.
To understand the value of reflexive approaches and the importance of carefully exploring their emotional world in executive educational programs.
Despite the countless publications on the importance of good or human leadership, and the need for more empathetic or more ‘humanized’ leaders, our study proposes the need for leadership and executive management education programs to incorporate more introspective, reflective and reflexive processes in their curricula namely through histories and collective traumas. These introspective processes can enable individuals to extend their perspectives and emotions, to empathize more with organizational colleagues, and potentially become better equipped in their roles as executives and leaders.
Collective traumas, unfortunately, continue to infiltrate and toxify our lives on a daily basis and continue to cause emotional stress or psychological wounds to a group of people or a society. Despite the wounds that collective traumas can have on survivors and descendants, there can also be adverse constructive results from healing and inner work that subsequently impact behavior and performance. Reconnecting with their lived or narrated collective traumas (or wounds) through historical consciousness can be a wonderful tool to help leaders and executives reconnect with themselves and give them an increased sense of wholeness.
Despite the wounds that collective traumas can have on survivors and descendants, there can also be adverse constructive results from healing and inner work that subsequently impact behavior and performance.
This research reflects the self-work that leader executives can conduct in executive educational programs, and the meaning-making opportunities they can share in relation to their history, culture, language and overall relationship with their inherited traumas. Through historical consciousness, executive leaders can potentially transform their inherited collective traumas for a greater good.