Can the Trauma of History Shape Leaders?

This week Lara A. Tcholakian successfully defended her PhD thesis ‘On Becoming Historically Conscious Leaders: Exploring The Underlying Effects Of Transgenerational Transmission of Collective Traumas’ at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, which assesses and explores how organizational leaders make meaning of their collective traumas and how the collective traumas of their ancestors can shape them. In this blog she gives an insight into her research.

17-12-2020 | 13:55

Kenneth Frazier is the first African American President of Merck & Co., a major multinational pharmaceutical corporation, and one of the only three Black Fortune 500 CEOs. 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. 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, like many leaders, is a descendant of a collective trauma. This research began by questioning if and how historical collective traumas can be part of the element or equation of what shapes leaders and their development.

As part of her doctoral research, Lara Tcholakian, in collaboration with Svetlana Khapova, Erik van de Loo and Roger Lehman, conducted a study on how organizational leaders make meaning of their collective traumas. Numerous studies indicate how a leader’s formative upbringing can shape leaders, but there is little focus on the role of historical legacy or historical collective traumas on leaders or leadership studies. This study on leader development zooms in on the aspects of transgenerational transmission of collective trauma which is explained by an emotional and psychological stress that has affected a large group (national, religious, racial or ethnic) and that moves across generations. Collective trauma particularly affects members of a group who have an affiliation with the collective group’s identity and history.

One of the studies consisted of forty board members, CEOs and executives who were third and fourth generational descendants of the Armenian genocide, but raised in different geographic backgrounds and upbringing. Another study concerned a group of sixty leaders and executives who are descendants of an amalgam of collective traumas such as the Greek genocide, WWII, Holocaust, the Singapore racial riots, Apartheid and the Sikh riots.

The overall study shows how leaders with similar and different collective histories identify values and behaviors that may be transgenerationally associated with their historical narratives, and how they experience historical consciousness operationalized by their narratives. Historical narratives of collective trauma can be experienced through family narratives (said or felt), community commemorations whereby the individual can identify with the group and experience collective emotions, and rituals such as religious rites that help individuals feel connected to the victims of the collective trauma.

Leaders experience historicity as relational human experiences through formative affiliations, stories, and memories that emotionally, behaviorally and cognitively shape their development – and more specifically their identities and their values. The use of history was a pertinent way for leaders to connect, interpret and foster expectations in relation to their professional actions and decisions. This learning process allowed them to critically engage in the process of historical consciousness, that cultivated and sensitized them to human practices of management, and recognize the application of their values and assumptions in the development of teams, strategies and organizational processes.

Today, wars, aggressions and civil unrest continue to overwhelm us and for some, they bring back memories and narratives of past aggressions. The temporality of past collective traumas seems to be diminished and our narratives – both individual and collective - become central to our worldviews, our development, our values and identities, not just as individuals, but as leaders as well.

At a time when there is an increasing call for a ‘humanized approach to leadership’, this research expands the study of leader development, raises questions on how leaders make meaning of their historical collective traumas, and addresses the practical implications of historical consciousness in leadership practices.

Read the two recent publications:


Collective Traumas and the Development of Leader Values: A Currently Omitted, but Increasingly Urgent, Research Area

How Leadership Can Emerge From The Trauma of History

Tcholakian,LaraDr. Lara A. Tcholakian is an organizational leader with experience and expertise in leadership, organizational behavior and organizational development and has been based in Canada, France, Peru, Sri Lanka and Armenia. She holds a Master’s Degree in socio-economic development from Université Paris 1 – Panthéon-Sorbonne, an Executive Master’s Degree in consulting & coaching for change from INSEAD, and a PhD from the School of Business and Economics at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Her greatest joy is being the mother of Rupen, Aram and Kami.

VU MBA Talk - Lost in translation: Overcoming obstacles when leading diverse teams
Discussants: Lara Tcholakian (VivaCell-MTS) and Janina Klein (VU Amsterdam)
Date & time: Tuesday, 12 January 2021, from 7.30 PM to 8.30 PM. SIGN UP