It’s difficult to imagine that one of the richest leaders in the world, whose current worth sits at a humble $3.4 billion, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Now 71, Bob Parsons paradoxically credits his extraordinary success to his symptoms of PTSD: “The crazy part is, probably one of the reasons why I was so successful, is because I buried myself in my work, which was how I was able to kind of go on.”
But that’s not the whole story. The trauma caused by his time as a Marine in Vietnam profoundly changed his personality, causing depression, isolation, and costing him two marriages. It wasn’t until Parsons discovered psychedelic-assisted therapy that his life turned around–inspiring him to become one of the most generous donors advancing psychedelic research.
Parsons’ case isn’t rare. Leaders from all over the world suffer from all kinds of unresolved trauma. And while the the “big-T” trauma caused by accidents, natural disasters, losses, war, or sexual assault, to the lesser known “little-T” trauma, commonly associated with adverse childhood experiences, neglect, emotional abuse, or periods of prologued stress.
Despite its pervasiveness, trauma is rarely talked about. In a culture that celebrates outwardly success over wellbeing and purpose, our most painful experiences get swept under the carpet. Extreme stress, overwhelm, insomnia, the inability to relax or to be who you truly are become “part of the job”–symptoms to be medicated and suppressed, rather than warning signs pointing towards a deeper cause.
The wounded leader
Despite holding successful jobs and raising families, many leaders operate in what trauma specialist Peter A. Levine calls a “functional freeze”: partly numb, depressed, emotionally distant, dissociated from the present, and unable to fully enjoy life. A wounded leader will naturally be drawn into workaholism, addiction, and circumstances that recreate the original conditions of the trauma.
Trauma also has a direct impact on leadership:
- it impacts trust and makes relationships and collaborations difficult;
- it diminishes creativity, imagination, and flexible thinking;
- it reduces your ability to think clearly and plan for the future;
- it affects your ability to lead and take healthy risks;
- it distorts your values and purpose, or simply disconnects you from them.
For example, you might find yourself attracted to high-stress situations that leave you exhausted, burnt out, or paralysed by fear. You might find partners who betray your trust or abandon you when things get tough in the business. You might feel like the answer to all these problems is to work harder, often at the cost of your mental and physical health.
It’s no wonder that, in a 2018 study, Michael Freeman, a clinical professor of psychiatry, discovered that leaders “had 2 times the rate of depression, 6 times the rate of ADHD, 3 times the rate of addiction, and 11 times the rate of bipolar disorder” compared to regular people.
This, of course, has significant consequences not just for the leader and their business, but for the world at large.
Leaders shape the workplace culture and have a big impact on the wellbeing of their employees, who likely carry their own trauma. For example, a 2017 study by the World Health Organisation showed that 70.4% of respondents across 24 countries reported having experienced traumatic events in their lifetime. And according to Gallup’s 2022 report, workplace stress is at an all-time high after the Covid-19 pandemic–radical change is needed more than ever.
So where can you start?
The hidden story of trauma
“Trauma is the most avoided, ignored, denied, misunderstood, and untreated cause of human suffering.” — Peter A. Levine, Healing Trauma
When thinking about trauma, you might look for obvious causes. You might search your mind for particularly painful memories–and you may find none. You may conclude that nothing terrible ever happened to you. You had a great childhood, even though you don’t remember much of it. And any odd symptoms you’re experiencing are just in your head.
You might be surprised to hear that not remembering what happened to you is the very nature of trauma.
As trauma expert Gabor Maté writes, trauma isn’t what happened to you–it’s what happened inside you as a result of that situation. When painful or terrifying events exceeded your capacity to endure them, a protective mechanism cuts you off from the overwhelming emotions and sensations; you no longer feel what’s happening, and you don’t remember it. But the body remembers it–the trauma gets stored in your autonomic nervous system.
This explains how, even decades later, seemingly unconnected events can elicit an overreaction. In those moments, the body responds as if the original event were happening now, while the mind finds no reasonable explanation. The mind and body function separately, disconnected from each other. You may find yourself feeling overwhelmed by a minor situation, yelling at a puzzled employee, or unable to sleep for weeks, but completely clueless why this is happening.
(The psychedelic experience) “… set me on my course to be able to go back to my job and have a different perspective on things. To be way more free at work, as a leader, as a teammate, as a friend, as a lover. I really feel like that experience paved the way for me to have the best season of my career.” — Aaron Rodgers
Traumatised leadership doesn’t have to be the norm. Examples like Bob Parsons and, more recently, NFL star Aaron Rodgers prove that, with the help of psychedelic-assisted therapy, trauma can be integrated and overcome. As the entrepreneur and author Ben Horowitz says, “great CEOs face the pain”–however, not by ignoring their symptoms, but getting to know the hidden story behind them and finding the alchemical gold.
Psychedelic-assisted transformation supports powerful leaders to befriend their bodies and reestablish that long lost connection between mind and body. In the safety of the therapeutic container, your body can release the stuck energy of old wounds without being overwhelmed by them. Bodywork can help the flow of energy to those areas, breathing new life into them, and rebalance the nervous system.
And then integration can teach you the greatest skill of all: how to find meaning and creativity in adversity.
That’s why, at Inlibrium, trauma recovery isn’t just about mending old wounds; it’s about taking back your power, potential, and purpose–and letting these lead your life.
For us, post-traumatic growth isn’t a return to a previous state. It’s not about “fixing” or resolving every inner conflict. Growth is an expansion beyond your wounds that makes space for more freedom, creativity, compassion, and courage.
Post-traumatic growth is about learning to accept yourself as a “perfectly imperfect” human who can live life to the fullest, belong, dream big, dare greatly, and love deeply.
It isn’t about never feeling stuck again, but about learning to use your challenges to inspire radical change in the world.
A leader whose business becomes a calling, and whose purpose serves the world.
Is that you?