The Hidden Secret to Leadership Agility

There is a child inside each one of us, who comes out in front of the person we are most comfortable with. Any contact with our inner child can help us to overcome our greatest fears, make the right decisions in life and become a better person. By tapping into their inner child, leaders can blend the bold thinking and action of their inner child with the adult qualities of maintaining responsibility to the bottom line.

The thoughts we choose to think are the tools we use to paint the canvas of our lives. Your inner child is your original state of innocence – the playful, inquisitive, sensitive child you came into this world as. This is not about being child-ish or immature, it’s about being child-like and experiencing the world in a state of wonder and curiosity. Now, more than ever before, the world needs child-like thinking, such as creativity and optimism as we strive for new solutions to mounting problems.

“The most sophisticated people I know – inside they are all children.” 

–Jim Henson

4 Leadership Lessons From Your Inner Child

Lesson 1: Follow your Passion

Have you ever tried to make a child do something they didn’t want to do? It’s almost impossible, right? Children gravitate towards what they like without the social constraints we adults tend to impose on ourselves. Turning vision into reality requires passion. Passion elevates productivity and ensures employee commitment to your vision.  Passion is born out of something that is intensely meaningful to you.  It is not a general hobby or a fleeting interest; rather, it is integral to who you are. Your passion is at the core of making a difference.

Passion is about vision. It also contains energy, excitement, and enthusiasm. Passion inspires others to join in and identify with your vision.  No one has ever been inspired by a leader who is not passionate.  Passion – and alternatively, the lack of passion – is contagious.  If you want to have a passionate, inspired workforce, it begins with you: the leader.

Lesson 2: Be Direct (within reason)

Do you remember going up to an adult in your early years and telling them exactly what you thought of them? Would you do that now? Probably not! We are not advocating getting rid of the subtlety and communication skills we typically learn by the time we reach adulthood or hurting another person.

Direct communication involves honestly saying what you think and feel, and it is marked by active listening and effective feedback. It is clear, straightforward, and involves the two-way, free-flowing sharing of thoughts, feelings, and ideas. There is no pretence or hidden messages in direct communication; its purpose is quite simply to get or give information from one person or group of people to another. Good leaders speak honestly to their teams, and will make their team feel comfortable talking directly to them as well.

Lesson 3: Show your Emotions

When a child is happy – you know it. And when a child is not happy – everyone knows it. As adults, we learn to hide our emotions. Research has shown this can be damaging and that it’s better to express our emotions rather than hide them or block them. Vulnerability, as a resource in leadership and within the workplace, can impact the entire culture and creativity of a team. It can increase output, it can create a place for courage and is a strength that should be harnessed.

Vulnerability and leadership go hand in hand. Both require us to take the risk of stepping forward and showing up in a space that exposes us. When we’re vulnerable and when we lead there aren’t any guarantees that we will succeed. Risk and uncertainty are things leaders weather every day. Being vulnerable and leading while owning this vulnerable is brave work and you can’t be courageous without being vulnerable. Perhaps it’s fair to say that courage, vulnerability and leadership all go hand in hand. This means that vulnerable leaders are by far the most courageous.

Lesson 4: Ask Lots of Questions

“But why? But why?” Anyone with a young child will be familiar with this phrase. That beautiful determination to discover the world by asking questions. Leadership is not about knowing all the answers, it’s about leading others to do their best to accomplish goals, solve problems, and grow.

When leaders do not take time to formulate and ask appropriate questions, the whole organisation suffers: people do not contribute their best; they do not grow, and the organisation often takes sub-optimal or wrong action. Likewise, leaders that do not ask purposeful questions can demoralise the organisation, gradually turn staff into non-thinking “yes people” and risk looking foolish or arrogant.

“When we are children we seldom think of the future. This innocence leaves us free to enjoy ourselves as few adults can.

The day we fret about the future is the day we leave our childhood behind.”

– Patrick Rothfuss

The Uncomfortable Truth

We each have our own history and we have all been influenced by our environment, events and the significant people around us. Our inner child stored those memories, and the impact they had on us. Even the people who love us most can say and do things that hurt us. Because a small child with a big heart is so sensitive, we were easily wounded, especially when we were exposed to pain and trauma. And we all know how painful and traumatic growing up can be!

Now here’s the uncomfortable truth: the wounds that were inflicted on your inner child won’t go away unless you acknowledge them and put in the time and effort to heal them.

Most of us don’t want to do that! Most of us are afraid to go back and revisit the experiences that hurt us deeply as children, so we tell ourselves to simply “grow up” and we hide our pain away. We pretend like it never happened. As a result, our inner child remains wounded, scared, and miserable inside of us. This causes us to act out in ways that prevent us from experiencing more happiness and fulfillment in life. If you can’t get close to people, it’s because you don’t know how to be close to your own inner child. That little child inside of you is frightened and hurting.

“Trauma is personal. It does not disappear if it is not validated. When it is ignored or invalidated the silent screams continue internally heard only by the one held captive. When someone enters the pain and hears the screams healing can begin.”
― Danielle Bernock

Examples of Childhood Trauma

Baggage from mental or physical trauma such as abuse and emotional coldness of any kind is easily retained in the unconscious mind, where it festers and hinders growth. We all experienced some form of trauma growing up – often, multiple kinds. This is why healing the wounded inner child is critical work for everyone. Of course, there are more examples of childhood trauma. These examples are given so that you can get an idea of what your inner child could be dealing with.

Macro Trauma

  • Emotional, verbal, physical, and sexual abuse
  • Physical or emotional neglect
  • Actual or emotional abandonment by one or both parents
  • Intense or persistent bullying
  • Childhood illness
  • Any other major circumstance that caused you distress during childhood.

Micro Trauma

  • Less intense forms of bullying or rejection
  • Parents’ divorce
  • Parents staying together miserably
  • Moving around a lot
  • Being mocked or singled out for being “different”
  • Subtle forms of childhood emotional neglect, being told not to be “so sensitive”
  • Having your sensitive needs disregarded, being told to be more “extroverted” etc

“Your pain needs to be recognised and acknowledged. It needs to be acknowledged and then released. Avoiding pain is the same as denying it.”
― Yong Kang Chan

We Just Want to Feel Safe

Up to the age of six years, our brain functions at a relatively slow pace (Theta frequency 4-7 cycles per second). This is why children are like sponges for information. Theta is a highly ‘receptive’ brainwave state, which makes us profoundly affected by our experiences. We make ‘decisions’ at a sub-conscious level about how we ‘should’ be and what we ‘should’ do in order to be accepted, and to be allowed to stay around and to ‘survive’ in our families.

Our later experiences reinforce these beliefs and form our own ‘script’ for how our life ‘should’ be. We carry these immature scripts and decisions with us into adulthood — where they run our lives more than 95% of the time.

Safety is not just physical, it is also emotional, psychological, and spiritual. When we truly feel safe within our family environment, our physical and emotional boundaries are respected, our authentic selves accepted, and we feel close to and deeply loved by our family members and primary caregivers. We are given permission to grow and change and we have all of our basic physical necessities met (food, clothing, a safe home or neighbourhood). Unfortunately, this was not the reality many of us experienced as children.

“Emotional abuse can leave a victim feeling like a shell of a person, separated from the true essence of who they naturally are. It also leads to a victim feeling tormented and tortured by their own emotions.”
― Lorraine Nilon

9 Reasons We Felt Unsafe

Our parents and caregivers did the best they could, with the knowledge they had at that particular time. Growing up, there were a number of ways we may have felt unsafe. Some of the most common ways were:

  1. We were told it’s not OK to have our own opinions.
  2. We were punished when trying to speak up or act differently.
  3. We were discouraged from playing or having fun.
  4. We weren’t allowed to show strong emotions.
  5. We were shamed by our parents or other family members.
  6. We were verbally criticised/abused on a regular basis.
  7. We were physically punished, e.g. smacked, beaten.
  8. We were made to feel responsible for our parents and their level of happiness.
  9. We weren’t given physical affection, e.g. hugs, kisses, cuddles.

The reason we want to know what is going on inside us is so we can know what to let go of. Instead of hiding our pain, we can release it totally. When you learn to let go, not only does a huge weight drop off your shoulders, but the doorway to your own self-love opens – it’s a powerful thing!

“The reality is that we are safe and we have the capacity to enjoy the wonders of life in the present moment. When we recognise that our suffering is based on images instead of current reality, then living happily in the present moment becomes possible right away.”
― Thích Nhất Hạnh

Is Your Inner Child Wounded?

As children, when something went wrong, we tended to believe that there was something wrong with us. Children develop the idea that if they can only do it right, then parents and caregivers will love them, they won’t punish them, and they won’t leave them. Therefore: they will be safe. Over time, a belief begins to form (in all of us), “There is something wrong with me. I’m not good enough”. As we grow older, we carry these false beliefs with us. We learn to reject ourselves.

It makes sense that we revisit the experiences of our child self, and find out what our script says about our life and the unfolding drama we have been re-creating and repeating. Not doing so will only result in playing out the same unexamined script and drama over and over and over and over again with a variety of different characters.

So, how do you know if your past trauma is affecting you unconsciously right now? There are some tell-tale signs that will help you identify the extent to which your inner child has been wounded, and the level to which you feel unsafe in this world. The more signs you can say “yes” to, the more you need to seriously consider inner child work:

Deep down, I feel that there’s something wrong with me.

I experience anxiety whenever contemplating doing something new.

I’m a people-pleaser and tend to lack a strong identity.

I tend to hoard things, emotions and people, and have a hard time letting go.

I have deep abandonment issues and cling to relationships, even when they are toxic.

I feel guilty standing up for myself.

I feel inadequate as a man or woman.

I deliberately like being in conflict with people around me.

I’m driven to be ‘the best’. I am a super-achiever.

I constantly criticise myself for being inadequate.

I am rigid and a perfectionist.

I have a hard time committing and trusting.

I have trouble starting or finishing things.

I’m ashamed of expressing strong emotions such as sadness or anger.

I rarely get mad, but when I do, I become rageful.

I’m ashamed of my bodily functions.

I distrust everyone, including myself.

I am an addict or have been addicted to something.

I avoid conflict at all costs.

I am afraid of people and tend to avoid them.

I feel more responsible for others than I do for myself.

I never felt close to one or both of my parents.

My deepest fear is being abandoned and I’ll do anything to hold onto a relationship.

I struggle to say “no.”

If you answered yes to ten or more of these statements, working with your inner child should definitely be at the top of your priority list. If you answered yes to five or more of these statements, seriously consider reconnecting with your inner child.

“We did not come into this world loathing ourselves or wishing to numb our feelings. As small children, we operated from a place of wonder, curiosity, spontaneity and creativity.”
― Christopher Dines

What Do Unhealed Childhood Wounds Look Like?

When these emotions stay locked up inside, they can affect the entire body, sapping our energies. Life becomes a struggle. No matter how deeply buried, the related memories can create many problems, such as stress, anxiety, insomnia, and even relationship troubles and control issues – ranging from not taking responsibility to feeling an overwhelming need to be in charge.

  • low self-esteem
  • poor body-image
  • mood and emotional imbalances
  • problems with boundaries being too rigid or too weak
  • problems with eating
  • harming yourself
  • being ‘false’ and wearing ‘masks’
  • identity problems
  • being a rebel/ a hoarder/ a bully/ a perennial victim or a super-achiever
  • intimacy problems
  • commitment problems
  • a general lack of trust in yourself and others
  • criminal behaviour
  • excessive lying
  • being ‘overly-responsible’ for others
  • being fiercely competitive and a poor loser
  • dependencies and addictions
  • a lack of genuine friends
  • obsessive and needy behaviour
  • fear of authority figures
  • being manipulative
  • being passive, or being aggressive.

That’s a long (and sadly not exhaustive) list. It is the stuff that brings people into psychotherapy. To repair and heal the wounds caused by parents, and others, who didn’t know any better, it is ALWAYS about the unmet needs of the Inner Child – the place of both our early wounding and the most profound healing!

“Some people think ignoring their inner child makes them seem grown-up. When I see someone ignoring a crying child, I think they’re an asshole” 

–Jay Bell

Negative Repetitive Patterns

In a leadership situation, it’s easy for old parent-child relationship patterns to creep in because life will keep serving you up the same lesson, in a different form, until you heal/learn it. Unmet childhood needs create havoc and power struggles in professional relationships. Leaders who aren’t aware of this dynamic can echo an authoritarian parent and subconsciously expect the people they lead to be like obedient children to that authority. And yet, inside them, they will have an inner child desperate for validation, freedom and comfort. Even the most self-aware leaders can slip into old unhealed relationship patterns – especially under stress.

Most of the time we are living life like a child inside a grown-up’s body – and the child within us yearns for attention, understanding, care and support. We may try to silence these deeper longings with alcohol or drugs, by promiscuity, gambling, over-spending, over-eating, work-a-holism, self-harming and other ways of avoiding the real and deeper needs we have. Needs which we haven’t allowed ourselves to become fully aware of, or to find a way to have sufficiently met.

We have all been influenced by our environments since the time we were in our mother’s womb. The sounds around us, our mother’s stress levels, the abundance or deficit of the ‘feel-good’ hormones and neuropeptides, our nourishment or lack of it, complications, twin pregnancies, drugs, alcohol, and infections will all have played their part in how safe we felt even before we were born.

“If you want to be a good parent please heal your own wounds, heal all of them and be confident that you’ve done so before you seriously consider having children. The unresolved child within you is the real child you need to embrace and heal and raise.”
― Daniel Mackler

Ancestral Dirty Laundry

The actual birth experience, and our early infant care, and the ‘emotional availability’ of our mother will have either reinforced or soothed the impact of those first pre-natal influences… the blueprint for the main patterns we play out in our lives. As small children, we absorb a great deal from our extended families, our caregiver(s), friends, pre-school, and early school years, along with our religious institutions. We may not have had words for these experiences but they are all ‘logged’ in our subconscious mind and in our bodies.

This all creates the pool in which we sink or swim. Inevitably, the water will be a bit dirty – or it may even be viscous like mud. In this pool resides our self-esteem, body-image, family trauma, shame and secrets (even if not spoken about—as they all affect the quality of the care our caregivers are able to show us). We will sink down into this pool, or mud, whenever we are overwhelmed by our negative thoughts, emotions, self-doubt or self-loathing.

Inner Child healing aims to sensitively lift out this dirt and mud, little by little, until we are left with just a stain of what was once there. It’s imperative we learn how not to ‘top-it-up’ with more mud—either by doing that ourselves, or by being around other people who want to dump some of their own mud onto us. “We are the dreams of our Ancestors…” and they are also our nightmares. All that remains unresolved in your ancestral line, the violence, injustice, and suffering, is stored in your cellular memory and has an impact on your life today. Pain travels through family lines until someone is ready to heal it in themselves. When you heal your own inner child, you no longer pass the poison chalice on to the generations that follow and, therefore heal your entire ancestral line.

“I think that the process of giving your true love to someone, mainly surrounds the act of opening a door inside that’s all locked up. Behind that door lives the small child that is the real you. The small child who hurts too much and feels too much and laughs too loud and always believes…” 
― C. JoyBell C

More Than Just a Leader

Great leaders provide the balance between autonomy and the support that staff need to flourish with full acknowledgment of any subtle power dynamics that might crop up. When you lead with love, rather than small ego considerations, you see the broader picture of each person having a vital part in the bigger plan. This means having the compassion to see through patterns and coping strategies that mask deeper hurt or trauma.

For a leader to be all of this to others, they need to do their own inner-child work by connecting to the little boy or girl within them. Only in this way can we discover some of the reasons for our adult fears, phobias, and negative repetitive patterns. When we begin to understand why we do what we do, healing and transformation can occur.

Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality. We are entering a new paradigm of leadership through service, empathy, and equity. An era in which we truly recognise our interdependence, where we value life in all its diversity. When we slow down to listen and take all perspectives into account, and make thoughtful, deliberate decisions that include all future ramifications, we discover our collective and individual health and well-being is now the metric of ‘success’. This is a time where we uplift every human being out of poverty, pain, and survival mode so they can all contribute.

When you learn how to heal your inner child, you can begin to overcome your deepest blocks and finally show up as your best authentic self. Healing your inner child means overcoming the blocks that have been holding you back from expressing your full potential and becoming the person you are meant to be.

“Everyone is born creative; everyone is given a box of crayons in kindergarten. Then when you hit puberty they take the crayons away and replace them with dry, uninspiring books on algebra, history, etc. Being suddenly hit years later with the ‘creative bug’ is just a wee voice telling you, ‘I’d like my crayons back, please.”
― Hugh MacLeod

It's All About Love

Love is the greatest healing power we know of. Love can heal even the deepest and most painful memories because love brings the light of understanding to the dark corners of our mind. No matter how painful our early childhood was, loving our inner child now will help us to heal it. In the privacy of our own minds we can make new choices and think new thoughts. Thoughts of forgiveness and love for our inner child will open pathways, and the Universe will support us in our efforts.

It is an unequivocal fact that your childhood shaped who you are today. No matter how self-aware, loving, and supportive your parents were, it’s also a fact that they passed on their unprocessed emotions and unexamined habits to you. So, as you’ve grown from being a child to being an adult, the same unexamined behaviours and habits, and unprocessed emotions are still being carried inside of you.

“Caring for your inner child has a powerful and surprisingly quick result: Do it and the child heals.” 

–Martha Beck

You have needs that were not met during your childhood. Needs that, until they are discovered and honoured, will wreak havoc in your adult life. The majority of addicts are simply people who have unprocessed pain, and unmet childhood needs that have yet to be addressed.

Go back and take care of yourself. Your body needs you, your perceptions need you, your heart needs you. The wounded child in you needs you. Your suffering needs you to acknowledge it.

As long as these unmet needs stay below our level of conscious awareness, we will be drawn into binge eating, drugs, alcohol, over-working, compulsive exercise, over-spending, video game or internet addiction, and a whole host of other ways that we subtly or overtly numb ourselves to our deeper needs. However, when we get in touch with these deeper needs, and take action on them, we experience a level of freedom and ease that we can only yet begin to imagine!

“The real you is still a little child who never grew up. Sometimes that little child comes out when you are…expressing yourself in some way. These are the happiest moments of your life – when the real you comes out, when you don’t care about the past and you don’t worry about the future. You are childlike.” 

–Miguel Angel Ruiz


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