June 6, 2023

Amy Elizabeth Fox – Trauma-Informed Leadership

Thomas interviews the CEO of Mobius Executive Leadership, Amy Elizabeth Fox. They discuss the vital importance of integrating the profound wisdom found in trauma healing into the practice of leadership development. Amy describes the enormous influence that traumatic symptoms have on the way that companies operate, and how their cultures are formed. In her work with organizations in both the private and public sectors, she encourages workers and leaders to view internal problems as opportunities for transformation.

By understanding and being open about their own lives and experiences, Mobius practitioners create a safe space for employees to explore their authentic selves, and relate to their coworkers with empathy and vulnerability. Amy explains that being in relation in this way provides the essential emotional intelligence tools needed to operate as high-performing teams.

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“Your conversation is not with their conscious mind, your conversation is with their highest possibility”

- Amy Elizabeth Fox

Guest Information

Amy Elizabeth Fox

Amy Elizabeth Fox is a senior leadership strategist with experience consulting to senior leadership on issues related to human capital, organizational health and leadership development. She is the Chief Executive Officer of Mobius Executive Leadership, a premier leadership development firm with offices in Boston and Switzerland. Over the past decade and a half she has spoken at numerous national industry gatherings and led workshops for corporate executives across the country. Amy is also psychotherapist and an executive coach.

Learn more about Amy and her work at mobiusleadership.com

Notes & Resources

Key points from this episode include:

  • Doing one’s own inner work is essential in being able to do transformative work for an organization
  • Reactive patterns and habits have deep roots that must be addressed in a meaningful way
  • The true agent of change is the quality of transmission that you bring into an interaction
  • Practitioners must “walk the talk” – their openness, vulnerability, and embodiment of transformation generates trust
  • Untreated fear and unaddressed trauma make people less available to receive insight and inspiration
  • We must devote ourselves over and over to making peace with our personal and collective pasts in order to be of service to the world

Episode Transcript

Thomas Hübl: Welcome to the Point of Relation. My name is Thomas Hübl and you’re listening to my podcast and I am very delighted to just be sitting here with my very good friend, Amy Elizabeth Fox. Welcome, Amy.

Amy Elizabeth Fox: Thank you so much, Thomas. It’s wonderful to be here.

Thomas: I mean, we did so many things already together and we’re collaborating and working together for many years, and I’m happy to have you on my podcast and that we can speak a little bit about. I think we’re going to have a series of podcast interviews here. Maybe you can share a little bit about what’s the leading edge of your work now? Because usually we’re most excited about what we do. That’s where our fire is. That’s where errors lie. And maybe we start there and then we see how they connect to everything you did so far.

Amy: Now, wonderful. Well, I’m looking forward to this and all the forthcoming conversations as well. And, you know, maybe it’s worth acknowledging, Tom, is that the leading edge or frontier of Mobius Executive Leadership work since you and I met each other about ten years ago, has really been trying to integrate the profound wisdom you’re bringing about trauma and the importance of trauma healing into the way leadership development work is conducted in various organizations, both in the private and in the public sector.

I think it’s really still a bit cutting edge for people in the world of organizational development, coaching and facilitation to understand the enormity of the influence that traumatic symptoms have on the way organizations operate and the way their cultures are formed. And to understand that you can’t really intervene at the level of culture change without coming in as a restorative or healing agent.

Because all of the interventions you might make at the level of the symptoms of the behaviors we see, the dysfunctions we see, the derailers we see in team dynamics, in organizational dynamics, in innovation cannot be addressed at the surface. The extraordinary teaching that you’ve been doing with Mobius practitioners and the collaborations we’ve had with you, I think have really guided us to look much more deeply, to have a much more sensitized ability to diagnose what’s driving those symptoms, and to address them at their root. And I think for many companies, when they start that kind of really a profound healing journey, they start to see a kind of C-change in the way leaders are operating and interacting with each other that enables and unlocks a whole other level of vitality, of openness, of authenticity, of vulnerability. You know, some of the cultural texture that we now know from a lot of research is critical when people are trying to deal with a very fast-changing, volatile environment.

Another way to say that is more and more leaders are having to deal with unpredictability and uncertainty. And there’s a kind of inner stability or inner equanimity that needs to be cultivated in order to meet that kind of new frontier.

Thomas: Now, that’s amazing. I just recently had a conversation with our mutual friend Bob Anderson, and Bob told me that they actually kind of evaluated 3 million, these circle evaluations that they do the leadership circle evaluations. The number one factor that all the people that were high on the innovative side of leadership said that relationality is the top quality you have to have as a leader. And I thought, wow, that’s so profound. Then I think what you did, I think the excellence of your work in organizations is that you actually manage to bring very deep transformational work into so many different organizations.

And maybe you can tell us a bit because often there is a shy away or like we don’t want to fully engage with deep transformation in organizations, but your work shows that actually deep transformation is possible in large-scale organizations, and it has a powerful impact. So maybe you can share a little bit from your experience like what you have seen and what’s the change that is happening in the organization, given the work that Mobius and you’re doing?

Amy: Yeah, I’d love to talk about that. Let me first make a momentary bow to our colleague Bob Anderson, who’s been a real pioneer in helping organizations and leaders to understand how their reactive patterns and habits have deeper roots and to look in a meaningful way, very much consistent with what you and I are talking about.

I think that it’s right what you’re saying. There’s a lot of fear inside organizations to ask leaders to look meaningfully at their life experiences and early childhood narratives in particular. That seems like a kind of delicate personal domain that should be cordoned off. But I believe and I think you believe that that privatization of one’s interiority is part of the pathology of trauma, which suggests we’re supposed to somehow have the resilience or inner strength to move past early hurts by ourselves.
And it’s just utterly counterintuitive because as you teach, relation is the repair. So if we don’t create micro contexts in which leaders can look deeply and ask the questions of their lives and support one another to do that, we’re at risk of replicating the isolation and shame that happens in families where things are unspeakable. Letting that kind of mandate to silence or to alienation become the cultural fabric.

That’s what we see in many, many organizations. People are scared to ask for help. They’re worried and anxious when they make mistakes. They don’t really support each other in developmental frameworks. They might give feedback, but they don’t have the compassionate eyes to understand when somebody is acting in ways that are less constructive that they’re really basically importing a childhood survival strategy. That was brilliant once, but now it’s a bit antiquated and doesn’t serve them. And instead of looking with the eyes of a sensitive healer, they look with the eyes of a critical sort of accountability boss or a coach. And I think that relation, as you’re saying, is the medicine.

But what do we mean by relation? We mean: I’m deeply invested in knowing the life you’ve walked. I really want to listen and hear the pain you carry. I really want to understand in an attuned, empathic, receptive way what your gifts are, what your dreams are, what matters to you. I’m willing to hear when you see the world very differently than I, and how the lens of your life experience, your cultural experience, your own family experience, shapes your perceptions meaningfully divergent from my perceptions.
All of those skills create the possibility of real synergy, of real collective intelligence, of real inclusion. And I think, as Bob would suggest, those are the most essential emotional intelligence tools that we need in order to operate as effective high-performing teams.

I think another part of your question is what enables us at Mobius and some of our peer companies to go in and do this kind of deeper healing work. I think it’s two things. I think it’s an absolute conviction that this is what’s needed and a certainty that people yearn to be freer with each other. And having seen thousands of executives go through this journey of dropping their guard, dropping their shield, meeting each other in a meaningful, beautiful, loving way.

I know for sure when we start a program that people will be grateful for that unlock, even if at first it seems unusual for a professional context or a little bit awkward. Within 72 hours, people melt that sort of social pretext and are very, very thankful for the chance to speak their truths, to hear each other in a touching way, and to offer themselves to one another.
We have a natural impulse to love, and all you need to do is really create a context in which that natural kindness has a blessing in order to watch people transform how they operate with each other and enormously touching over and over to see the encounter that melting. I also have learned a tremendous amount from your vast ability to receive and present people’s life stories about what it means to hold someone in their real truth.

Thomas: That’s beautiful. And it’s just what you said now, also the vastness of the impact that you and Mobius have had on organizations. So because of it I think it also requires a tremendous amount of inner work that you have done to be able to walk into an organization and be already the transformation as you bring your work into organizations. Because many people might say, no, I can’t even sell this program to any organization because they don’t want that. But obviously you go in and the door is open and you are very successful in bringing your programs into different organizations.

So maybe let’s talk a little bit about the inner availability, the inner integration, the inner looking at one’s own trauma history, that is a key element in being successful in doing transformational work, because sometimes transformational work is kind of all kinds of good sets of ideas and concepts and flowcharts. And I don’t know all kinds of, you know, structures and diagrams, but actually that’s not how your work works. I mean, you also have some decks and slides, but that’s not what does your work. So maybe you can speak a little bit of what’s actually needed on this, on the side of the facilitator, the practitioner, the coach, to be able to be a transformational agent. It’s not just intellectual understanding of transformation.

Amy: That’s, of course, right. I mean, I’d love to answer that question and then turn it back to you, because I love to hear you on this topic. And it’s a mutual passion of ours. Of course, that’s right. A transformation of this kind where you’re inviting somebody to stop everyday social norms and trying to create a space. You know, Amy Edmundson would call it a psychologically safe space, we might say a container of restoration. The ability or the art, the craft of creating that kind of space lives largely in the field you walk in with as a faculty. And that field is created, of course, from your expertise and knowledge, and you have to have studied trauma and you have to understand adult development. And ideally, you also understand team dynamics and something about organizational development.

It’s not that there isn’t intellectual rigor behind what we do, but the true agent of change is the quality of transmission that you bring so that you are a field of deep listening, that you suspend a quality of judgment or reactivity, that you pay attention to the signals that are happening live in the room. Because every micro interaction that you see in an executive is the signal. It’s a parallel process the same way it would be between a therapist and a client. It’s a signal to how they operate in their daily life.

If you can conduct a field of grace, which is really the highest part of this art, which you’ve profoundly helped me to do and helped Mobius to learn to do. In that field of grace, the intelligence that shows up, the particular behavioral signposts that show up are the ones that matter because there’s a kind of pressing in of higher intelligence that is an invitation to revelation. That might be the way I would say it. What gets revealed if you pay attention, then gets amplified. So the quality of presence and the quality of looking that the practitioner brings is itself an invocation to significant data. And the harvesting of that data when it shows up creates a kind of electricity in the room where people realize that what is being brought forth will be attended to and will be met.

And sometimes it’s met with an active of great listening. Sometimes it’s met with a very clear confrontation and one that isn’t laced with judgment. And that’s also to intervene with precision and a generosity of spirit is part of the craft so that you can know that I won’t let you act in a way that doesn’t serve your highest values, your highest intentions, and your real beauty in my presence, if you do something that is outside of the meridian, we will name that. And look why that’s happening. In a really curious, really engaged way. So then in that looking, you have the possibility of freedom. In that looking you have a possibility of insight.
But all of that requires a facilitator that has done enough of their own inner work to bring that quality of presence. That fearless willingness to name things in the moment, the ability to work emergent not dependent on the curriculum, but that sees the people in the room in the live process as the curriculum.

As we’re speaking, I’m reminded of something very beautiful I learned from you very early on in our collaboration that in a way, your conversation is not with their conscious mind. Your conversation is with their highest possibility. And when that’s what you’re a stand for in the room, it really does catalyze an expedited process of people moving from their contracted way of being into a much more mature way of being and of interacting.

So that’s at least the first part of an answer you and I have for many years sponsored supervision groups among Mobius practitioners, and that is an activity that we do out of the conviction that the person is the instrument of the repair and the seriousness of constantly refining and looking at your own trauma, your own places of contraction, at your own fears, which all of us have and all of us walk with. Certainly I have done years and years of inner therapeutic work. And, you know, I still feel very much at the beginning of that journey in many ways. It’s a constant recommitment, rededication, that polishing your instrument is the walk of a practitioner and is a requirement of this kind of work. I think those supervision groups do a second thing that are worth naming.

Mobius practitioners and community and many of our peer companies do this as well, are willing to go to the darkest and most vulnerable, most fractured, most archaic parts of our psyche in each other’s presence, and take that as a natural obligation of journeying and working together. We are then, I think, a source of inspiration and intimacy when we go into a client company because they can feel the deep trust that we have for one another and the kind of nakedness we show to one another as an invitation to change the way workplaces interact and the quality of relationship in the workplace. And I think if we didn’t do that ourselves, it wouldn’t be an honest invitation to others. I think that congruence of walking our talk in that way as a collective is a very important principle.

Thomas: Yeah you’re framing this beautifully and so eloquently that the inner work that we do as facilitators, coaches, therapists, however we work is that’s the goal and that’s the commitment to walk our talk too. We cannot talk about transformation and not doing our own transformation. So only by being transformation and being emergent I think we can do this kind of work and that opens the doors to that kind of inner space. Another mutual friend of ours, William Murray, a very, very world famous mediator, speaks about how the mediator is a consciousness in the room. And I think the facilitator, a coach is an awareness, a consciousness in the room. Only what we can host in ourself is what we hold nonjudgmentally. That’s what we hold with compassion, but also with clarity and presence, as you said.

So I think also what I have seen in Mobius since we are collaborating for a long time. I think that the commitment of many people, teams that work and just do this transformational work, I think that’s really amazing that there is a very deep commitment to one’s own transformation. And as we have seen in the supervision groups, every time we bring something that looks like a difficulty, it’s actually the fuel for our own growth. So even the difficulties with clients are actually welcome because that’s what induces our own growth, that’s the engine of our own evolution. And so I feel that Mobius really walks its talk on that level. And so that’s really beautiful.

Amy: I’m very proud of that. And I just want to say one more thing about what you just said, Thomas. That ability to use the breakdowns in everyday work as a guidepost to what to look at in yourself and the stuck places that you are in your own psyche is also part of what we’re teaching leaders. Then everyday work becomes a chance to heal. And I think that’s a very different way of orienting yourself as a leader. How can I in managing other people, look for where they’re getting stuck as a gateway to where I can help them to evolve? Rather than a problem I need to give them feedback about. And so, you know, this notion that in the workplace you have an enormously unique opportunity to be a context for people’s continued growth and development. I think that’s a very important tenet, not just for practitioners but for leaders in any context.

Thomas: That’s very true. And you described something else that I want to highlight for everybody who’s listening. If we use the kind of appearance of our own stagnation, which usually shows up as difficulties, frictions, conflicts, miscommunication in many ways. So when we don’t see that as a problem, but we see that as a chance for transformation and growth, then we actually contribute to what so many organizations really want, which is progress. We want to move, but we want to be more successful, we want to expand, we want to do what we do even better. So how do we do that? Through progress and taking care of our inner individual relational team or organizational stagnation and difficulties is actually what makes an organization, I believe, successful besides the skills that we need to have. But many organizations do have the skills to do what they do. But the interpersonal frictions, the intrapersonal difficulties and organizational dynamics often descend in the engine and please feel free to comment on them.

Amy: Yeah, I agree with that completely. And I think there are also very subtle ways that untreated fear and unaddressed trauma live in relation in organizations. So just to pick another example, if I feel like I have to defend my value all of the time because I haven’t yet wired basic self-esteem and I don’t rest in the sufficiency and goodness of my gifts, then I get very rigid in defending my perspective or my point of view, and I’m unlikely to be constantly sort of cognitively agile and learning and looking for what I might be missing and why somebody might see it differently. Which means the innovation capacity of that organization has a ceiling.
Literally, it has a ceiling because the leaders don’t feel safe inside themselves to be in a learning mode, to be in the humility of fresh thinking. And you mentioned spaciousness as a dimension of relation. It also means I’m less available for fresh intelligence downloading into my system. So I’m not likely to get the disruptive breakthrough idea as much as somebody who has cultivated a kind of inner mindfulness, equanimity, spaciousness and isn’t caught in their expertise and knowledge base but is actually open to life teaching them – wherever that knowledge comes from.

Thomas: Yeah, that’s beautiful. And it actually also matches again, my conversation with the Pope the other day because he said, he works a lot on the transformation of the reactive leader into a self-authored leader. But then we talked yesterday or the other day, we talked about what’s actually the quality of being authored. So there’s something beyond self-authorship is being authored, bowing to some higher dimension of potentiality or inspiration or insight that actually becomes the driving engine. And that’s also a bit what you said. And, also Bob refers to if we don’t do our inner work, then we are less available to that future. I had another conversation with Sharma and he said a beautiful is like the future is that which depends on you to be manifested and that’s beautiful and I think what you said right now if you don’t do that inner work, we are less available to innovation. And actually that’s also why innovation often doesn’t really manifest itself, even if we have great ideas because we are actually afraid to make the steps that are needed to do. Maybe you can say a little bit to that and then maybe we can talk about being authored in our next conversation and let this be a cliffhanger for the next time.

Amy: Yeah, I love that. So just for context, for those listening, when Bob talks about self-authorship, he’s referencing the work of Bob Kegan and Lisa Lahey, two colleagues that I have the privilege of having as Mobius senior experts who defined three stages of adult development. Thomas, you’re pointing at sort of the transformational end of that continuum. At the beginning of that continuum, they call socialized mind, where someone is really very externally referencing and making their meaning of their lives out of the things the society values – prestige, money, success, sort of external benchmarks of meaning. At some point in the journey of a leader, they encompass all those things and they suddenly look around and realize the hollowness and emptiness of that.

Often when leaders come into our programs or come to us for coaching, it’s right at that juncture where they have come up against all of the stages of success they had thought would matter to them. They’ve pursued them all, they’ve accomplished them all, and they look around and realize they’re quite disconnected. There’s not a lot of closeness to their heart or to their soul. And that begins what Bob and Lisa call the “self-authorship journey,” where you really start to really articulate what your own values are, what your own sense of purpose is, what your unique gifts are, what in life calls you to contribute. That’s a very important threshold and a very important journey.

But of course, what you said is really quite, I think, expansive in the sense that even after all of that self-development and self-expression, there comes a moment where it’s not about you anymore. And that’s another threshold of maturity. In Kabbalah, they talk about that as the moment when you move from the will to receive to the will to bestow, which I love. And that really is the moment where you start to see your own life as in the service of life. When you make that bowing down to be available to offer your gifts and not in the service of your self-gratification, but just in the service of blessing life, then that is in a way, that’s the first day in which you can really be used by life for the fullest possibility of what you came into life to give.

I have to say, I’m reminded of one of the things you said the very first evening we met that has stayed with me as both a koan and a mantra. You said “Not until you’re at perfect peace with your past can you virgin birth the part of the future you came into life to give.” And it went through me like a lightning bolt, Thomas, because so many of those parts of that sentence point to the work at hand. One is to devote yourself over and over to making peace with your past.

And I now understand what we mean by that. My personal past, my collective past, both the ways in which my ancestors participated in oppression, racism, colonialism, economic inequities, and also the traumas of my past – personal, family and collective. So the walk or the journey, the lifetime’s journey of coming to Perfect Peace is the first half of that sentence. But the second half is where we are oriented in this conversation: What does it mean to bring the gifts to be at so much completion with my inner yearnings and my inner hurts that I can really start to be a channel for life? And in many ways that is the journey of what it means to be a practitioner of transformation.

Thomas: Right, beautiful. And what it means to be a leader. Imagine a world being led by leaders that are being led by something higher than themselves. So that’s a beautiful ending for today. Amy, this is lovely. Since we’re going to have a series of these conversations, maybe next time we talk a little bit more about this being authored or being in that stream of inspiration, innovation, capacity and how we bring that also into the difficult areas of our world, our life and our organizations. Thank you very much for joining me here and looking forward to this series with you. I’m sure many people can take a lot out of what you contributed today. So thank you very much.

Amy: Thank you for having me, Thomas.