Taking the time to understand your family narratives supports your leadership development

Who is a leader? Leadership books today cover a wide array of literature covering personality-based approaches, contingency theories, transformational leadership, leader-followership, innovation and creativity. Many of them are based on research from North America and Europe.

Yet, leadership is born out of and plays a part in maintaining culture. Over the years, researchers have sought to understand the cultural dimensions of leadership across national cultures.

Take, for instance, Australia, whose leadership values have been shaped by its founders. Australians value egalitarianism and individualism. Moreover, its leaders have had a healthy regard for risk-taking and an entrepreneurial spirit in organisational life, politics and sport.

Yet, due to globalisation and increased talent mobility, the backgrounds and stereotypes of senior leaders in many countries are changing.

A case in point is Macquarie CEO Shemara Wikramanayake, whose family is from Sri Lanka. Her childhood experiences, where she faced financial hardship and lived in different countries, helped her to develop her confidence (Hislop 2020; Patten 2020). Similarly, recent CEOs and politicians in the US and UK are bringing different perspectives to their roles.

How collective trauma shapes leader values and behaviours

A fascinating emerging research area gaining interest is the transgenerational transmission of collective trauma and how it influences the development of leader values and behaviours.

Collective trauma (or historical trauma) is emotional and psychological stress which affects a large group and moves across generations. It impacts group members with a strong affiliation with a collective group’s identity. The most well recognised and researched collective trauma is the Jewish Holocaust; however, it includes American slavery, various civil wars and other genocides. In each case, there is a collective mourning process and the development of collective emotions.

Some researchers have concluded that collective trauma shapes leaders’ values and behaviours in second- and third-generation descendants.

Exploring descendants of victims of the Armenian genocide, Lara Tcholakian and colleagues noted that collective trauma resides in cultural rituals and artefacts, community events and commemorations, and family narratives, and is transmitted through social learning, social identity, and psychodynamics.

They found that resilience, forgiveness, empathy, justice, and perseverance are the five leadership values influenced by collective trauma shaping leader cognition and behaviour (Tcholakian et al. 2019).

This research finding resonated with me, as resilience and perseverance are leadership values I learned from my grandparents and parents. Other researchers exploring Sikhs living outside India and Koreans have found similar findings to Tcholakian.

From the Asian-Australian leaders I spoke to as part of my research, I learned that many of them (or their parents) may have experienced a collective trauma.

As an illustration, some Asian migrants (or their parents) escaped the Sri Lankan civil war, the Vietnam war, Pakistan due to the 1947 Partition, the 1969 racial riots in Malaysia, and Indonesian anti-Chinese sentiment in 1998 before moving to Australia for a better life. In addition, some of their parents had moved countries more than once before relocating to Australia, for example, from China to Malaysia, Pakistan to India, or Vietnam to Hong Kong.

These experiences may not have been discussed openly within their families in Australia, as some memories may have been too painful. However, most of them mentioned that one of their core values was resilience. Their leader values and behaviours may have been influenced by the collective traumas or transmitted to them.

Take the time to understand your family narratives

Many of us frequently place boundaries between work and home. Further, under time pressure, we often become transactional, so we don’t take the time to understand each other on a personal level.

However, in today’s organisations, many people are descendants of ethnic cultures. Some may have family backgrounds of a historical collective trauma which may have shaped their leader values. Tcholakian suggests that family narratives can positively influence the development of authentic leaders. Many leaders I spoke to about their family narratives became much more conscious of their leader values and behaviours as they shared their narratives with me.

Allowing time, reflection and open discussion on your family narratives together with others are arguably some of the best ways to get to know each other. Further, you will become more aware of each other’s values and behaviours. This will support both your own and your team’s leadership development.

One method that can be used to start this journey is to undertake a role biography exercise. This is a biography of a ‘person-in-role’ expressed through the various ‘work roles’ they have taken up during their life (Long 2013).


Karen Loon is the author of the upcoming book, Fostering Culturally Diverse Leadership in Organisations: Lessons from Those Who Smashed the Bamboo Ceiling, published by Routledge. To find out more, visit here.



Hislop, Madeline. 2020. “Dismissing prejudice as “irrational” has been key to CEO Shemara Wikramanayake’s resilience & leadership.” Women’s Agenda. November 27. https://womensagenda.com.au/leadership/macquarie-ceo-shemara-wikramanayake-talks-resilience-leadership/.

Long, Susan. 2013. “Role Biography, Role History and the Reflection Group.” In Socioanalytic Methods: Discovering the Hidden in Organisations and Social Systems, edited by Susan Long, 227-236. Karnac.

Patten, Sally. 2020. “‘I had things I could control, including my attitude’: Macquarie CEO.” Australian Financial Review, November 26. https://www.afr.com/work-and-careers/leaders/i-had-things-i-could-control-including-my-attitude-macquarie-ceo-20201126-p56i84.

Tcholakian, Lara A., Svetlana N. Khapova, Erik van de Loo, and Roger Lehman. 2019. “Collective Traumas and the Development of Leader Values: A Currently Omitted, but Increasingly Urgent, Research Area.” Frontiers in Psychology 10: 1-13. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01009.