Healing The Wounded CEO: 4 Steps

Jeff was the CEO and a minority partner in a relatively new financial services company for nearly two years when the market began to sour, along with his relationship with his partner. Jeff’s encounters with his majority partner weighed more heavily on him than the financial performance of their company, and together the pressure was extraordinary – he slept poorly, gained weight, was inattentive to his family and found himself having at least one extra drink each night. Then one day, his majority partner fired him.

Predictably, he felt his life was coming to an end. “Everything I have worked for is lost,” he told himself and he watched his partner nearly destroy the business. His behavior continued to deteriorate for several weeks until his now desperate family gave him a compassionate “either or” – seek professional assistance or leave. He chose the former and is now on a journey of professional redemption.

The trauma experienced by Jeff has features of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and it is an increasing phenomenon in today’s business world. Recession, market cycles, competition, and the speed of the digital age almost conspire to create a professional environment where executives that are “all in” are also in an extraordinarily vulnerable position – the more you are “in” or at some risk, the more you have on the line from a psychological perspective.

Of course there is hope and most executives are amazingly resilient, which is simply positive behavioral adaptation in the face of perceived traumatic events. Here are four steps for the wounded CEO, family, and friends to consider:

  • Seek a professional consultation to help evaluate the personal impact of what has occurred, with an emphasis on the present tense, both behaviorally and emotionally. Honesty is essential for executives that are often quite skilled at setting aside their emotions and allowing their stress to eat at them in other ways.
  • Focus on the immediate anxiety, whatever the perceived basis, and seek ways to quell it without further escalating the experience via drugs and/or alcohol. One of the most common sources of relief is to be able to tell someone “I was fired.”
  • Utilize all people in your social support system as opportunities to receive support but also to give it. A mentor once told me that “crisis is a selfish experience.” He wasn’t judging the individual, but simply saying that we retreat psychologically to protect ourselves naturally at times of crisis. Reaching out to others, as you can, during a time of self-crisis increases your sense of personal value and social connectedness – two areas in which the traumatized CEO usually experiences a significant loss.
  • Honestly examine the events and behavior that preceded the termination and what the CEO’s role was in the process. Not only do most terminated executives know they had a part they played, but their explanation helps set a foundation for a return to a positive professional stage.

The executive that must immediately secure another position for financial reasons should respect the inevitability of a healing process. Not doing so greatly increases the risk of landing back in the same vulnerable and traumatized position.