Hyper-independence as a trauma response, and how it manifests in nonprofit leaders

[A tiny white hedgehog, standing on maybe a blanket, looking at the camera. They are wearing a crown made of multicolored gems, not exactly sure why. Image by Liudmyla Denysiuk on Unsplash]

It’s been nearly three years since I stopped being a nonprofit executive director. My skin looks healthier, my eyes less sunken and haunted, and I’ve started reverse-aging and now look like my kids’ father and not their grandfather. Best of all, I only wake up once or twice a year screaming “Cashflow! Payroll! NOooOOOO!!”

Being a nonprofit ED/CEO, or any other high-level leaders, can be rough. The systems and norms we have put in place often place unrealistic amounts of responsibility and stress on leaders. Combined with a capricious funding system that forces everyone into default survival mode, and we can understand how leaders burn out and why few younger professionals want to assume leadership roles.

Which is why I’m glad there’s been more organizations exploring flatter structures, distributed leadership, co-directorships, etc. My last organization, for example, has moved into a co-ED model where four colleagues each take on approximately 50% of the ED role while still doing 50% of their existing roles. For this to work, there are elements that need to be in place, including a pretty radical decision-making framework.

However, I’ve been hearing more stories of current leaders being resistant to these new leadership models, or to trying anything new in general. Some of this is simply because it’s not what our sector has been used to. But some of this is because leaders themselves are unaware of how their own backgrounds, childhood upbringings, traumas, etc., affect how they operate as leaders. For instance, the messages we received when we were kids affect how we engage with self-care philosophies and practices now as adults.

Over the past few months, I’ve been hearing and reading more about hyper-independence. There are plenty of articles on it (including here, here, and here). To summarize a few key points, hyper-independent individuals are extremely avoidant of relying on others. They rarely, if ever, ask for help for anything, preferring to solve every problem themselves. They are often frustrating closed off, seldom confiding in people, including with their spouses or partners. They can be helpful when other people need them, but at the same time, some hyper-independent people can start to look down on folks they consider to be too “needy.”

A lot of this may stem from trauma, including childhood trauma. For example, children who were often neglected by their parents or caregivers and had to learn to rely on themselves may develop hyper-independence later in life. My parents weren’t neglectful, but they did work 15-hour days at a convenience store they owned, so I had to learn to do a lot of things for myself. One time in the 9th grade I was burning up with a fever and was delirious and hallucinating (“ThunderCats? Why are you in my house?”), but it never occurred to me to call my parents, or anyone; I just kind of worked through it, taking expired medicines and piling on eight blankets or so, since I didn’t want to bother people.

Being a self-reliant can be positive in many ways, but hyper-independence can have negative consequences in friendships, romantic relationships, family relationships, etc. In a work setting, it could manifest in people not being good at delegating, withholding information that could make them look weak, making impulsive decisions because they didn’t ask for help to think things through, looking down on colleagues or direct reports who ask for help, etc. All these things could lead to mistrust and terrible team dynamics.

It seems a lot of nonprofit leaders have traits of hyper-independence, EDs/CEOs in particular, probably because of the toxic messages we’ve been taught about “wearing many hats,” doing more with less, failure means people suffer, etc. But it can cause all sorts of problems. The team may not really feel like it’s working as a team. The lack of effective delegation and teamwork means leaders may be overworked and feel resentful while staff are deprived of autonomy and professional growth. The lack of trust, openness, and vulnerability may lead to staff being hesitant to bring up issues or to ask for help themselves. Board members may feel like they don’t have the information to support the ED, or they may feel useless because the leader is handling everything without ever asking the board for input.

Hyper-independence can entrench an organization into a mindset of scarcity and survival. It leads to the neglect of the overall big pictures or experiment with creative new strategies; for instance, a hyper-independent leader may be resistant to bring in an assistant, or a deputy director, or outsource some of the work, which may allow them to focus on different priorities such as more ambitious fundraising or coalition building. And newer leaders may internalize this type of leadership and learn to become hyper-independent themselves, which is not good. And on a larger scale, hyper-independence perpetuates the default mode of nonprofits working in isolation instead of as an effective sector addressing common societal challenges.

Going back to what we were talking about earlier. The sector is increasing in its experimentation and innovations around different leadership structures. This is exciting. But many of these structures, such as co-directorship, run counter to the traditional hierarchical model that fosters and oftentimes rewards hyper-individualism and hyper-independence. Current leaders need to be aware of how they may be helping or hindering these new philosophies and practices.

All of us, but especially positional leaders, should do some internal work reflecting on whether we may be hyper-independent, and whether childhood or other traumas may have contributed to this. Assess how it’s been affecting the team. Discuss how it may manifest at your organization or movement, and work to create an environment where it is not only acceptable, but encouraged for colleagues to ask for help and support one another.

I’ve barely touched the surface on this subject, and there are people way more knowledgeable. Please add your thoughts in the comments.

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