The Trauma-Informed Leader
As the impacts of trauma and mental health becomes less stigmatized in the west, those of us that have been overlooked for our leadership capacity finally have a chance to be heard and seen in greater ways. But first, we have to get out of our own way.
I’ve had to do the work of understanding my own trauma before I could even get to this place or this way of thinking. This is needs-based work, not just something I’ve done on a lark. I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety throughout my life (the latter which can present as a mild verbal stutter), along with suicidal thinking. I made a serious attempt to take my life when I was younger, I was treated for two different kinds of cancer, and I live with persistent chronic pain (i.e. that has been helped by different treatment modalities, but nowhere near resolved like some of the success stories you hear).
I still get told that “it’s all in your head” by medical practitioners. When I’ve shared some of my experience with business colleagues over the years, I’ve received a variety of responses, ranging from “pat on the head” sympathy that feels condescending and dismissive (despite good intentions), to flat-out disdain from people I actually admired, which feels awful and scary when reputation is everything in the business world. There are a rare few people who just listen, nod empathetically, and don’t freak out about how my reality might impact their own goals (hint: it really doesn’t).
Thanks to the amazing work that’s been done around inclusion over the years and especially in the last year, we now have terms like “unconscious bias” and “internalized oppression” (pertaining to racism / sexism / homophobia / ableism, etc.). We have enlightening questions that we can ask ourselves, which extend to our beliefs about people who have experienced trauma of some kind (note: we’ve all experienced trauma and some have experienced it more significantly than others). Questions such as:
- When someone tells you they have an anxiety disorder, what is the first thought that comes to mind? Do you believe them or do you think they’re being oversensitive? Do you consider asking them what they need around that, or expect them to “get over it” in the workplace?
- When someone mentions their trauma, what is the first thing that pops into your head? Are you curious to learn more about their experience, or do you judge them based on how they look, what they’re wearing, and what job they hold – perhaps thinking, “well whatever happened to you couldn’t have been that bad”?
- When you try to tell someone else about a troubling condition you have (mental and/or physical), how do you think they might react? What are you most afraid they’ll say? What have been your best and worst experiences around that?
If asked, I would say that I need people to be patient when I’m stumbling to get my words out – their annoyance only makes it worse and means it will take longer for me to get my point across. I would tell people not to say “don’t worry” to me when I’m trying to express a genuine concern, and to engage with me instead about that concern and help me work through it together (and trust that I’ve got a lot of wisdom around managing my own anxiety).
The truth is, people don’t yet know enough about trauma and mental health challenges to ask. We’re all still learning and so the trauma-informed person needs to speak up early and ask for what they need and how they would like to be treated – that can be a big leap to make when many of us have lived with shame around who and how we are. The trauma-informed leader can support their teams by role-modelling this behaviour with respect to their own needs, being courageously vulnerable about who and how they are, and being patient and listening respectfully to learn more about the great people with whom they work. Just watch the compassion bloom in that kind of environment.
On the heels of my own personal work of coming to terms with trauma (including the privilege of therapeutic support for many years), I am now translating this directly to my professional work, embarking on a Trauma-Informed Coaching Certification this fall. I’m not switching my leadership and career coaching focus to trauma coaching – rather, I want to use what I learn to have a greater influence on the kinds of business environments we create, to support the liberation of more leaders to lead in a trauma-informed way, and to lead with the wisdom they derive out of their own mental and/or physical trauma.
For more on trauma, check out these titles:
- Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, Judith Herman
- Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving, Pete Walker
- Trust After Trauma – A Guide to Relationships for Survivors and Those Who Love Them, Aphrodite Matsakis
- Anything by Gabor Maté
Maggie DiStasi, PCC, helps people develop their leadership skills and career opportunities through mindfulness-based coaching and coach training. Please visit www.www.maggiecoultercoaching.com to learn more, or connect with her here to arrange a consultation.