Breaking Free From Legacy Leadership: A Trauma-Informed Approach

Organizations strive for trauma-informed, emotionally healthy environments. Yet, some leaders use outdated strategies, causing conflict and dissonance.
work/office concept with double-exposure lens over it

The Journey to Trauma-Informed Leadership

One of my privileges is to speak and consult with leaders in organizations that are seeking to become trauma-informed and resilient. I have come to admire so many organizations who’ve had huge adversities with clients who are struggling, high levels of staff turnover, and experiencing challenges of being overwhelmed by the needs of those they’re serving. 

I’m impressed by those individuals who are striving to overcome these obstacles in order to create an environment that’s safe, regulating, and emotionally healthy for their staff and clients. Yet, we still find leaders in our field using strategies that are less than healthy in their organizations, while espousing the need for trauma-informed care. This apparent contradiction in management styles can be confusing for staff, and often creates organizational dissonance and conflict.

Overcoming Organizational Dissonance and Conflict

I remember when I was the Emcee at several conferences for staff of varied organizations who provided services for people impacted by trauma. The staff were extremely assertive that we needed to include their organizational leaders to be trained in trauma-informed care. They expressed significant concerns about being unable to do their work in a toxic organizational environment, where the leadership was managing the organization with techniques and strategies that were dissonant and destructive.

Particularly since COVID, we as non-profit leaders have had significant information available to us regarding the need to create a healthy emotional environment for our valuable staff. We have neurological evidence that staff members who are in safe environments, regulated, and cared for are best able to provide support for their trauma-impacted clients. We also know toxic stress over time is debilitating to their mental health and their ability to provide the appropriate services to those in their care.

Leadership Legacies and the Need for Change

Yet, with all this knowledge we still find leaders in varied important positions who have influence over staff are using techniques and tactics that are disrespectful and dissonant, where they sometimes use their power inappropriately with their staff. Like any leaders, we all have our legacies, loyalties, and core beliefs about how we should lead. Under stress, our default is to go back to ways where we were able to get control over difficult situations. I had one leader tell me they used intense anger outbursts as a way to get results for decades and it was the only way he knew. He admitted he could no longer get results that way in today’s staff culture.

It’s difficult to give up some of the values we’ve been taught. I had my own struggles with control, building trust, trying to get staff to comply, and working through my own legacies and experiences. It was a journey to come to a new place of resonance in order to create a paradigm shift in our organization, and in my own understanding of how we could lead with integrity, mindfulness, and compassion.

Nurturing a Safe and Resilient Environment

It has allowed Lakeside to be the strong organization that it is, and those values have given us the capacity to support our staff, students, and professionals we train with the applied science of emotional and relational health. As hard as it can be to work with some staff members, our values and core beliefs, coupled with the science of emotional health, are at the core of being trauma-informed as we care for our staff and clients. It’s what we all need to learn and practice in order to be organizations that are truly healthy.

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