Non-Profit Leadership: The Importance of a Trauma-Informed Leader

Last week I bumped into one of my new board members. He told me that he realized he needed to take some of our trauma training in order for him to be an informed board member.  I walked away gratified that we had emphasized the importance of our training to the extent that he volunteered to take the time to go through it.

The term “trauma-informed” is now a popular topic. I have the opportunity to speak with leaders all over the country about becoming trauma informed. Quite honestly their understanding is all over the map about what it means to be trauma informed. Some individuals think that going to a workshop for some basic knowledge is adequate. Others feel they need to know more and are in need of more concentrated education on the topic.

What we know is that many of our social ills begin with some type of a traumatic even, typically in childhood. Often trauma is seen as something that happened physically that caused a long-term injury. But as we have understood the neurology of trauma, we have found scientific merit for an emotional injury. Our training provides our participants with a number of categories of trauma and related adversities that can have long-term effects on someone’s capability to navigate the impact of trauma in their lives. We now have the ability to evaluate the brain with MRI’s that can readily show how the brain functions differently if there is a trauma history.  Also, the CDC-Kaiser ACE study has provided much information about the long-range physical and emotional impact of childhood trauma.

ACEs word cloud

For leaders, being trauma informed is an essential part of becoming a compassionate and effective leader. For me, my understanding completely changed when I realized that some behaviors that I did not understand made perfect sense once I put on some trauma lenses. I found myself to be more humble, less judgmental, much clearer, and better able to understand stress responses differently than I did previously. As in most situations, becoming trauma informed gives us insight as to what is going on in our own family history.

Another aspect of trauma-informed leadership is how a leader provides support for staff and/or clients who have experienced traumatic events. For our students, we have a series of interventions that helps them cope with their traumatic stress. Also, our whole staff has a working knowledge of the impact of trauma. They have been provided the physical and relational tools to help students regulate and move towards a healthy pattern of behaviors related to their stress responses that may also be related to their trauma history.

So, a trauma-informed leader is someone who understands trauma, is willing to adopt a new lens for how they view the world, is non-judgmental, is clear about how to create environments where staff and clients are not triggered and who is willing to provide the resources for interventions to occur in their organization. If interested in knowing more, I highly recommend Lakeside’s trauma training as a starting point. It could launch a whole new perspective in how you lead those in your sphere of influence.

Gerry Vassar


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