In a meeting last week, we took time to check-in with each other about how we were each doing. We used a set of structured questions to guide our dialogue. In addition to the usual possibility oriented questions, we also asked: What are you currently mad about? A colleague of mine responded: “what’s in the media right now, the Stanford swimmer’s sentencing and the Orlando nightclub shooting.”

I believe my colleague expressed the anger, hurt and pain many of us are feeling individually and collectively.

We are bombarded with news and events that bring our spirits down, increases our anxiety, preys on our fears and leaves us traumatized. In addition to the social traumas that we are contending with, we each have our own individual traumas that occur from difficult life events such as loss of loved ones. And we also deal with traumatic organizational events. These include events such as:

  • mass layoffs,
  • compound complex organizational changes,
  • persistent leadership changes that leave organizations unstable,
  • vicarious trauma within organizations serving others who experience trauma [healthcare, social services, humanitarian organizations],
  • The impact on employees in organizations where there has been an unexpected traumatic event [think the recent Disney World and Cincinnati zoo incidents].

These events are traumatic because the psychological impacts go beyond the everyday stressors and strain that we might expect in organizational life. Everyday organizational stressors demand our attention and challenge us to use our existing capabilities and resources to cope and address them. Traumatic organizational events shake our fundamental assumptions of the world such that they temporarily (and permanently if we never recover) reduce our psychological functioning and ability to cope after the event. Events with traumatic impacts are those that proverbially rock our worlds.

In the wake of recent events in the media and pervasive organizational trauma that leaders I support contend with, the question on my mind recently has been: How do we lead through trauma, in ways that not only helps us draw on our resiliency to return to our pre-trauma levels of functioning, but also to thrive? Thriving [learning, growing, developing] after adverse events is possible, because traumatic events often expose us to shortcomings in our ways of thinking, being, relating and overall developmental levels, individually, organizationally and socially.

In a previous post, I wrote about the posttraumatic growth potential that is possible for each of us with the right conditions after adverse circumstances. Here, I share three pieces of food for thought, for leading through, or in spite of trauma, that I have been learning from the literature and from people I interviewed who themselves have survived social trauma, and are now described as transformational leaders in their communities and organizations.

First: Acknowledge traumatic impacts.

I believe individual traumatic impacts are the most easily acknowledged in a world dominated by western individual psychology and advancements. On the other end of the polarity, collectivist contexts engage in rituals to facilitate healing, and often advancement, following social traumas. Organizational traumas however, are most frequently left unsaid, unacknowledged and unaddressed. This, in spite of the fact that impacts of organizational trauma may continue to reverberate on a workforce with highly visible symptoms. These symptoms include increased sick-time and turnover, and lower productivity levels, often attributed to “low employee engagement.” The relative lack of literature on organizational trauma is evidence in itself of how unaddressed it is as a very real aspect of organizational life. As recent literature* has shown, organizational trauma can be characterized as one of the unconscious elements of group life that we collectively defend against acknowledging, since doing so is in itself painful. Yet, left unaddressed, the impacts continue to grow and fester and in the long-run are even more collectively painful than if traumatic events are acknowledged and addressed. Transformational leaders understand this and therefore in their organizations, communities and spaces where they lead, they make traumatic impacts visible

Second: Lead from purpose and passion anchored in Resonance stories.

Making traumatic impacts visible is easier said than done. However, the leaders I interviewed who are able to do so had one thing in common: they consciously or unconsciously start from a deep inner place of what I have come to call their Resonance stories**. They ask themselves: what is a story from my own life that deeply connects me to why it is important that I lead in this context, organization, community or issue? They not only know why it is important that they lead where there’s been trauma, they have a personal story from their lives that anchors them to passionate purpose. They also keep reminding and retelling themselves that story or stories when the going gets tough and so are able to continue leading. This form of motivation is intrinsic and personally replenishable and does not depend on external motivators or visions offered by others. Therefore it provides a deeper, more sustainable ground for transformational leaders to work from.

Third: Go with the collective

Those who lead through trauma realize this is not a solitary journey for the heroic leader. They make space for others to also share their stories, grow and lead. They know that the healing, resilience and growth potential following trauma will be much stronger when it is part and parcel of the collective consciousness. These leaders therefore create rituals that call teams, groups and whole communities to acknowledge trauma, journey through healing and develop together. These groups come out on the other side, stronger, wiser, and psychologically more prepared for future traumatic impacts. This collective orientation also allows people to create new patterns of action and relationships that mitigates preventable traumas. It means each person involved will have the opportunity to not only return to their pre-trauma levels of development, but develop beyond that…and grow as peoples and communities.

So in the midst of all the downward spiral news and traumatic events that surround us, I invite you to anchor into possibility. In the places and spaces where you lead and it seems like you have insurmountable challenges and traumatic circumstances to overcome, ask yourself: what is a story from my life that signifies my purpose here? And once you have navigated through trauma, ask yourself, your teams, your communities: what’s possible now? As Peggy Holman encourages in Engaging Emergence:

Many societal cues encourage us to focus on what’s broken, why we can’t, what’s wrong. We develop habits that reinforce these beliefs. We tell ourselves we’re not good enough, smart enough, strong enough. Asking possibility-oriented questions shifts our attention and begins to break these habits. What do we want? What excites us, gives us meaning? What difference can we make? Such questions invite us to dream, to lift our spirits, to discover the gifts of our differences and come together around what inspires us. It takes commitment and practice to develop new habits of attention. 

*Trauma and Organizations Paperback, 2012, by Earl Hopper
** Resonance as Transformative Learning Moment: The Key to Transformation in Sociocultural and Post trauma Contexts