A trauma-informed leader leans into the feelings that come in the face of Brene Brown’s definition of Vulnerability: situations where uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure are present. Effective leaders aren’t hesitant to initiate difficult conversations even knowing they might be uncomfortable; they model self-compassion and grace for others and honor and respect the vulnerability of others and create spaces that allow their teammates to feel seen, heard, and validated. Effective leaders remain constructive and compassionate when holding their teammates accountable for their actions.
We are living in the Renaissance of Work. Just like great artists know that an empty canvas can become anything, great leaders know that an entire organization — and the people inside it — can become anything, too. Master Artists and Mastering the Art of Leadership draw from the same source: creation. In this series, we’ll meet masters who are creating the future of work and painting a portrait of lasting leadership. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Tega Edwin.
Dr. Tega Edwin is an award-winning career development researcher, educator, and speaker. She provides consultation and training for corporations that want to leverage trauma-informed leadership to improve employee productivity, retention, and engagement. She’s the owner of Her Career Doctor, where she provides coaching to women who are stuck in soul-sucking jobs. Dr. Edwin is a licensed professional counselor, a national certified counselor, a certified trauma professional, and a certified salary negotiation facilitator. Using her proprietary PRESERVE Framework, Dr. Edwin has provided trauma-informed leadership training to organizations such as Lockheed Martin and Northwestern Mutual to help guide their managers in understanding the need for a trauma-informed approach to leadership in a post-COVID and racial reckoning world. Dr. Edwin combines her practical experience as a counselor and coach and her academic and scholarly experience in researching racial trauma and career development to support organizational leaders in creating safe and healthy work cultures.
Thank you for joining us. Our readers would enjoy discovering something interesting about you. What are you in the middle of right now that you’re excited about personally or professionally?
I’m currently in the middle of creating development plans for organizations to infuse trauma-informed leadership and supervision in their work. I’m really excited about this because it will change how managers and supervisors interact with their team members, which will ultimately improve employees’ productivity and engagement.
We all get by with a little help from our friends. Who is the leader that has influenced you the most, and how?
A leader that has influenced me is Makeda Andrews. She is a coach for new managers and has helped me develop my leadership and management skills along the way.
Sometimes our biggest mistakes lead to our biggest discoveries. What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made as a leader, and what did you discover as a result?
The biggest mistake I’ve made as a leader is giving unclear instructions. Early on in my journey as a leader, I expected people and my teammates to automatically know what I meant when I gave an instruction without actually describing what I wanted the end product to look like. I’ve since learned that being as detailed as possible when given instructions usually leads to better results and output from team members.
How has your definition of leadership changed or evolved over time? What does it mean to be a leader now?
The biggest shift that has occurred in my leadership is the inclusion of trauma-informed principles in how I lead and teach others about leadership. Over the past three years, the world has collectively experienced trauma that some people are still actively healing from, and people don’t leave those experiences at the door when they get to work. A good leader sees the whole person, and we know that trauma experiences shape how people show up and interact with others. As the leader, a lack of awareness about trauma responses can lead to labeling team workers and employees negatively, which ultimately can present as a barrier to the relationship.
Success is as often as much about what we stop as what we start. What is one legacy leadership behavior you stopped because you discovered it was no longer valuable or relevant?
Declaring how a thing will be without consulting anyone else — whether it be a whole team or an individual I’m interacting with. For example, as leaders, when we start meetings, especially feedback meetings, we’ve been taught to declare the space “Safe” — “This is a safe space”. But how do we know how safe or unsafe the other person feels? All we can do is state our intentions, but then it’s important to seek input from those impacted by that intention otherwise we inadvertently take away someone else’s choice, which is a major trauma trigger.
What is one lasting leadership behavior you started or are cultivating because you believe it is valuable or relevant?
Always interacting with empathy and compassion. We never truly understand the struggles people are facing in their personal and professional lives. Leaving room for empathy to guide the way during interactions fosters stronger relationships, ultimately improving performance.
What advice would you offer to other leaders who are stuck in past playbooks and patterns and may be having a hard time letting go of what made them successful in the past?
Stop holding onto your comfort zone. Change in growth never happens when we’re comfortable, no matter what area of life we’re trying to improve. If you truly aspire to be a great leader, you must continue growing and evolving in your leadership skills and ability, and that growth will never be comfortable.
Many of our readers can relate to the challenge of leading people for the first time. What advice would you offer to new and emerging leaders?
Get support. Needing support to improve your leadership skills doesn’t say anything negative about you. It doesn’t make you less qualified or less experienced. All the greats have coaches that help them hone and develop their skills. There are a ton of great managers and leadership coaches out there who can help you hone your skill and be the best leader possible. Instead of fumbling your way through and figuring it out on your own, invest in support that will collapse the time it takes for you to go from where you are now to the great leader you can be.
Based on your experience or research, what are the top five traits effective leaders exemplify now?
Brave — A trauma-informed leader courageously acts to improve organizational culture, even in the face of fear. This can present itself in multiple ways; for example, communicating with clarity is a big period we often hedge in our communication when we are unsure how the other person will respond. But I believe Brene Brown said it best; clear is kind. A brave leader also stays true to their values even when it might appear that they are outside of what the majority thinks or believes. Modeling bravery opens the door for your team to trust and learn from you.
Reflective — A trauma-informed leader regularly reflects on their role as leaders, behaviors, skills and knowledge gaps, and reactions and responses to different behaviors and information. Effective leaders leverage information from constant reflection to improve the culture around them. Effective leaders are open to feedback because they know it will improve their performance and leadership.
Advocate — A trauma-informed leader actively confronts cultural and historical issues to promote inclusive spaces. Effective leaders strive to remain equitable in interaction with staff, never treating or putting one teammate above the other but instead providing each team member with what they need to be successful. Effective leaders are intentional about giving their teammates choice and voice whenever possible and are always seeking to determine whose voice isn’t being heard in any specific room.
Vulnerable — A trauma-informed leader leans into the feelings that come in the face of Brene Brown’s definition of Vulnerability: situations where uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure are present. Effective leaders aren’t hesitant to initiate difficult conversations even knowing they might be uncomfortable; they model self-compassion and grace for others and honor and respect the vulnerability of others and create spaces that allow their teammates to feel seen, heard, and validated. Effective leaders remain constructive and compassionate when holding their teammates accountable for their actions.
Empathic — A trauma-informed leader can engage in perspective-taking. Effective leaders can hold space for difficult emotions and lead from a place of genuine connection with whomever they’re interacting with. They pay attention to their tone of voice and use of triggering language that can cause the people they’re interacting with to shut down when they experience a fight, flight, or freeze response. Effective leaders leverage active listening to understand the perspective of those they are interacting with and value the whole individual.
American Basketball Coach John Wooden said, “Make each day your masterpiece.” How do you embody that quote? We welcome a story or example.
Goals and grace. I’m a big fan of planning out my day. I love lists. I love checking items off my lists even more. But making lists of the priority tasks that need to be accomplished each day allows me to maximize my time. I don’t waste time figuring out what to do with my time because I have already planned it out. At the same time, grace is critical on those days when things are left unchecked. At the end of each day, all I can do is ask myself: Did I do my best today? If the answer is yes, I’m ok with the outcome, whatever it may be.
What is the legacy you aspire to leave as a leader?
I aspire to help more leaders understand how to make trauma-informed leadership non-clinical, so they can foster compassionate teams and cultures that improve employee engagement, retention, and productivity.
How can our readers connect with you to continue the conversation?
You can find me by searching Her Career Doctor on any social media platform or Tega Edwin on LinkedIn. I’m looking forward to connecting!
Thank you for giving us the opportunity to experience a leadership master at work. We wish you continued success and good health!