Navigating the Effects of Trauma and Burnout Through Transformative Leadership Practices
Equipping leaders to respond to the traumatic state of our world so we can be better for ourselves, our teams, and our world by understanding, empowering and connecting.
An unforeseen global pandemic has radically transformed our lives and how we function in every context. In the midst of the uncertainty and anxiety, we look to leaders for guidance, connection, and stability. For this reason, leaders need to become well-versed in identifying trauma responses, including signs of burnout in themselves and their followers. Trauma-informed leadership “includes the need for leaders to understand the needs and feelings of the community, building capacity for understanding the stories of trauma behind behavior” (Anderson, 2016). Theoretically, trauma-informed leadership correlates best with the transformational leadership approach in that it includes elements of inspiration, optimism, encouragement, honesty, motivation, respect, team-orientation, effective communications, empowerment, reliability, trustworthiness, and empathy. Essentially, as Northouse (2019) observes, “This approach stresses that leaders need to understand and adapt to the needs and motives of followers” (p.196). This is especially true in the face of significant upheaval and adjustment.
The research defines trauma as “a deeply distressing or disturbing experience” (Nealy-Oparah, 2018). This definition can incorporate any number of events in one’s life and is largely subjective but no less devastating. It is largely understood in the research that the effects of trauma greatly impact daily functioning long after the incident occurs (Nealy-Oparah, 2018), which includes how we lead and follow. These long-term effects are directly correlated with emotional burn out which can lead to disabling consequences. In this paper, I will discuss how trauma-informed leadership is practiced by gaining greater self-awareness through your own healing journey, familiarizing yourself with the signs of trauma and burn out, and creating an empathic environment that supports the holistic well-being of your followers.
Seek to Understand
Introducing trauma-informed practice into your personal leadership approach can seem daunting at first. The information and stories can feel heavy and intense and it can be tempting to turn away from it and shrug it off as “not my problem”. Many leaders do that, and understandably so. It is heavy and hard and painful. However, if you want to function in a transformational leadership approach, I argue that it is imperative that you become trauma-informed. Transformational leadership identifies the component of individualized consideration, “the leader’s ability to connect with their followers, to understand their individual motivations and goals” (Riggio, 2013). Recognizing the effects of trauma and burn out in ourselves and our followers is a significant part of practicing individualized consideration.
Engaging in our own healing journey as leaders is one of the most important learning experiences we can have. George (2015) discusses facing our crucible to gain deeper self-awareness which leads to a compassionate understanding of others (p. 79). Brown (2018) discusses leaders having the courage to show up and be seen, embracing vulnerability. Sinek (2018) discusses how stepping into your own vulnerability gives permission for others to do the same, which ultimately creates a trusting environment that will enhance creativity and productivity in your organizational culture. Understanding our own trauma gives us insight into our own behaviors and reactions so that we can heal and manage them appropriately. This involved seeking out our own resources to assist us in this practice such as personal therapy, spiritual practices, and books or courses that aid in self-exploration. Knowing how our life-experiences affect us also empowers us to create change in our own lives, which impacts the environment around us and how we see and respond to others.
Being trauma-informed as a leader gives us insight into our followers. Suddenly, low-motivation or engagement, chronic fatigue, and time-management issues indicate that a follower may be struggling with something deeper, which allows us as leaders to respond from this understanding. This information allows us to see with compassion, fuelling our curiosity to inquire and understand, moving us away from a more punitive perspective. When we foster this kind of environment of authenticity and genuine concern, we invite our followers into a holistically healthy space and give them permission to be human. Do we have to be responsible to heal them? Absolutely not. We don’t need to have all the answers, but we can begin to ask the questions to help motivate them into a healthier place, which in turn will create a healthier team environment. This is a courageous leadership response. Being a brave leader also means stepping into the painful places with gentleness, “The brave leader says, “I see you. I hear you. I don’t have all the answers, but I’m going to keep listening and asking questions” (Brown, 2018). Once we have noticed these struggles in our followers, our next task is to empower and collaborate with them in their own healing journey.
Seek to Empower
It is important to educate ourselves on the significant signs of trauma and burnout symptoms. There are many signs and symptoms, however the most noticeable in a professional setting would be a struggle to focus or concentrate, forgetfulness, chronic fatigue, withdrawal, lack of enjoyment, irritability, emotional dysregulation, intense need to control, hypervigilance, panic attacks, perfectionism, inability to relax, over-working, poor time management, frequent sick days, and behavioral extremes (Kolk, 2014). The more we understand the motivations behind these behaviors, the more empowered we are as leaders to care for the individual follower, as well as our team culture. For example, managing the extreme changes in our lives forced on us by the COVID-19 pandemic has been extremely stressful and traumatic time collectively. The constant need to adapt, collective grief, anxiety, isolation, and not being able to solidify any plans beyond the next health update has left many people in a state of burnout. As leaders, we can help alleviate some of the stress for our followers, as well as encourage a sense of connection by being vigilant with communication and regular check-ins to offer encouragement and support.
Incorporating trauma-informed practice into a transformational leadership approach is focused on empathy and empowerment for our followers. It is about supporting them in taking responsibility for their own well-being. Our responsibility as leaders is not to take responsibility for our followers, but to encourage them in doing so. This includes knowing the signs of trauma and burn out, having open communication with your team, having strong boundaries, showing genuine care, and providing resources wherever possible. For example, provide times for mental health check-ins for your employees, do what you can to provide a benefits plan that covers counseling and other wellness practitioners, paid time off for mental health days, have someone organize short walks or time for fresh air during lunch, and arrange for workshops on self-care or preventing and recovering from burn out. These are some ways that a leader can incorporate a trauma-informed practice into their workplace environment. But above all, be clear with your followers that you are genuinely invested in their well-being and create an environment where it is ok to be human and acknowledge the struggle.
We Are In This Together
The intention of becoming a trauma-informed leader is summed up in gaining greater self-awareness through your own healing journey, familiarizing yourself with the signs of trauma and burn out, and creating an empathic environment that supports the holistic well-being of your followers. Being a trauma-informed leader is essential in our current climate. We have so many types of traumas that we encounter daily, and it is to our benefit to know how to respond well as leaders. Baldwin (2018) took a trauma-informed stance when discussing how religious leaders can respond to trauma in the context of a theological approach, and he concluded that if we want to engage in the collective healing of our communities, being trauma-informed can help us as leaders facilitate resiliency and become resources for relational restoration. This is in the very fabric of trauma-informed transformational leadership. Leaders and followers are bound together in this transformational process where we influence change in each other, “Although the transformation leader plays a pivotal role in precipitating change, followers and leaders are inextricably bound together in the transformational process”, (Northouse, 2019, p. 164). If we are so intertwined with each other, then we as leaders need to be acutely aware of the struggles that impact us and our followers in order to initiate change. Let us become leaders who truly practice empathic individualized consideration through an educated and compassionate response to ourselves and our followers by giving space to be human…even in the workplace.
Anderson, T. (2016). What Trauma-Informed Leadership Looks Like. Education Week, 36(15), 20-21.
Baldwin, J. (2018). Trauma-Sensitive Theology: Thinking Theologically in the Era of Trauma. Cascade Books.
Brown, B. (2018). Dare to Lead. New York, NY, USA: Random House.
George, B. (2015). True North: Discover your authentic leadership. Hoboken, NJ, USA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Kolk, B. V. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score: brain mind and body in the healing of trauma. New York, NY: Viking.
Nealy-Oparah, S. S.-H. (2018). Trauma-informed leadership in schools: From the inside-out: The foundation of being a trauma-informed leader is transformational “inside-out” work that heals adult trauma and develops social-emotional intelligence. How can we teach what we do not embody? Leadership, 37(3), 12-16.
Northouse, P. (2019). Leadership: Theory and Practice (8th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA, USA: Sage Publishing.
Riggio, R. (2013). Transformational Leadership. Retrieved December 12, 2020, from https://youtu.be/ZvezV2Zhihg
Sinek, S. (2018). How to Get People to Follow You. Retrieved December 12, 2020, from https://youtu.be/QKG4v0oKXR