Redefining trauma: Embracing nuances and fostering resilience in leadership

17 Jan . 2024 By Diana Nasr
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Trauma is an inherent part of the human experience. To harness the power of trauma and its impact on leadership, organisations should adopt a trauma-informed approach.

Trauma-informed leaders prioritise open communication, psychological safety and empathy, allowing team members to flourish and contribute effectively.

By reframing our understanding of trauma, we can liberate ourselves from the weight of its connotation and harness its potential for growth.

For me personally, over the past four or five years, I have really grappled with this term, yet understanding it more deeply has led to my ultimate acceptance of the fact I have experienced trauma in my life.

Understanding trauma

Traditionally, traumatic experiences have been categorised into ‘big T’ traumas – the life-altering events like accidents, illness, violence, or natural disasters. But in reality, trauma exists on a spectrum.

There are also ‘t’ traumas – the everyday adversities, microaggressions or chronic stressors that might not be as dramatic but still impact an individual’s emotional wellbeing. These cumulative experiences can lead to what is known as complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition that arises from prolonged exposure to multiple traumatic events.

Destigmatising trauma

Normalising the term trauma doesn’t diminish the significance of experiences but rather acknowledges the broad range of challenges people face. By recognising trauma is not solely confined to dramatic events, we can create an environment where individuals feel validated and empowered to seek support.

This shift allows us to foster a culture of openness and empathy, erasing the stigma that often surrounds discussions about mental health.

The trauma-resilience connection

Not everyone who undergoes a traumatic experience will develop PTSD. Our response to trauma is influenced by numerous factors including genetics, upbringing, personality and coping mechanisms.

While some individuals might experience distressing symptoms, others demonstrate remarkable resilience, using adversity as a catalyst for personal growth.

Leadership often mirrors this duality. Those who have navigated through trauma may develop a unique set of leadership skills that include empathy, adaptability and an unwavering commitment to resilience. On the other hand, traumatic experiences can also manifest in behaviours that hinder effective leadership – from avoidance tactics to difficulty managing stress. Understanding this interplay is crucial for leaders at all levels.

Impact on leadership

Recognising the connection between traumatic experiences and leadership behaviour is pivotal for creating inclusive and supportive work environments. Senior leaders often find themselves balancing their own experiences of trauma with the demands of their roles.

The intersection of personal adversity and leadership dynamics can profoundly influence decision-making, communication, and team dynamics. Some may lead with heightened sensitivity and an acute awareness of their team members’ well-being, while others might struggle to manage their emotions, potentially leading to volatile leadership styles.

Moving forward

Trauma is a universal human experience that shapes our lives in various ways. By broadening our understanding of trauma, acknowledging its different forms, and normalising the term, we can unlock its potential for personal growth and leadership development. It is in this space leaders can emerge not only as capable managers but as inspiring agents of positive change in a world where trauma and triumph coexist.


Deanna Keating

Senior Partner

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