Vulnerability in Leadership – Supporting a Trauma Informed System of Care

Posted by Sarah Bowman LMSW on 12:07 PM

A friend recently shared with me her experience of training staff at a behavioral health center in trauma-informed care. She asked for participants to share an example of when their work had triggered their own trauma response and her question was met with a gripping silence as a blanket of tension pressed heavily on the room. It was clear participants did not want to share or didn’t feel safe enough to share. Rather than simply moving on or providing a cookie cutter example, she took a risk. She chose to be vulnerable and share her experience of being triggered during a family session due to trauma she experienced in her marriage. Her intentional choice to be vulnerable and share something personal opened a doorway for others. The feeling in the room shifted and a participant was then able to share their own trauma response experience.

Another friend participated in a national behavioral health leadership program and returned from one of the conferences energized and passionate about the power of vulnerability in leadership. So, I did what any person like me would do when something piques my interest: I googled it. I spent a few hours reviewing articles on trauma-informed systems of care and the power of vulnerability. I also reflected upon my time working at two behavioral health organizations as staff learned to adopt a trauma-informed culture.

These two incidents occurring so closely together made me pause and consider how a leader’s level of vulnerability might be correlated with the degree to which that organization’s culture is trauma informed. The basic characteristics of a Trauma Informed System of Care (TISC) include safety, trustworthiness, choice, collaboration, and empowerment. To become a TISC, an organization must examine multiple aspects of the system, including the physical environment, clinical assessment, and interventions, staff relationships and morale, organizational communication, response to secondary trauma, etc. It is a culture, not a set of services or interventions. Leaders must learn to be vulnerable if there is any hope for their organizations to truly adopt this trauma-informed culture.  This culture must include everyone, from clerical staff to the cleaning crew, to clinicians and perhaps most importantly (and often overlooked), leadership.

Regardless of where your organization is on the journey to becoming a TISC, as a leader in your organization, challenge yourself to explore how vulnerable your team is willing to be, and your own reactions to vulnerability. Do you avoid it? Do you see vulnerability as a weakness? Do you become anxious or tense at the thought of sharing personal experiences with your co-workers? Do you feel your co-workers need to “suck it up” and not be so “needy”? Do you view co-workers as overly dramatic and attention seeking? Do you feel disconnected from others at your workplace? Do you rationalize your emotional distance by telling yourself that you shouldn’t have meaningful connections with others at work or that you need to maintain an image of strength? Do you find yourself fighting back when someone criticizes you or your decision?

Or, do you embrace your vulnerability? Brene Brown and Myric Polhemus both discuss the critical importance of connecting deeply with the people with whom you work. A leader must be vulnerable in order to truly connect with her staff. Are you self-aware? Do you reveal your thoughts and feelings to others, even when doing so makes you feel emotionally at risk? Are you open to considering you made a mistake? Do you admit it when you’re wrong? Do you approach your imperfections with humor and grace? Do you ask clarifying questions to better understand your co-workers, especially when you disagree with them? Do you truly listen to their perception of events and allow this to alter your perceptions?

By opening yourself up to be vulnerable, your employees will follow your example, and find motivation from a genuine interest to serve (relationship power), rather than feeling coerced (role power).  By fostering deep and meaningful connections with your staff, they will learn to feel safe, a fundamental requirement of a TISC. I have observed that when staff on my team felt secure (in their position, in the organization) they were more likely to provide needed feedback to the organization and to be more innovative. Leaders work tirelessly to ensure that those served by the organization feel safe, supported and that the systems of care do not re-traumatize them. As leaders, we should settle for no less for our staff.