Trauma Informed Leadership: inverting the structure chart!

When we think about trauma informed practice, so often the focus of our attention is on developing the skills of the practitioners who are directly supporting vulnerable adults and children. This certainly has value, however it’s unlikely that this alone is sufficient if you are seeking to create a truly trauma informed organisation. Taking that next step requires deeper strategic thinking about the working environment, your organisational culture, the policies and procedures you adopt and of course at the heart of it all… how you approach leadership.

Some time ago, a friend of mine said ‘its difficult to give to others, that you are not getting for yourself’. In essence, we can’t expect our colleagues and teams to be trauma informed, unless our leaders are modelling those same values of understanding and compassion throughout the organisation. In fact, its likely that if frontline workers keep giving to others without that care and support, they eventually find themselves burning out.

This issue was discussed in a recent podcast by the American Hospital Association, who explored the challenges of leading care teams through the Covid 19 pandemic. During this period, leaders were struggling to retain and support an exhausted workforce. To move forward, they found that they needed to acknowledge the impact trauma had had on both individuals and the workplace as a whole, recognising that the pandemic had disrupted their ability to do their regular (pre pandemic) work; it had disrupted the stability of days, disrupted communication patterns and their ability to do long range and strategic thinking. This disruption was adding up to frustrated and aggravated communications and fractured trust between people. Not surprisingly this in turn impacted on productivity and staff turnover, which led to even more instability!

Does this story sound familiar? Even though we are through the other side of the pandemic, many of us are still living in the headspace that Covid19 created. Many of us and our organisations are stuck, frozen in a moment in time!

In order to get unstuck, leaders need to get into a headspace of leading from a trauma informed perspective. This means keeping a compassionate view of what the organisation has gone through. As Dr Bruce Perry would describe it, this involves changing the conversation from ‘what’s wrong with you?’ to ‘what happened to you?’ Through acknowledging the collective trauma of the organisation, leaders can bring back stability and help to pull the organisation from that ‘stuck’ place, by reconnecting people to each other and reconnecting teams to their purpose and values.

It's not rocket science (although arguably it is neuroscience!), but so often this approach is overlooked in favour of forging ahead with targets or worse still, simultaneously trying to catch up with the lost capacity generated by the pandemic, whilst also setting even more ambitious new targets! It simply won’t work and is likely to damage people.

Leading from a compassionate perspective, requires many of us to rethink how we see our role as leaders. Perhaps as trauma informed leaders, we need to consider ourselves as being ‘in service’ to the workforce, providing the support and compassion to others, so they can fulfil their roles effectively and ultimately thrive, through making life better for others. This might mean that rather than being at the top of the structure chart, putting downward pressure and demands on people, the trauma informed leader is at the bottom of the structure chart, using their strength to support and elevate their team. Maybe, we have been drawing that classic structure chart the wrong way round!

If you are interested in exploring the potential of trauma informed leadership, then you might want to join us on our ‘Leadership revolution’, a learning journey for leaders who want to develop their compassion and resilience in uncertain times. Find out more at

If you want to listen to the podcast from the American Hospital Association, you can find it here: