How Agency Leaders Can Become More Effective with Trauma-Informed Leadership Coaching

Feb 21, 2022 | 0 comments

trauma-informed leadership coaching

Great agency leaders inspire others to become leaders—especially because they can admit that they don’t have all the answers and can ask for support. But, when leaders experience anxiety and self-doubt, the practice of leading becomes difficult.

Those in creative, media and tech fields are required to thrive in competitive situations, but these scenarios can sometimes heighten already insecurities and fears that have existed for decades. Trauma-informed leadership coaching guides leaders through anxiety, stress and fear by reframing false (self-critical) narratives.

Childhood Trauma Impacts Our Lives

When you think of the word trauma—meaning “wound” in Greek—or the phrase trauma-informed, you might think of therapy sessions with a counselor. You might think of the horrific events that people have experienced or even dysfunctional family dynamics from your own past. When most of us think of our past traumas, we understand that, if left unresolved, they can negatively impact our personal relationships. We might not always think of how our past can influence our corporate decision-making or hinder the growth of our agency.

Trauma-Informed Coaching Dives Deep for Long-Term Growth

A trauma-informed leadership coach takes a holistic approach to leadership development, helping individuals identify the correlation between traumatic experiences and how they show up in a leadership context. Certified trauma-informed leadership coaches are skilled in deep listening and compassionate inquiry. They know when to ask the most insightful questions and when to step back and let their clients process and do the work within the coaching container.

Executive leadership coaches generally ask questions to better understand their clients’ needs and strengths; Trauma-informed leadership coaches conduct a deeper dive into client mindsets and behaviors. They work to understand the individual’s priorities, beliefs, values and desired areas of change (goals). This level of coaching digs into the underlying mind-body connection that impact decision-makers while under stress. They assist clients in identifying their reactions to stress, and then coach them on strategies that regulate emotional responses. These skills build long-term resiliency in the leader, which leads to a healthier company culture and more sustainable business.

Leadership Challenges Our Emotional and Intellectual Tools

Decision-making involves the assessment of quantitative metrics, and also requires the consideration of qualitative values. The term emotional intelligence has been used frequently over the past decade as a way to categorize the kind of intelligence necessary to collaborate with others and build trust. There are many training programs that promise to build and develop this muscle. Maybe you’ve even taken a few courses. Most likely, the courses were helpful, however, your own unresolved trauma may have led you to hit a plateau. Once there, you may even have begun to doubt your leadership abilities or acted in ways that confused you, perhaps even that you later regretted.

This happens because no two people are alike; We each process trauma in different ways. Our coping mechanisms might range from paralyzing self-doubt to being hyper-reactive to intense perfectionism and beyond. When the stress of leadership and the need to make many decisions multiple times a day takes its toll, leaders begin to revert to instinctive survival strategies, even if they no longer serve them well. In the heat of the moment, there is no training that is a match for lifelong survival instincts—if we haven’t done the healing work that’s required.

This phenomenon was written about in the Harvard Business Review‘s 2020 series on managing during times of crisis. Sometimes, small amounts of anxiety serves us, but too much anxiety can start to diminish returns.

Identifying Coping Mechanisms and Modifying Behavior Improves Outcomes

Imposter syndrome is another example of survival instincts taken to the extreme. Everyone wants to feel secure in their respective roles. Yet, during times of insecurity, whether taking the responsibility for a new ad campaign or the beta version of a new database, stress and anxiety stokes feelings of self-doubt and insecurity. Self-doubt is often a symptom of unresolved trauma. Individuals who are otherwise confident and competent might find themselves in a downward spiral when everything is on the line, feeling that they may be ‘found out’ or not inherently good enough.

Trauma survivors might doubt themselves when no one else does—and all of us are survivors of some form of trauma from our formative years (whether Big ‘T’ or Small ‘t’ trauma, or both). We can effectively become our own worst enemy. So, how can these behaviors be modified?

Trauma-informed coaching helps individuals to recognize the causes of their anxiety from a position of curiosity. Together, coach and client aim to figure out why and how the client responds in a certain way to external stressors. The relationship between coach and client is one of professional trust and openness without shame or judgment. Together, the two work together to reframe the critical voice within, celebrate small wins and grow leadership resilience and efficacy.

The National Institutes of Health shared a paper in which leaders were defined not simply as ‘managers of chaos’ or ‘assigners of tasks’ but as individuals with “a vision, a passion for the cause they are espousing, confidence (peppered with humility), curiosity, creativity, a sense of purpose, determination and courage.” In other words, leaders define success through core values and priorities, not by metrics or popularity. Healing leaders have a healthy ego and see themselves as part of a solution, not as the solution.

My philosophy of leadership takes a similar tone. My intention is to help leaders reflect upon their own experiences, develop self-awareness, get vulnerable, and ultimately lead more sustainable businesses by adopting a clear understanding of themselves and the benefits of focusing on the triple bottom line: people, planet and profit.

For more insights on trauma-informed coaching and how to increase your human and leadership efficacy, let’s talk.

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Kelly L. Campbell

Kelly (they/she) is a Trauma-Informed Conscious Leadership Coach to self-aware visionaries, a keynote speaker and a sponsored podcast host. They are the founder of Consciousness Leaders, the world’s most diverse speaker’s agency. Her debut book on trauma and leadership, entitled Heal to Lead, will be available Spring 2024 (Wiley). Sign up for pre-launch notifications here.


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