Leadership Trauma is Real — TTT4U

Lisa R. Parker

Leadership Trauma is Real

Recently, I listened to a podcast where the guests gave their perspectives about leading underresourced and Title 1 schools. Their conversation about the struggles brought back memories of my tenure as a principal in an urban Pre-K-8th grade school. I found myself shaking my head in agreement many times about their joys, successes, frustrations, and determination as school leaders. At the same time, I remembered the politics, stress, and the many times I had to go to war for my students. It was an epiphany moment, and I realized I had experienced leadership trauma. More importantly, leadership trauma is real!

Leadership trauma is not a part of many discussions. If you Google the term, most results are about trauma-informed leadership. Trauma is exposure to an incident or series of emotionally disturbing or life-threatening events with lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, and spiritual well-being.    (Source) The sources of trauma are usually based on past events, and there are three types of trauma. They are acute, chronic, and complex. The difference between leadership trauma is that its base is future events.  

Leadership Trauma is Relational

When I mentioned leadership trauma to some colleagues, they thought I had made up a term. While it’s not usually a discussion among educators, more research and resources about business CEOs and their experiences with leadership trauma are available. School leaders possess the same skills, knowledge, wisdom, struggles, and pressures as business leaders. So making comparisons is not too difficult.

Leadership trauma is relational and has an entirely different orientation of time than other traumas. Things that could happen in your future haunt you. So instead of flashbacks, you have flash-forwards of disaster, either explicitly in thoughts or implicitly, in your body as you fill with anxiety.    Leadership trauma is composed of the fear of failure, shame, and humiliation. Add self-blame to the mix and think of examples when you experienced one or more of these emotions.

A Principal’s Vulnerability

Being vulnerable is difficult, but I will share part of my professional story. Several examples come to mind when I reflect on my time as a principal. In my school district, the pressure to increase test scores was intense. To add to the intensity were the fear and threats of school closings. If the scores did not drastically improve, principals were browbeaten and told the district would reconstitute the school with new staff and administrators. 

 Once I worried so much about the test scores that I experienced hives and an anxiety attack. If the school closed, who could I blame other than me? To have a school fail during my watch would have been the ultimate shame during my career.    

Also, during my tenure, The mayor threatened to close 50 schools due to enrollment declines and other political reasons. My school was on the closing list, and my staff, parents, and community members had to fight to keep our school open. We won that fight, but it wasn’t an easy battle.

Fear, Shame, and Humiliation

I know the feeling of humiliation, too. The urban school district where I worked for 27 years is very political and has many pockets of toxicity. School leaders often feel not well respected or honored for the difficult job.    

During my last year of tenure, I was pushed out of school and lost my career. Not only was I blindsided by politics, but also humiliated professionally and personally. All of the hard work and dedication went in a matter of weeks. There was no easy way to explain or describe the traumatic event’s emotions, thoughts, anger, or sadness. Although I didn’t know it, leadership trauma is real. 

The responsibility of being the captain of the ship is heavy. A leader walks a tightrope every day. Have you any fear of failure, shame, humiliation, or self-blame? Do you lay awake many nights fearing the unknown or what will happen to your students, families, or staff members if you fail?    

School leaders walk a tightrope and have a range of emotions.

The Struggles are Real

Principals put out fires every day. You have to make on-the-spot decisions. Have you feared being shamed because of a difficult decision or reaction to a difficult situation? Do you worry that your morals and values will not pass the test of politics or directives? All of these questions are legitimate and can contribute to the causes of leadership trauma.

Your job will present an array of struggles. The pressures of the role are impossible to ignore. Here are a few examples of efforts that may cause your blood pressure, fears, and anxieties to rise. 

  • A struggle is when you ask yourself why you took the principalship in the first place.
  • A struggle is when the school budget drastically decreases; you have to lay off staff members and are still responsible for the exact expectations.
  • A struggle is when your staff does not buy into your vision and necessary improvements.
  • A struggle is when the district, state, or federal mandates do not represent your values or morals.
  • A struggle is when the parents and community members are not supportive of your decisions.
  • A struggle is when you read negative and divisive posts on social media about you or the school.
  • A struggle is when you wake up in the morning and have to talk yourself into going to work. 
  • A struggle is when you question your own decisions and morals.

Essential School Supplies!

It’s a Lonely Job

Being a leader can be a lonely and unhappy position. It comes in many forms and can touch lives even in the leadership role. When leaders discuss their negative experiences and emotions, people don’t want to believe them. Some can’t imagine that being the boss comes with fear, pain, and shame. How can you be traumatized if you’ve made it to the top? None of us are immune to trauma. 

It is essential to continue to have discussions about the trauma of leadership. Reflect on your fears and anxiety or the things that keep you up at night. If you feel you have leadership trauma, commit yourself to a coach or therapy.   

Continue the Dialogue

 Do not ignore your pain or suffering. A traumatized person should not try to handle it alone. It’s not good to continue to push yourself through adversities. Instead, find time to connect with colleagues, coaches, or mental health professionals. 

If you are traumatized, understand your reality and put your problem-solving skills to work. Prioritize what needs completion and in what order. Leadership trauma affects our effectiveness. If you are shamed and dehumanized, you cannot effectively do your job. Focus on your values and ethics to help bring more balance and healing. 

Let’s continue to keep the dialogue ongoing about the trauma of leadership. I wish that I had recognized the signs when in a leadership role. As a school principal, I did not know the trauma that was happening at the time. Many of you probably did not think of the possibility, but now we have more information. Awareness is the first step needed to tackle the problem.

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