I just finished watching, The Secret Language of Words, a film about surviving violence, finding love and the fine balance between healing wounds and living with the aftermath of trauma that can never be forgotten. It’s not much of a leap to one of the biggest challenges for leaders, rebuilding an organization after a traumatic merger, financial crisis, or loss. The key to moving on is the ability to hold a healing space, acknowledging that positive change is inevitable, but negative experiences cannot be forgotten.
Talk about leadership paradoxes. The only way out of grief and trauma is for people to support each others’ healing, each in the respectful, flexible roles they play in the relationships that fuel personal and organizational growth.
Sometimes, leaders have to learn to swim in the fear that surrounds them, without drowning in other people’s feelings, doubts and memories.
In the film, a nurse agrees to tend to an oil rig worker recovering from terrible burns. As he recovers, she does as well, learning to trust him, and ultimately telling him about her traumatic past in Bosnia. It’s a movie, so they also fall in love. They separate, but he finds her and asks her to marry him. She refuses, afraid that some day she might begin to mourn, and drown in a room full of tears. He says, “I’ll learn to swim.” (Telling the truth, freeing the energy in words, was the beginning of hope for each of them.)
It’s a powerful metaphor for love, and leadership as well. Probably one of the most difficult challenges of organizational life is learning to “swim” together. Traumatized organizations are webs of traumatized relationships. If an organization (not really a person, but very human in its dynamics) is to thrive, trauma must be resolved.
Leaders need to be committed to finding ways to support healing, open a space to tell the truth, and get the help they need to make a healthier organization. They need to get the help they need to swim until the floods recede.
If they don’t, the losses are absolute: bad blood between key players, high employee turnover, burnout, complaints from workers and clients, and multiple failures (small and large) that follow the stress fracture lines of broken trust.
I’ve worked in several organizations that, for a time, pretend past and present traumas don’t affect the relationships that make all the difference in the bottom line. Most of them were liveable, and changed when staff conflicts, resignations, and losses escalated. If an organization has many leaders and a space of possibility, then even the most overwhelmed leaders get help so they can be helpful, and loyal employees step up to make necessary changes.
The source of deep organizational trauma isn’t necessarily change itself or the challenge of inevitable dark times, it’s extended suffering and symptoms of trauma ignored at the cost of relationships. When leaders swim, fewer people sink. Leaders need to push beyond their own survival, creating opportunities for others to lead and heal. In this way, everyone in an organization is a potential leader when they step up to their roles in a new way.
Every career has “war stories,” and every organization goes through dark times. Hope comes from leadership with the strength to name what is broken, create a space for healing, so that people struggling reach out to each other and save themselves (and the organization) in the process.