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Adaptive leadership in the face of trauma.

This is the third in a series of articles revolving around the issues and topics that will be offered at the 13th Annual Leadership Summit, scheduled for August 25-27, 2005, in Cambridge, Mass. Designed as a leadership retreat, the summit provides personal leadership development that is focused on community perspectives.

Exercising leadership in our cities requires understanding the insidious impact of trauma, such as violence, crime, fire, theft, substance abuse, premature death, AIDS, chronic impoverishment and now fear of terrorism.

One example of an adaptive challenge facing public officials is dealing with the effects of trauma on their constituents. Trauma distorts how people view themselves and others; it warps their worldview in a way that magnifies their mistrust of anyone in authority.

We human beings like to make meaning out of everything that happens by weaving stories. These stories or the narratives we tell ourselves reflect our explanations for why things have happened to us, the lessons we have drawn about ourselves, others, and about the world we live in.

There are identifiable patterns in the kinds of narratives that emerge out of trauma. Trauma tends to throw individuals into a state of existential crisis: How could this have happened to me? Why couldn't I have stopped it? Where were my protectors--public officials, parents, police, God--when I needed them?

Traumatized people typically lose trust in themselves and in other people, especially those in authority. People who have been traumatized can easily become cynical, disillusioned and hopeless about change. The world is seen as hostile, immoral and unpredictable; "other" people as debauched, unreliable, dangerous and not to be trusted. Even more insidious, traumatized individuals often see themselves as being undeserving and not worth helping.

Usually, people aren't even aware of the narratives going on in their heads or aware of the decisions they have made about themselves and the world.

Narratives are often taken for granted as truths, are habitual and automatic, shaping how people feel and how they then behave towards themselves and others.

These trauma-based narratives are not totally false--the world can be dangerous, people can be deceitful, life can hurt, and parts of us can be broken--but they are only part of the story, only part of the time, and look backward not ahead.

In this way, traumatized people can easily be frozen in the past and not present to this moment's reality, reactive to past ghosts and unresponsive to present opportunities. Learning and creative problem solving are impaired.

Worse, trauma-based narratives are self-reinforcing and self-fulfilling prophecy: Mistrust and treating others with suspicion leads to more mistrust; passivity and giving up leads to unchanged circumstances and further hopelessness.

Under these circumstances, the adaptive challenge in dealing with traumatized constituents requires "getting on the balcony" to identify and observe these insidious self-limiting narratives, and then helping people confront those stories head-on, and begin to let go of them. Modeling new possibilities and bringing traumatized people face-to-face with alternative realities requires time, patience, and commitment from public officials.

It may not pay off at election time or in short term cost savings but, gradually, more integrative narratives will evolve--that life can also be good and hopeful, that people in authority can also be trusted to care, and that they themselves have what it takes to exercise leadership to better themselves and their families.

Lost lives will be saved not only giving new meaning and purpose to those previously without hope, but also to the public officials who have helped them begin their new journeys.

Sousan Abadian, Ph.D., a research fellow at the Center for Public Leadership, Harvard University, works with Cambridge Leadership Associates, and is completing a book on how collective traumas can hinder the economic social and political development of communities.

The annual Leadership Summit is NLC's premiere leadership development program for local officials. The advance registration deadline is July 1st. For more information, contact the Leadership Training Institute at 202-626-3127 or visit the NLC website at
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Author:Abadian, Sousan
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 13, 2005
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