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Brokenness and Leadership

Jenifer Wolf-Williams, Ed.D., LPC-S

Posttrauma Leadership - Why We Need Survivor-Leaders

Eric shook himself, once again, from the terror of sleep, the smells of blood and cypress.  He opened his eyes and looked toward morning.  He was a leader now, a changer of lives.  A leader set in motion by grief—and by purpose.   

Eric was only sixteen the day the mobs came, but his grandfather had prepared him.  They rushed together toward the forest, as did Eric’s grandmother, widowed mother, siblings, and cousins.  As they ran, the shouts grew closer.  “Don’t let anyone escape! Capture all the cockroaches!” 

In the cover of branches, Eric clutched familiar hands, silent, vigilant, until the cruel time came to part for separate cover. Then alone on his perch, he trembled at the sounds of his heartbeat, while his soul screamed silently at other sounds he heard.  He survived the multi-day massacre, but most of his family did not. 

Eric’s journey from those branches was the start of a grueling walk toward prosocial leadership.  Like recent school violence survivors or threatened immigrants, Eric did not want his wounds to become his identity.  But also like them, his history was too large to hide.  He would forever be a survivor, yet he ached to be more.  And what he craved most was for his pain to matter—for it to heal the rest of us.

Almost two decades later, I discovered Eric’s story in a long, gray survival of my own.  No, I do not know how genocide feels, or mass violence, but parenting through medical trauma drew me towards connection.   

ICU was cold in the Minnesota winter, and our eighth-floor room was as stark as the sky in the small corner window.  I watched the Mayo Clinic copters rise into blinding snow for another rescue mission, and I waited, powerless, for the next sign of change. 

Behind me, my daughter slept lightly while her monitors beeped and flashed under the watch of her nurse.  This was not the senior year I had envisioned for my middle child, perfectly healthy until a few weeks ago.  Nor had I imagined our new best friends, next door in the Ronald McDonald House, battling cancer or waiting for transplants, when they should have been focused on homework and sports. 

This was where I started.  This crazy unreality of broken plans and sharp edges.  And afterward, the cold gray slog of reconstructing life while my daughter recovered -- and her new best friend did not. The crush pushed me down, but I was startled to find it also pushed me forward.

I’m a trauma therapist, so my distress was no surprise.  Isolation, depression, anger, insomnia.  Yet with them—as for Eric—an overwhelming urge to make it matter. 

I began to hear us everywhere: a teen cancer patient who wanted to help the homeless, a bereaved mother who longed to prevent other suicides.  Sometimes the goals matched the trauma, sometimes not.  Either way, our wounds fueled our desires. Our helplessness fueled our need to help. 

We knew the script: We were supposed to be the downtrodden, the “victims” of disease or of injustice.  Our role was to receive, but the role did not suit us. That brand of survivorship eroded our dignity. 

Theresa M. McGovern saw this plight for what it is – a human rights issue.  When she lost her mother in 911, she felt the injustice of cameras that focused on her tears but ignored her substantive responses.  She heard it in the treatment of the female HIV patients she defended in court.  And she found it across the globe when those most affected by atrocity became the strongest voices for change—but were relegated to grief soundbites. 

The path to leadership—to meaning and purpose—isn’t always clear.  Yes, news accounts and documentaries abound with protagonists who rise from dark times to become change agents.  But in my gray period, it seemed to me those stories were newsworthy for their uniqueness.  Those survivors were “heroes,” and those heroes were not us.  Most of us had no clue how to change the world.  Most of us felt stuck. 

I was stuck -- definitely.  I was too shy, too small town, too unconnected.  Too inadequate. For solace, I retreated to the quiet comfort of research journals.  

Studies on PTSD were everywhere, and posttraumatic growth was nothing new.  But I found nothing to explain survivor-leadership.  Nothing told me how to coax it into existence – for myself or anyone else.  I would have to untangle this the hard way. 

Over the next few years, I completed a doctorate in leadership and wrote a dissertation from my heart. To decipher what works, I analyzed the journeys of eight trauma survivors who led effective social change.  Eric was one of them. 

For a long time, Eric felt stuck too.  He carried nightmares and grief, anger and fear.  But he also carried hope—secretly at first—that he would matter. He was alone, homeless, uneducated, traumatized.  Yet his quest for purpose was as primal as his quest for life had been.

And across a long journey, Eric met his challenge—first with a simple support group for nearby genocide orphans and eventually a national youth organization and international peace education program.  Ultimately, Eric hopes the healing of young Rwandans will inspire hope and purpose across the globe.

Eric’s story is not a simple one.  Even in his leadership, the night terrors stayed.  The anger persisted.  The tears continued.  But somehow—inside the brokenness—he found purpose. 

I’ve seen such purpose intimately as a trauma therapist for other Rwandan genocide survivors.  It shocked me to discover that the trickle of our refugee system means some are still just arriving from the 1992 massacres.  It did not shock me to hear their longings to contribute.

They are not alone.  Trauma-inspired leadership develops across cultures, across trauma types, and across areas of leadership.  The leaders whose journeys I studied were survivors of genocide, trafficking, medical trauma, gang violence, and child slavery. They were men and women from five continents.  And their gifts to the world include child-slavery abolition, ethnic reconciliation, gang violence prevention, and medical research funding, to name a few.  Posttraumatic leadership is real.  

Today, my middle daughter is a thriving, internationally based professor, and the medical trauma she endured at seventeen feels increasingly remote.  It does not define her.  But I hope she will forgive me if I say that, in some ways, those experiences still define me.  Because in the excruciating days of “after,” I began to craft a new path for myself.  My work addresses a different set of traumas—migration—but grows from what I learned about the passion and wisdom inspired by pain. 

The leadership lens I encountered shifted my view of the oppressed.  Yes, survivors need us to open doors and build bridges.  But mostly, we need them.  We need their undying purpose, their unique understanding, their expansive love.  Whatever they have weathered—war, violence, displacement, disease--we need them.  The hope of the hurting holds power.



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