Pioneering Leadership: The New Frontier for Leaders
There is a lot being asked of Leaders, especially at this time of human evolution. There is so much uncertainty where old paradigms are just not enough for the changing times. It’s an exciting time to explore what is needed for our future and what legacy we will leave in the following generations.
Linda Conyard is Australia’s leading pioneer advocating for socio-political trauma-sensitive change and informed responsiveness to UNnecessary trauma in the Health, Education, Justice, Government, and Private sectors. She recognizes the transgenerational effect collective trauma has on our current society and is at the leading edge of healing and transformation in this field.
Linda’s daughter’s trauma at the very young age of 6 months was from a diagnosis of rare childhood cancer that affects the retina in the eye (she survived and was left totally blind by the age of 3) and the unfolding recognition of her own significant and long term childhood trauma from living in hidden domestic violence led her to her studies and subsequently her own trauma recovery. She became the therapist she wished she could have found. She is determined to change the trajectory of trauma on a collective, cultural, community, family, and individual level and eliminate all UNnecessary trauma through education and training in trauma sensitivity.
For more information about Linda go to https://www.lindaconyard.com
Read the Interview Transcript
Russell Dennis: I am Russell Dennis, and I have with me Linda Conyard from down under, who is up in the middle of the night to be with us here today. Welcome, Linda. Glad that you’re here.
Linda Conyard: Thank you. Pleasure.
Russell: Welcome to The Nonprofit Exchange. We typically don’t read bios because those aren’t quite as exciting, so tell us a little bit about what you do and why you do it.
Linda: Thank you. Having lived a life of hidden domestic violence as a child, grown up in that, not realizing it, I made it my norm. I knew it wasn’t okay, but that’s what it was, so I accepted it as my normal. When my second daughter was diagnosed with cancer when she was six months old, I was prepared to operate in trauma. Not that I did it very well. My adjusted self, however, I made that work so I could survive my childhood and this experience.
I was in my late 40s/early 50s, and I studied for my Masters in Gestalt psychotherapy. That’s where I read a quote in a book Peter Levine wrote, Waking the Tiger. It said, “Trauma is a fact of life. However, it doesn’t have to be a life sentence.” Something clicked in me. Trauma. I started going, “Oh, my life as a child was trauma.” I knew my daughter’s situation was traumatic. My daughter survived by the way. It led me down the path.
A lot of the experiences I had in the medical model and the educational model with my daughter, who became blind at three, so she then had a disability. It started me really understanding how much unnecessary trauma there was. It’s not acknowledged or recognized. It just became my mission to eliminate all unnecessary trauma I could through education and training and becoming trauma-sensitive.
Russell: The whole notion of trauma- You said a lot of people don’t notice that. What was it that had you recognize that you were trauma? Did it occur to you that I’m really in deep, and I don’t know what to call it?
Linda: There is a lot of things like the way that I manage stress. I used alcohol as a tool to blank out. I’d sit and watch silly TV when I got home. I started to observe and become aware how these things that were my normal way of managing things, I knew they weren’t helpful, but it was all that I had. I started to understand much more about the symptoms of trauma. It can be things like addictions. People who are workaholics. You are just distracting yourself all the time. You’re not present to your environment or yourself.
It started to unravel in different ways. How you keep yourself out of your life through anxiety, panic attacks, depression, all the things you would probably go to your doctor for. There is usually a way of medicating that rather than going, “Ah, this may be a symptom of trauma.” The medical model isn’t taught this either. We aren’t talking about trauma. We think it’s this big, massive thing that might occur that is horrific.
There is a YouTube clip called “Still Face Experiment” done around the ‘60s. They’re exploring what life was like with a mother and an infant, who was about 18 months old. The mother was there engaging with the child. The child is squealing, pointing, all that engagement you get when you are really present to something. She turned her head away, and she turned it back. When she turned it back, she had zero expression on her face. The child was still doing the same stuff, and there was no reaction. It didn’t take very long before the child started to get distressed and was crying. Then the mother started to engage again, and the child was fine.
What you could take away from that was we are going to experience traumas. We are going to experience things that are not pleasant for us in any way. It’s how we come back together, how we are able to reconnect that is the important thing. That builds resilience. Not the trauma and how we creatively adapt to the trauma because it doesn’t go away, but how do we reunite? How do we resolve that whatever it might be? It could be trauma.
Trauma is when something is so overwhelming for us, we can’t process it in that moment. Trauma in and of itself is not a problem. It is when we can’t repair. The repair is so important.
Russell: It sounds like trauma is something that can originate at home, but you bring it into a workplace. You have the head of a family, or you have the leader of an organization. How do you recognize it? What are some things a leader can do about that?
Linda: Whatever your role is in the world, it doesn’t matter because we are all human beings, and it all starts with us. Often, we will look outwards when there is a problem. We don’t often look at ourselves. That was my biggest learning. It has to start with me. If I have a reaction of some kind, then I need to look at myself.
This is a pretty big generalization, so people can disagree with me if they like. I think about people who start nonprofits. They are usually driven by something that has occurred to them. They want to make this change because they don’t like what has occurred, so they take this step to create a nonprofit to support people, social change, etc. That’s how I view nonprofits. When I think about that, there is already hurt people there, and it’s going to attract heart-centered people who want to make that change as well. That usually comes from some kind of hurt within themselves. You might find friction. You might find you have a high turnover of volunteers, which is often a big part of nonprofit organizations.
There are signs you can see as a leader. Always check how you are in the situation first. I see there is three major disconnects. We have a disconnect between ourselves, one between others, and one between our environment. If we were really connected to ourselves properly, deeply, then we wouldn’t do to others what we do, and we also wouldn’t do to the environment what we do to it. The key point is to do that inner work ourselves.
Then we have this collective. If we look at it from a systemic point of view, a transgenerational point of view, the way I see our societal issues are a direct result of unresolved, impeding trauma that comes down through generations. We see it here in Australia with the white people and our Indigenous people. You would see it in America between people of color and white people. There is history that is not resolved. We haven’t looked back to see what needs to occur backwards.
My research project last year was looking at how to have unity between Australians and aboriginal people. it was directly looking at what we need to do in our lineage to resolve that. You know those icebreaker ships where it cuts really cleanly at this front, and there is this mess of ice on the sides and the back? We are going to live ourselves out of extinction if we keep powering forward. If we take our stock, it’s often because we can’t be with sensations or with what is in us that prevents us from having a look back. We just have to steamroll forward.
That was a very long answer to your question. Basically, we have to look at ourselves first, I believe.
Russell: There are so many things taking place. You probably heard all the way down there about these incidents in California and New York. There are so many things going on. What do you think can support leaders in the face of all of these crazy things that we see taking place? What sort of tools are out there? What things are available out there to a leader?
When you look at the nonprofit space, we’re already dealing in situations where people have some unmet needs. There are things that the government is not built to do, business is not built to do. These are deep needs in society for people who may have some situations that are not the greatest. What sort of tools can support people working in that space?
Linda: I have a program called Compassionate Empowered Workplaces. Part of that is looking at trauma sensitivity. As leaders, what can we do? Where do we take it? I’m noticing more and more, which is fantastic, that there is more of these psychological safety- People can recognize there is a need for leaders to be different. Strategically, leaders are fine. They have that intellect. In my program, I look at how we blend the intellect they already have and the emotional quotient and the systemic transgenerational quotient that is often missed. People don’t often look for a systemic cause, not our systems in government, but that transgenerational stuff that comes through with every human being on the planet.
I know for myself, I always have a mentor or coach. I always have someone else to talk things through. Leaders can often be isolated. It’s hard sometimes to talk to a downline staff member when there Is a position they do hold. To have that vulnerability, they need that space to be able to explore that.
One thing would be to find a good professional who can support you in the testing out of things, where it’s a safe place. If you get something wrong in the langauge, it’s okay. That kind of space where you really can challenge yourself even in how you usually do things. People usually do things because they are used to it. There is a physiological thing in the brain where they are used to operating a certain way regardless of whether it’s functional or dysfunctional. It’s like that familiarity. To move out of it, it’s a process. You have to lay down a whole new neural pathway. That takes time and repetition.
The first thing is to challenge the status quo of how you think. This will help us as human beings. If we start to challenge what we have always done, then we have an opportunity. Even sitting in the not knowing is a really fertile place. If you are sitting in that not knowing and have support, and you don’t feel pulled to fix or change, and you can open yourself up to possibilities, then it’s a different way of operating. We are very structured usually. We do these tasks. We do this strategic stuff.
Part of trauma is where we disconnect from the body, which is the heart and soul of the being, and we operate from the mind. Trauma is trapped in the body. Even if leaders don’t know what to do with what’s going on, even recognizing what they can do with what’s in front of them, if people are causing some issues in an organization, usually that person and the behavior are linked together. What we want to do is separate out that behavior. If something has happened to that person, and this is the reaction that’s coming from them, if it’s anger or some of those not welcome expressions that people have, if that’s not welcome, the person is angry. The whole thing is linked to that person. We need to separate that and realize, “That’s the reaction that person is having. What can I do about it? What might they need?”
Leadership is very different to how we have done it in the past. You can’t just be there and be directive. People need connection. If you are going to have people engaged and buying into your organization, then they need to feel connection. We all seek that. It’s part of our survival mechanism to be connected in a group and not to be out on our own.
Russell: As you were thinking about all of these unconscious things that we build in, such as defense mechanisms, as a result, we end up with all of these blind spots. If we are going to be effective, we have to give people permission to tell us about it.
That brings me to the subject of blind spots. I am a religious science practitioner and have been. With our nonprofit leaders, people come to us, and we position ourselves in a place where we are here solving community problems. People are relying on me to help navigate some conditions. There is this notion of I have to have all my stuff in one sock all the time. What kind of blind spots can that create for a leader?
Linda: What you’re saying is what I was mentioning before. Having a place for leaders to be vulnerable, like a safe place for them, where they don’t know what their blind spots are. This is another bold statement, but I believe that we can’t resolve our trauma by ourselves. There is always someone or something that opens up this blind spot. We are so hardwired in our brain with how we have adjusted ourselves. We get through our childhood, and we creatively adjust to solve that. We continue to operate like that. Most of our adult life is trying to unwind and refind ourselves.
For me, it’s about having that place where you can be and really have that vulnerability as a leader. I think it’s so important. No one knows everything. No one can see their blind spots. This is one key. If you start to see patterns, and you start to find yourself in the same movie, and you’re always the lead actor in this movie- It’s different actors, but it’s always the same story. That’s a clue.
For me, my underlying theme is I am not seen and not heard. I create all these scenarios subconsciously that prove to me that I couldn’t be seen or heard. Whatever the underlying pattern is that runs through your life, if you can find that, a lot of your blind spots will be tied up in that.
Russell: It is amazing. If a person can bring themselves to do this, everything is an inside job. Then you have all these constituents. People in the organization who are with you. We are all human beings. We are spirits having a human experience. How does that leader in turn help other people in the organization so that they can be more effective and efficient in helping others who, by nature of their missions, a lot of times have trauma when they walk through the front door?
Linda: That’s right. The more the leader has resourced themselves, the more capacity they have to be able to recognize it in others, to be able to take the steps of- It’s about recognizing it first and making sure that you’re calm. What happens is when someone is triggered into their trauma, and you might not even realize you said something harmful, but it’s a trigger for someone else. The charge in their body starts to go up. If you have a reaction, then you are going up with them. The only way is up.
But if you’re steady in yourself, if you have addressed a lot of things in yourself so you are less reactionary yourself, then people can do their trigger, but they have somewhere to reground to. There is somewhere for them to recalibrate to. If the leader has done that work themselves, and their team has done that work, that will create much more capacity to support those who come with a good intention and are often attracted to their underlying theme like all of us. There is more capacity in that organization to hold those kinds of reactions and deal with them in not a harmful way. We don’t play into repeating patterns in ourselves or others. Does that make sense?
Russell: What are the benefits not just to the people in the organization, but to the people they serve when they have managed to create a culture and environment where trauma is recognized for what it is and dealt with in a very supportive way?
Linda: You would know yourself that when you have that environment, people sense it even if they are not aware they sense it. We are sensory because we have to for our survival to have this instinct of, “Am I okay here?” That does get warped when someone has a trauma response because they are actually safe, but they are feeling like they are not. When you have that environment people sense it.
I was a volunteer for a home-based palliative care service for many years. The environment there, it could attract- When you’re more solid, and you have done more work, not saying I have done all of it. I feel like I will be a practitioner until I take my last breath, but that’s okay. But I have done a lot of work. I noticed over the time I was volunteering there how I was present to people who were dying with their families, that really taught me to have presence. In that situation, there is nothing to do, except to be. If we could have more of that being in ourselves, then there is a whole different energy that comes out that people can bathe in even.
If you are working with people who are marginalized, who have a lot of trauma and circumstances that have put them in situations that have been how it’s happened, you need that capacity to be able not to burn out yourself and to make your nonprofit organization really stable. If you look at the bigger picture of myself, if I’m stable, the only way people with trauma can go is down. If you have a bigger capacity of the culture of your organization, that is a community that can resonate down to a more stable environment. That is the collective. You are moving into a collective field there.
You would know it yourself. When you are in a collective group that is all harmonious, that spreads out. If it’s dysfunctional and disruptive, that also spreads out. There is a collective experience that occurs as well as an individual experience.
Russell: It’s contagious, isn’t it? The calm and the chaos. It’s about being centered. When you walk into an organization—thank you for doing this work because it’s very critical—they may not know they have trauma. I have a sense that if they call you, they probably know something’s off but don’t know exactly what it is. What is that process? How would you start to identify that and help people work through that?
Linda: The first thing I do is check and see if the leaders are ready. It’s a big job to culture change an organization. That takes commitment and time. I totally understand when people might need to take bite-sized chunks. That is a healthy way, not to expect you are going to shift a whole organization in a short period of time. I don’t think that is sustainable. I have seen it on an individual level. But it takes time to change and integrate the new neural pathway in your brain, other people’s brains, and to re-resonate into a different way of being.
For me, if a leader wants to break it up into parts, it might be we have a really straight conversation around, “What do you think it’s going to take? What is the realistic view of what it’s going to take? Am I ready now? I might not be, but what can I put into place just in this beginning step?” I have broken up my program into sections, so people don’t have to commit to me for six months or 12 months. They can, but they don’t have to do it up front. It’s always individual.
We can’t do a blanket thing. If you are not meeting people where they individually are- It’s like in my therapy room. If I think I know something, I could miss a really critical point. I believe that the leaders have all the answers. My job is to facilitate them connecting deeply to themselves to find those answers and find what’s right for their organization. Have a place where they can become integrated and solid in themselves, so they can filter this change down. It has to come from the top first. If the leader is not engaged, then I won’t do that work because it’s not going to work. It has to come from the leader. Then the executive. Then I support them to implement what they need downline. Because it takes practice to do new ways.
I never know what I’m going to find. It’s the same in my one-to-one clinical practice. If someone comes in and wants to deal with whatever it is, I never know what I’m going to find. I am open to how they need to unfurl themselves. They have their own wisdom. I hook into their own wisdom and help them to see that and connect with that.
Russell: What would you say would be some reasonable expectations in terms of maybe staging this? I would imagine that’s probably dependent on where the organization is, the number of people. What are some of the stages that individuals and organizations go through in trauma from this first notion that something is wrong to come to a place where they have systems in place to deal with it?
Linda: It’s very individual. It depends on how much inner work the leader has done, how connected the leader is to the executive, if there has been a setup of the leader’s own repeating pattern. They are facing what has come out through their own lived experiences. They are repeating their own pattern with their executive team or their board or whatever they’re working with.
For me, that’s the first place to start. Know what you are working with. What are the symptoms in the organization? There might be bullying, racism, and other toxic situations arising. It might be attrition. It might be presenteeism, where people are there, but the work is not happening. They are not engaged. All symptoms that are there, it depends what’s there, it depends what we can see as a thread to the way the work goes.
Initially, it’s an assessment of connecting with the leader. Are they ready? Are you engaged? Are you committed? The next step would be to have a look at the organization. Let’s survey the people, yourself. Let’s bring that data together and have a look at what we’re really dealing with. Often as a leader, we can misinterpret what is actually going on on the ground. If we don’t listen to the feedback of the people who are out there in the communities or doing the work, then we can miss some really valuable data. We collect that, have a look at it, and have a discussion around it. What do we do next?
It’s always one step at a time. Look at what’s in front of us, what’s present. That is how we will really have sustainable change. That might take some time amongst all of the work they are doing. Leaders that take this on, I really respect them because it takes a lot to actually engage in this way. The end result is gold.
Russell: It has to take a lot of openness. We’re in a time where diversity and inclusion of thought. There are so many things that can lead to trauma, so it’s really about openness. It has to start with openness. We could probably talk about this for hours because there is so much to unpack here. I don’t know if it’s just perception, but there seems to be a lot of instability. There are a lot of wonderful people doing a lot of wonderful things out here, including our listeners and the folks I have met in my travels.
What sort of closing thoughts do you want to leave with people? if there is one big takeaway, what would that be?
Linda: I think I’d like to invite your audience to take a moment to sit quietly and contemplate what it might be like if they were truly connected to themselves. All of this can be healed by people reconnecting to themselves and the truth of who they are, not the adjusted self, not the self that has been through awful situations, traumas, whatever. Even if it’s unrecognized trauma. Not the adjusted self, but when you get to that existential question, who am I? What am I here for? That self-inquiry of, “I am bigger than how I hurt. I am bigger than the wounds I carry.” Spending some time in that place, knowing there is people out there to support them that won’t judge them if they don’t know things. They can create a safe container for them to explore and do something different.
Russell: If people want to know more, what is the best way for them to reach you?
Linda: They could have a look at my website, LindaConyard.com. Or they can send me a message through the Contact Us form. I am happy to jump on the phone and have a conversation. There might be someone better than me or different to me that is a better fit for them that I might know. For me, it’s getting people to where they need to be to get the help that they need to be the best person they can be. I am open to conversations, questions.
Russell: Thank you so much for getting up in the middle of the night to grace us with your time on a very important subject. We are grateful to you. Love to see you again sometime in the future. It is so good to be back in the saddle here for The Nonprofit Exchange, connecting with people who are out here doing things every day to make the world a better place. Hugh will be back next week. Thank you again, Linda.