Why Trauma-Informed Leadership is Important with Carolyn Swora


In this solo episode, I share insights from my journey as a leader, a host of this podcast, an author, and leadership consultant. With over 60 guests interviewed and a wealth of knowledge gained from my second book and certification programs, we dive into what I’ve learned about the  nervous system’s influence on leadership, the essence of being trauma-informed, and the key learnings from my personal leadership journey.

Carolyn Swora

A Mom of Two, Scholar, Author, Podcaster, And Former Corporate Leader Who Thinks with Her Heart. Like so many leaders, I used to think that the best way to lead was by using your head… That was until I myself fell into a spiral of becoming the confused high performer at work, coping with unresolved trauma by doubling down on my skills and chasing perfectionism. That was until I realized unresolved trauma significantly impacted how I, along with many others, performed at work. And so, I decided to leave my corporate job, and have since embarked on a rewarding journey of rediscovering myself while helping leaders like me make space for empathy and courage in their high-performing roles.


🔑 Key Themes & Takeaways:

  • 🧠 Three-Brained Beings: Discover the significance of integrating our three centers of intelligence—head, heart, and body—for effective leadership.

  • 💡 Learning 1 – Discovering Body Wisdom: Uncover the power of acknowledging and harmonizing the wisdom of our body with our intellectual and emotional intelligence.

  • 🕰 Learning 2 – The Influence of Our Past: Explore how past experiences shape our leadership styles and the importance of addressing emotional duress.

  • 🔒 Learning 3 – The Stories Our Bodies Hold: Learn about the physical and physiological storage of memories and its impact on our reactions and decision-making.

  • 🌱 Being Trauma-Informed: Understand the benefits of a trauma-informed approach to leadership, emphasizing compassion, safety, and co-regulation.

  • 🛠 The Importance of Being a Trauma-Informed Practitioner: Insights into personal growth and professional efficacy through understanding and applying trauma-informed principles.

We talk about:

  • 00:00 Intro

  • 02:22 Three brained beings

  • 03:56 Learning 1 – Discovering how your three centers of intelligence work together

  • 06:34 Learning 2 – Our past influences us more than we realize

  • 09:34 Learning 3 – Our body store stories, memories that we don’t have access to

  • 10:43 What does it mean to lead by being trauma informed

  • 13:25 Key learnings about being a trauma informed leader

  • 17:50 What happens when we aren’t trauma informed

  • 20:33 The transformation that this leadership style can spark

  • 24:17 What can we do?

🌈 Closing Thoughts:

I invite you to reflect on your own leadership journey, to explore trauma-informed practices, and consider the continuous pursuit of personal and professional growth. Let me know what you think about my first solo episode! Would you like to see more?

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Carolyn: Hi, welcome to evolve a new era of leadership. I’m your host, Carolyn Suara, and today I’m your guest as well. That’s right. I am going to be doing a solo episode. I wanted to do this solo episode for a few reasons. First of all, I’ve had 60 plus amazing guests on the show and I have learned so much from all of them.

I’ve had a year now of my book, my second book being out there and the topic itself of being trauma informed, how that integrates with leadership. I’ve learned so much since the book has been published and I’m also Taking two certification programs. Yes. A lifelong learner. If I could go to school professionally and get paid for it.

Sign me up in any case I’ve been doing this great program a certification through the poly bagel Institute that is teaching me all about our nervous system and about how our nervous system. Basically impacts how we show up. That’s the best way to describe it. And it’s so relevant to leadership.

So relevant to leadership. The other program that I’m taking is a trauma informed coaching and consulting. Certification and it’s a year long program. It’s, it’s really intense. In fact, a few weeks ago, I was at our week long kickoff in Boston and posted on LinkedIn about it and it got a lot of traction.

So I thought, okay, let’s come on and just talk a little bit about it. So I’m not going to be on here for an hour. Like I usually do with my guests. But I do just want to share, a few key things about what I’ve learned over the past year and also what I have learned in bringing these concepts and this insight to my clients.

Where do I start? All right. Well, here’s, here’s where I want to start. This was the opening for me a few years ago, and it happened during the pandemic. When we were all isolated In the city that I’m in, we were isolated longer than others. And so it gave me an opportunity to dig into me a little bit more.

And one of the things that I learned through two fabulous teachers, Uranio Pius and Beatrice Chestnut, was this notion of being a three brained beings. Now you might be thinking, Carolyn, I have one brain right here. Well, here’s what I learned in that work with them is that we have three centers of intelligence.

Got one in our head, obvious, analytical, strategic thinking, objective, Really, really important for being a great leader. We also have a heart center and this heart center really helps us develop strong relational skills, foster a sense of belonging and really connected to emotions and And relational items.

What was news to me is that we have a third center of intelligence and in this space is any a gram space. This third center of intelligence is referred to as the body center. Now, for me, the body was. Basically something that held my head and something that I had a pretty tenuous relationship with. It’s like, Oh, my body doesn’t look like this.

It doesn’t look like this. There’s a lot of shame and not not a strong feeling of connection with my body. More, more distant. 

So learning number one. That I want to share is the power of finding a connection between those, not even a connection, finding and discovering how your own three centers of intelligence operate together.

For me, I had an overactive heart center that would steal energy from the brain center and the body center. Now, I’m not going to get too much further into that, but suffice to say, it started a journey for me to understand more about what body wisdom could be and how it could be relevant in today’s spaces in leadership.

in our corporate environments, I know there’s, you might be listening and you might be like, Carolyn, there’s a lot of wisdom out there that has been around for generations about our body. Yes. And how can we bring some of this into our leadership work? So our body gets signals. It gets data through our five senses.

Right. Taste, smell, touch, sight, hearing, and it gives our body information and it’s our nervous system, our brain and our spinal cord amongst a whole bunch of other nerves that then Now, this was a whole new field of understanding for me to realize that leadership was much more about what I think, what I do and what I feel and how they’re all connected.

Big learning, big learning there. That then made me curious about, well, what happens if my nervous system isn’t optimally working? Which, frankly, is the case for me. Many, many people in our society, our nervous system is having to take in a whole lot of noise and having to sift through what’s important.

What is not important. Now I’m not going to go down, we’re going to have another podcast with some polyvagal focus to it. But suffice to say our nervous systems give us a whole lot of data and contribute to how we are. In relationships with each other at work and at home. And I think it’s a big piece of information that can be integrated into leadership programs, not to replace, but to integrate into all this other great programming that’s out there.

The second thing that I’ve learned is that our past influences us more than we realize. That’s actually the big, big finding of this book. there are going to be events that have caused us emotional distress and these events They can be a whole lot of different things. The key point here is that, Our ability to manage through that emotional duress, that emotional stress, we’re not always skilled, we’re not always able to access resources, sometimes we’re alone, and this emotional distress does not always get processed or worked through in a healthy way.

And when we are unable to manage that, really big emotional stress as a result of an event, it can get stored in our bodies. And this is in fact what trauma is. Trauma is the storage of memories of our body trying to protect us in situations or a situation that was too overwhelming for us to handle in the moment.

There are a lot of misconceptions about trauma and thankfully we’ve had some amazing, amazing progression in the research in this space. The work of Stephen Porges and his, his polyvagal theory have, complimented that as well. That’s why I’m doing those two certifications at once.

Suffice to say, this past, this notion that our past will impact how we, how we lead is so much more real than I, than I had thought for myself. And when I look back on my own leadership journey. I was resolute in that my past was behind me. I’m strong enough. I’m smart enough, and I will push through and I will be a great leader, frankly, because I have to, and I want to be the best, a real competitive individualistic mindset.

I can do this. That’s a coping mechanism, y’all. That’s what I’ve learned. That was a coping mechanism that did me pretty well for many years, but I hit a certain point in my career where I couldn’t tolerate the conflict. I couldn’t tolerate the disagreement. And I thought it was taking it personally.

And then I thought it wasn’t strong enough. So then you can see where that spiral would go. I’m not good enough. You know, why can’t all these other people can be VPs and or general managers? And I want to do that too. And why can’t I? I now have language. with this work, understanding polyvagal theory, understanding what it means to be trauma informed.

I now have language to understand that my body physiologically was unable to tolerate that type of environment and that was me. That was not an indication of the other people around me

So here’s another key important element. that I’ve learned from all these guests and from my work is that physiologically and physically our bodies they store stories, they store memories, and we don’t have access to all of them.

In fact, we don’t have access to many of them. And in my case, I didn’t have access to a whole lot of them. And that caused me to have certain reactions that Didn’t help me problem solve. It didn’t help me in situations where people had different opinions and I just physically couldn’t handle it.

And that, that took the form of avoiding hard conversations or just, yeah, like avoiding fleeing. This is where the fight or flight. So some of you might not connect with the notion of avoiding, but maybe you connect more with like, Getting right in there and more of this like fight energy when our reactions are very intense on either side of those There’s an indication that There’s something from our past that’s showing up that we haven’t necessarily worked through 

here in lies where trauma informed Perspectives or trauma informed lens can really enhance and Change how you lead Being trauma informed means that you are sensitive to the impact of trauma, of emotional wounding, being sensitive to that, not only on others, but also on yourself.

And when you’re sensitive to that reality, your interactions are going to look different. The decisions that you make are likely going to look different too. And how are they going to look different? Well, first of all, The notion of creating choice will be something that you prioritize instead of just mandating or pushing everything.

There is an element of choice. It means also when we are sensitive to the impact of trauma that our attitude It’s more about what might have happened that has caused this response versus what the hell is wrong with you? Why can’t you just listen or why can’t you just do this? So when we have a trauma informed lens, we are much more compassionate with ourselves.

and with others. We recognize that our nervous system, it has protective mechanisms. And when we can create safety or cues of safety, shall I say, it can contribute to an environment that allows other bodies around us to sense safety. Instead of threat. It’s a big component of polyvagal theory.

it’s also called the science of safety. Now you’ve heard a lot. I’m sure about psychological safety. All the great work of Amy Edmondson and there’s a whole element of safety that isn’t just psychological. It’s physiological. That’s why I believe polyvagal theory has a big place in our leadership training.

So, that’s what it means to be trauma informed. You’ll notice in that list of things, I didn’t say anything about trying to fix anybody, trying to know, know everybody’s details about what happened in their lives. We don’t need to know any of that. It’s none of our business. What is our business though, is to foster a sense, foster an environment that invites people in versus pushing them away.

So two key learnings. Now, as a trauma informed practitioner, here’s what it means for me when I do my work with clients. It means that I come in with a lens, similar to what I just said, is that I’m going to be sensitive to understand that symptoms reactions are going to show up. Not for me to fix, but as a trauma informed practitioner, I am very, very committed to doing my own personal work that so that I can stay grounded and present in the moment and not react in one of my old patterns.

So I said to you earlier, one of my older patterns was avoidance. Being a trauma informed practitioner means being aware of that. And doing the work so that physiologically I can be there in the moment and be with clients without going back into my own stories or without getting hooked into old patterns.

So essentially, I’m using my nervous system as an instrument, in fact, to stay calm, to stay grounded, to stay present in all sorts of situations. In situations perhaps where people are getting activated and maybe getting frustrated or challenging. in high pressure situations of change. Our nervous system, if we don’t work on building a capacity, building a strength within it, then we’re going to get whisked into old patterns.

And as a practitioner, I don’t want to get whisked into my old pattern of avoiding because that’s not going to serve my client and it’s not going to serve me. The other important element of being a trauma informed practitioner. is knowing how to resource myself. This is a concept that I wish I’d learned years ago, but I’m learning it now.

So, which is how can I resource myself so that I can hold space, that I can create a container of inclusiveness a container that foster safety and belonging so that whatever needs to emerge. usually through dialogue can, can come into the work versus trying to avoid it or over plan it. And then the last element of being a trauma informed practitioner is really helping individuals and teams develop the skills to co regulate.

So, and what I mean by co regulate so that their team energy can handle the moments when tensions are high. When tensions aren’t comfortable, those are the moments as leaders that when we can lean into with kindness, with curiosity and with compassion, those are the moments that are going to change your business.

They’re going to change your teams. They are going to unlock the innovation, the creativity, the productivity, all of the things that we want our businesses to do. The challenge is, is those moments are hard, they’re difficult, they’re sensitive, they’re tender, and they involve so much more than just our head or even our heart.

They involve our body and our nervous system as well. So if we are going to tap into those precious, incredible moments, we need to skill up. And that’s the work that I am digging more and more into and why my certifications are so important to me because it’s hard work. It is hard work to hold that space and hold that tension.

And you know, back 10, 20, gosh, well, it was 25 years ago. God, it was, it was 25 years ago this year when I started my big first corporate job, that tension wasn’t something that was necessarily welcomed. It was, we can plan around it. And we don’t, we don’t need to go there, but we do now. We do need to dive into these moments of tension, these moments of difference, and it is uncomfortable.

What happens when we don’t have this lens of being trauma informed, when we can get too stuck in our heads or get too stuck in our hearts, meaning we over focus on getting stuff done and planning and thinking, or when we get stuck in our heart center, when everything becomes about being connected. That was my place of default.

When we are not able to balance the intelligence of Our head, our heart and our body. We are slower to get things done. We’re slower meet our organizational goals. Why? Well, because of what I just said. We’re not able to tap into those more uncomfortable moments. We’re not able to extract all of the great insight and information and perspective from everybody on the team.

So things don’t happen as fast. Goals aren’t achieved. In fact, maybe they’re missed altogether. So we’re slower. The second thing that happens is the status quo feels more comfortable. We don’t want to hurt other people’s feelings or we, in the fear of hurting other people, we take on more work ourself and then we burn out.

So what happens is, is we get stuck in this cycle of productivity and it kind of feels like we’re running on this wheel and not a lot of things are changing or it’s not changing fast enough. And newer thinking or change can really be met with not just fear, but like with anxiety, like, Oh my gosh, I don’t know if I can take more on.

So we don’t innovate or create, or we get, like we get stuck. Maybe we create and do some new things, but just not at the pace that our stakeholders or our clients want us to. And then the last thing that happens, and I see this often, is that individually we feel isolated. We feel alone. We feel tired.

We feel like people just don’t understand. And that can be incredibly lonely. And it can bring on a lot, like a feeling of hopelessness. It is not a good place to be in general, let alone to lead. Because when we are emotionally in that state, there is a loop going on with the physiology in our body. And physiologically, psychologically.

our body functions are not working optimally as well.

That’s what happens when we’re not prioritizing this, this approach that I’m telling you about 

now. When we can bring this type of work and this insight into clients, some really big transformations can happen individually and that individual transformation or evolution, as I like to call it evolution.

Hence why I call my book Evolve. It creates A different feeling on the team different expectations and the invitation to surface differences becomes more of the norm and this is where you will find the biggest transformations on your team. It means when somebody has a question or when somebody has a different opinion, when we’re coming, when we’re using a trauma informed lens, when we’re more aware of our three centers of intelligence, these challenges get surfaced or these issues are surfaced faster and together, and you don’t have to go asking for them all the time.

Have you ever been leading a meeting and it’s kind of quiet and you wonder like, come on, why isn’t anybody saying anything? this is what I’m talking about. When we come from this place of being trauma informed and when we’re more aware of our own integration of those three centers. Those, those quiet moments happen far less, far less people are going to be inspired and motivated to surface these issues without being asked.

The second thing that I’ve seen happen is that the feeling of, of being valued and the feeling of being appreciated. Even if there’s a lot of change going on, even if there’s a lot of tumultuous business, like, things happening in the business background, when leaders have more integration between these three centers of intelligence, when they have a trauma informed lens, this there’s a different level of acknowledgement for contribution.

Sometimes people. Feel that that’s not needed that it’s your job. You should just go do it. That’s what I’m going to cut it. That mindset does no longer works. Does not work. Doesn’t work. Well, I shouldn’t say that it might work short term, but it’s not going to work long term and there’s tons of research out there showing that one of the most important elements of, of for employees at work.

Is a relationship with their manager when they seen when they feel seen and valued for their contributions. It is going to create a much stronger connection, more trust, and that circles us back to being able to surface issues. So you can see there’s a bit of a loop going on being trauma informed and integrating our centers of intelligence does not make.

Transformation go slower or change disappear or all of the volatility that y’all have to work through in your business environments. It doesn’t make all that go away. What it does is it gives you skills and perspective to manage through those situations in a way that builds trust and values the collective energy, the collective perspective over individualistic performance.

And that’s a bit different than what, what we’re used to in our society. So, It’s so worth it though. It’s so worth it. I can tell you personally, the work that I’m doing, that I continue to do, and the work that I’ve seen some clients step into and lean into it is difficult, but like I said, it makes a huge difference.

What are some of these things? If you’re sitting there thinking, okay, great, Carolyn, this sounds great. What do I, what, what can I do? It’s not something that is gonna change overnight. I wouldn’t say I’m asking you to change. This is an invitation for you to get curious and reflective about who you are, the stories that you carry within you.

and getting curious to like look under that rock. And the timing might suck for you right now. It’s not something that you need to do. If you’re going to lean into this work, you have to feel ready and have a very, very strong why. You have to be really clear on why. If your why is, I want to make more money and I want to get to the top it won’t likely give you the same type of energy to propel you through this work. It means accepting that there are sides of you that maybe you haven’t seen, maybe you haven’t considered. And so a willingness to look at this other side underneath the rock. And I think ultimately here is the biggest thing that people say to me when they dig into this work.

Is not only does it create a healthier perspective of oneself and yes, it can create a more inclusive, better working environment for those leaders who have kids or have young family members, it allows them and gives them skills to have different relationships with people that they love.

It’s teaching our next generation some really important skills as well. 

So there you have it. You’ve heard a little bit more about what’s been rumbling on in my head for the past few months and why I am so committed to this work. You know, when I think back to my own leadership journey inside of a corporation, I really thought I wanted a role. And if I could go back and tell that woman who is really competitive, really motivated, but also pretty caring, I would have said to her, is that really what you want?

Maybe you should get to know yourself first a little bit more and then see. What it is you really want. because chances are, it’s not the role you’re looking for. You’re actually looking for a way of being. I hope you’ve enjoyed my solo episode. Please, if you’ve enjoyed it, well, even if you haven’t enjoyed it, I’d love to hear from you.

Please consider leaving a review and a rating. It really, really helps. And thanks again for tuning in next week. We’ll be having another one of our amazing guests on the show. Thanks for joining. 

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