How To Navigate Through Personal Trauma And Still Lead A Successful Team


Through these blogs and our weekly podcast, we feel like we’ve covered a lot on leadership! 

However, the exciting thing about leadership is that there is always something new to learn. 

One area that we haven’t discussed in much detail yet is how to be an effective leader when things are going wrong in your personal life.

How can a leader stand up and inspire others when they themselves are feeling vulnerable?

One person who knows more than most about leading in difficult times is our good friend, global IBM leader and part-time farmer, Jay Trestain. Jay has been leading global teams at IBM for the better part of 15 years now and, despite terrible tragedy in her life, has somehow consistently managed to lead high performing teams in an incredibly competitive environment. 

Not long ago, we managed to sit down with Jay for a chat about how she was able to remain a successful business leader while going through such a turbulent time. This article will summarise some of the key lessons we learnt about leading when you are at your most vulnerable. 

To listen to the full conversation, please feel free to tune in to our weekly podcast The Leadership Detectives on Buzzsprout, or catch the YouTube version (“Leading in the New World of Work: Outstanding Interview with Jay Trestain”) on The Leadership Detectives website.

Trying to put on a brave face

Jay: “Every leader out there has tough times in their life, and how it affects them is all relative. For me, these tough times were a four to five year period where, amongst other things, my mother passed away unexpectedly and my husband was diagnosed with cancer. 

These terrible things started around the same time I was given a big leadership position, and I had to learn how to handle this stuff while still performing for my team.

The difficulty in getting this right was that I had this mindset that leaders of an organisation, particularly in the corporate world, look and sound a certain way. In the beginning, I was putting on a front and telling myself that I needed to put on a brave face whilst my world was crumbling all around me!

Finally, it got to the stage where I needed some help, but I was absolutely terrified to ask! This team was my responsibility. I thought if I was their leader and being vulnerable, they were going to start questioning my sanity and ability to do the job.”

Creating a circle of trust

Jay: “However, the amazing thing was that when I shared with them what I was going through, quite the opposite happened.

Instead, they all quietly took turns to share a piece of vulnerable information about themselves and, all of a sudden, we had this circle of trust. 

This was a magical moment of realisation for me. I didn’t need to pretend to be anything that I’m not. If I’m 100% me all of the time, that’s more than enough!

That team was one of my career highlights and taught me something important about being a leader: letting people in, and being vulnerable as a leader, is not a bad thing – in fact, it’s massively helpful!”

Jay has an incredible story. The idea of being vulnerable as a leader is something that is too often taken as a weakness, but we need to learn to embrace it.

We asked Jay for her tips on how leaders can start to look at vulnerability differently:

Be more human

Jay: “Since first sharing my vulnerability with that incredible team, I have reframed it slightly. In my mind, being vulnerable can be a catalyst for lots of positivity, but for a lot of people, it’s still considered a position of weakness. This means that if I’m feeling vulnerable, being called vulnerable is not helpful for me.

I prefer to think of it as being more personable, open and transparent. I’m bringing all of myself to work all of the time, warts and all!

The pandemic has been a great leveller for this way of thinking, because lots of people have had the same kind of challenges and feel like they have more permission to share.

I don’t want to gloss over the trauma that COVID-19 has caused, but learning how to be vulnerable, more open and transparent has been a real positive spin for many leaders out there, I think.”

We totally agree with Jay here. Allowing yourself to be human and show some vulnerability as a leader is a big part of what we preach at The Leadership Detectives. However, there is still this idea for many leaders out there that being open with your team might make them feel awkward or a little uncomfortable. 

We asked Jay if she has ever had anyone in her team feel this way:

Earning the emotional right to share

Jay: “When I started sharing all this stuff with my team, the only person that it came as a surprise to was me. They all already knew something was going on. They all knew me well enough to know that I wasn’t myself, and it came as a relief when I finally came out with the truth.

So now I have taken this mindset with me into every role I’ve had since that time; but there is a process to sharing this personal stuff. 

When you are leading a new team or meeting new people, you can’t just start sharing all your deepest vulnerabilities as part of your introduction! There is an element of earning the emotional right to share your vulnerabilities. 

You need to build up that rapport and that relationship with people first, and that works the same with clients, partners and anyone you are leading in business. 

For me, I want everyone to know exactly who Jay is, whether that’s at work or at home with friends and family. 

That sort of relationship earns me the right to ask tough questions, be flexible and manage all the pressures that life throws at me. It also means that I can be vulnerable with my teams without any uncomfortable feelings.”

The lesson we can all learn from Jay here is that, as leaders, we need to try to be more human. Leading isn’t about putting on a brave face and just getting on with it any more. Leaders need to create an environment where it’s okay for people to be open about their feelings. 

However, is this openness only communicated downwards to the people you are leading? 

We wanted to find out if Jay had anything to say about being vulnerable upwards to her bosses:

Being vulnerable with your boss

Jay: “When I was going through those tough times, I shared the pragmatic side of what was happening to my boss, so she absolutely had an awareness of what was going on. As a result, she created time and space for me in whatever way I needed.

She created a bit of a safety blanket for me, which was so reassuring that I knew I could keep doing my job, and my ‘work village’ just swung into action.”

So, it’s important for any leaders going through tough times to communicate their feelings up the chain of command.

It’s not just your team that needs to know but also your bosses, suppliers and stakeholders. Once everyone is on the same page, a safe environment can be created for you, allowing you to keep working at a high level without getting overwhelmed.

Jay has a few final words of advice for any leaders out there who are going through tough times:

It’s all about trust

Jay: “The key element which allows you to be vulnerable during tough times is trust. If your employees do not trust you, they will not be open with you, and it’s the same the other way around. 

There isn’t a recipe or rulebook for building trust because we’re all individuals, we’re all people. And we respond very differently. It only works by spending time with people and listening to what they have to say.

If you can develop trust with your teams and not be afraid to be yourself at work, you will discover that you don’t need to choose between work life and personal life – you can have it all!”

We hope you enjoyed hearing from Jay!

We are always keen to chat with anyone about how they can improve their leadership skills, so to get in touch, feel free to reach out to us on OR

Alternatively, you can find out more about how The Leadership Detectives could help you by booking a free coaching session with us via our website

More to come next week! 

4 New Characteristics Of A Successful Leader Today
How You Can Be A More Inspirational Communicator In Business

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