Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR)

Parallel Session 15

Wounded Leadership

The Cost of Marginalizing Trauma in Transitional Justice


This session explored the possibility that the concept of ‘wounded leadership’ could serve as a tool in the fields of peacebuilding and transitional justice. There is a paradox faced by peacebuilding and transitional justice actors: despite increased investment in peacebuilding processes, African countries continue to struggling with intrastate conflict and violence. One of the contributors to this paradox is the marginalization of the psychological in peacebuilding processes and the need for investment in understanding the psychological architecture of post-conflict societies. An appreciation of the psychological architecture allows us to see the type of leadership that is needed to assist post-conflict societies in taking up and sustaining transitional justice and peacebuilding initiatives. It is time to ask ourselves how we can help promote and create such leadership in the peacebuilding field.

Take aways

Work on leadership is neglected, even though post-conflict societies often end up with wounded leaders who are trauma carriers. These leaders’ decision-making is affected by their unresolved trauma and that of their society. They operate in the political field by reacting to pain triggered by woundedness. These leaders thereby put their country’s ability to transcend trauma and facilitate peacebuilding at risk.

In the case of Kenya, political champions are usually trauma carriers who not only embody the problem but also claim to embody the solution. Political grievances can give currency to politics. Wounded leaders can be seen as champions of such grievances and thus get elected to positions of power. Work with people on the ground could help diminish the political capital gains of grievances for such leaders.

Post-conflict societies experience pain at a communal level. It is important to understand both how a society shares trauma and pain and how it heals. The dynamics of trauma are characterized by interdependent transactions between individuals and society.

The psychological architecture of post-conflict societies requires leaders who are peace carriers and who have the capacity to contain and manage their trauma and that of the societies they lead. Unlike trauma carriers, these are leaders who have worked on their own woundedness and can assist others to transcend the pain caused by conflict. They soothe the wounds left by conflict, instead of exacerbating them or leading their societies to reenact unresolved trauma.

The case of Tibetan refugee communities in India indicates ways leaders can have a positive effect on victims. The Dalai Lama can be seen as providing the kind of leadership that characterizes peace carriers, demonstrating how leaders can be resource persons who contribute to peacebuilding.

The concept of wounded leadership offers a useful framework not just for transitional justice but also for conflict prevention. It is useful because it shifts from seeing trauma only as remedial but as a concept that can be used within the prevention field.

The psychological picture of a post-conflict society raises questions regarding what kind of justice we seek to achieve – transitional or transformative. While transitional justice focuses on dealing with the past, transformative justice puts the past in front of us so that we can address the lived experience of injustice. We need to explore how the concept of wounded leadership links with other debates around trauma in the field of transitional justice, including the association of reconciliation with forgiveness as opposed to retributive justice, as well as how we remember and what we choose to forget.

In the work with human rights activists in Honduras, the creation of spaces to deal with the emotional impacts of conflict proved to be important, although difficult. One thing that helped open up these spaces was the contextualization of trauma – linking its emotional aspects with its repercussions for the societal and economic. For trauma to become a resource, it needs to be contextualized, and the negative emotions caused by opportunistic leaders need to be channeled into the defense of human rights and peace.

  • The concept of wounded leadership is an opportunity to approach trauma on a level that takes into account not only horizontal relationships but also vertical relationships in society.

  • As long as the unresolved trauma of wounded leaders keeps interfering with the policymaking, programming and practice of transitional justice and peacebuilding, we will not win the battle for sustainable peace.

  • In order to understand wounded leadership we have to understand the psychological architecture of post-conflict societies and thus the kind of leadership required to advance peacebuilding within such contexts.

  • Truth telling as praxis: The wound determines what is allowed and what is not allowed to be said.

  • Reconciliation: Wounded leaders threaten reconciliation as they deepen social divisions.

  • Accountability: Leaders should be surrounded by people who can hold them accountable. Emotional accountability is important in transitioning societies.

  • A transitional justice framework is not necessary for the concept of wounded leadership to be used to advance violence prevention.


Graeme Simpson
Interpeace, USA
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Nomfundo Mogapi
Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR), South Africa
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Selma Porobić
University in Olomouc/ Foundation for Women's Empowerement, Bosnia und Herzegovina
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Sylvia Servaes
Working Group on Peace and Development (FriEnt)
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The FriEnt Peacebuilding Forum is a series of events on current and overarching challenges and trends in peacebuilding. With the Peacebuilding Forum, we want to provide future-oriented impulses for the development of peacebuilding and strengthen the visibility and importance of the policy field in its entirety.


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