Being a Leader In the Wake of Grief

Being a leader can be a rewarding experience and it also means facing a host of anticipated and unexpected challenges.  Learning how to respond to these challenges will help you grow as a leader.  And dealing with difficult situations will certainly hone your leadership skills.   

Challenges like losing a major customer or cutting jobs to make payroll are not easy conversations.   But none is more difficult or painful than the death of an employee.  Very few of us are intuitively prepared when a member of our work family dies.  

Tears of sorrow and sadness

In the wake of such challenge,  I remember the heartbreak during days post 9/11 of the CEO of Cantor Fitzgerald.  Howard Lutnick lost 658 of 960 employees (including his brother) during the World Trade Center attacks.  Considered the greatest loss of life of any company;  Lutnick showed the world that he is a human being first and corporate hero last.  Through his transparency, we came to understand what was raging inside of his soul and how much he deeply cared for the people he lost.

Death transforms us

Personally I know three business leaders who are tasked with handling an employee’s death — one a terminal illness and the others suddenly unexpected.   These leaders play critical roles in the recovery of employees, their team and organization as a whole after such loss.  Neither one has a management manual or grieving response playbook with “how to handle” instructions.  Instead they must identify the way forward by listening and understanding the raw emotions and needs of their work family.  

Effective grief leadership is a way of “being” (or presence) as you guide others as they mourn and memorialize the deceased, help their families, and return to effective work performance.  

Grief leadership

Here are four guidelines for being a leader who demonstrates the confidence and composure to lead the way with courage and grace:

  1. Understanding –  The late thought leader and author Stephen Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, wrote “seek first to understand, then to be understood” is the most important principle of interpersonal relations. Leaders must understand that people vary in their reactions to experiencing or learning about traumatic loss.  For some people, early grief can include waves of sadness while for others grief is delayed or may not ever be evident.  
  2. Communicating – Leader shares grief newsBe sure to optimize communication with your team and those outside of your organization.  Leaders can be role models for the importance of sharing grief, communicating hope, managing rumors and providing support as needs change over time.  Be visible and make appearances by providing useful information and enhancing trust in leadership.
  3. Compassion –   It’s a well-known truism, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”  Tears and grieving in public by leaders gives others permission to express grief and humanize unthinkable tragedies.  Attending the funeral, sending cards and visiting the bereaved family are all positive healing activities.  The best way to honor the memory of an employee who left this earth too soon is to gently and consistently support the work team and family that must stay behind.
  4. Recovery –  Getting back to the work routine can facilitate healing in a way that shows respect for the deceased.  Focus your team to future objectives and goals.  Leaders can redirect energy and provide grieving employees with room to grieve and heal.  Chances are, you may need to engage the support of grief professionals and show you too are a grieving human being.

Being a leader …

In the wake of tragedy and grief, the team needs your leadership.  

What kind of leader will you become?

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