Practical Leadership

Leading Through Tragedy – Part 1

Photo by Chris Jakubin
Photo by Chris Jakubin, Colorado Springs, CO

Tragedy is a part of the human experience: we can’t escape it and as leaders we get one chance to get that right. Whether that tragedy is the loss of a co-worker to an untimely death, a teammate with a life threatening disease, or the loss of an employee’s family member, leaders have to be ready to step up and guide their teams through the trauma of those events.

The military and emergency services have a great tradition of caring for the fallen and the fallen’s families. We know that, God forbid, something bad should happen to any of us that our commanders and colleagues will look after our families and us. That is a great comfort that builds trust between us and our buddies, as well as our families. But that sort of camaraderie and teamwork shouldn’t be restricted to those who put their lives in danger as their profession. Tragedy can strike in the form of a serious illness, an accident, or even as the result of an act of violence. Organizations of all types need to be ready to provide support to their suffering colleagues if the time comes.

Good teams form bonds of trust and mutual support for each other; it’s the leader’s responsibility to create an environment for that trust and then nurture it. When tragedy strikes the team, it’s the work the leader and the team put in over time that will enable the group to overcome the trauma. That sort of resilience, both personal and organizational, isn’t born in the moment; it’s cultivated over time deliberately.

Leaders have a number of tools and techniques at their disposal to prepare for a tragedy before it happens, and then guide their teams during and after the trauma happens. Churches and other religious organizations, government social services, and non-profits like the American Red Cross can all assist in developing a coping plan so leaders are ready when disaster strikes. Good planning will ensure you have the ability to function if/when the worst happens, when people look to their leaders the most.

Besides planning, the most important thing a leader can do when tragedy strikes the team is to be present and avoid the temptation to try to solve every problem. You can’t. The best you can do is be there for those suffering, offering what help they want, and supporting them as they grieve. Don’t say, “I know how you feel”…you don’t. Don’t say, “it will be OK,” it might never be OK.  Do say, “I’m so sorry” and “we’re here for you.” People deal with tragedy and trauma in their own way, and must be given the freedom to experience their personal pain in their own way as well. What leaders can do is make sure their colleagues have the space they need, and the firm foundation of support, to cope with the left turn their life took as a result of the tragedy.

The team also needs leaders, and a strong presence in the organization can strengthen the bonds of the team. The strength a leader demonstrates in crisis will infect the team and enable them to be supportive of their colleague. It’s especially important to maintain your own humanity and willingness for others to see you suffer, too. Robots comfort no one…humans comfort each other.

In short, good leadership is more than encouraging victory; it also means leading through the tough times as well.

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