Advice ColumnPractical Leadership

Leading Through Tragedy – Part 2

Photo courtesy of Getty Images
Photo courtesy of Getty Images

In the first part, I discussed leaders’ role in guiding an organization through tragedy. But what if it’s you that suffers the tragedy? How do you continue to lead when a personal disaster depletes your attention and energy?

The first thing to remember is if it’s a big deal to you, it probably a big deal. A death in the family, a wayward child, conflict with a neighbor or family member, even a serious accident, can all cause significant disruption in our ability to lead (or even function at all!). There are as many different types of personal calamity as there are people, and just because you’ve “shaken off” a similar event in your life before or others seem to have “handled it,” doesn’t mean it’s not a big deal now to you. Clearly, not everything bad is a life-changing event and sometimes a little perspective is all that’s needed to get through tough times. Nonetheless, simply “gutting it out” is not a universal solution  to personal tragedy (or even a preferred solution!). So even recognizing people can sometimes blow things out of proportion, serious personal issues can and do affect everyone regardless of their role, status, or position. In other words, everyone is human and no one expects you to be super-human.

Recognizing you are subject to the same human frailties as the mortals around you will enable you to get help when you need it, and remain approachable to those around you. Keeping emotions bottled up and living inside your head helps no one, least of all you. If you are feeling the weight of the world on your shoulders, then ask for help. That help can come from clergy, counselors, or friends. Sometimes just talking to someone is enough, sometimes you might need professional help, and sometimes you just need a break. Whatever form it takes, getting help shows strength and maturity. If you allow yourself to spiral into deeper disaster because you didn’t seek out the help, your personal damage will deepen and consume those around you as well. Your work, your colleagues, and most importantly, your family will all suffer. Don’t add calamity to catastrophe because you tried to carry everything around on your own. Of course, some things just can’t be fixed. Having the help of others during the time when you’re grieving and recovering is vital.

As leaders, even during tough times we cannot entirely divorce ourselves from our responsibility to lead. We have a responsibility to many others: teammates, organizations, and our families. We have to recognize when we’re unable to function and deal with those issues in the best way possible. If you’re stressed out as a leader, you’ll do no one any good: you’ll make poor decisions, and you’re likely to be short or rude to others (usually at the worst possible moment). If as a leader, you’ve let the stress get to the point–or circumstances have put you in the position–of simply being unable to execute your duties, then you have a responsibility to step aside for everyone else’s good as well as your own. Hopefully it won’t be a permanent change, but regardless of the amount of time, and even in dire circumstances leaders have to be mindful of their responsibility to others. Whether it’s a little time off, a leave of absence, or a resignation you owe your teammates and the organization the courtesy of removing yourself if you can’t function.

Finally, it’s also important to allow your colleagues and subordinates some knowledge of what’s going on with you. You certainly don’t have to let everyone know every detail of your life, but if you’ve had a death in the family or something of that sort, it’s perfectly OK to share that you’re dealing with a personal catastrophe. It will help your team to understand why you’re not yourself, and you might be surprised at the support you’ll receive from unlikely places. If you’ve cared for others during their own personal tragedies, that kindness and concern will be returned. Be gracious and accept it–after all, when you offered your own support to others they did the same. You’ll also set a good example for others to follow.

Leading an organization when you’re suffering is doubly difficult. Taking time to heal and getting help for yourself is just as necessary for leaders as it is for those we lead. Don’t shortchange yourself or your team when personal tragedy strikes; instead be the leader who follows his own advice.

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