Leading Through Grief

A conversation about grief is not something most leaders have experience.  We tend to relegate managing grief to family, spiritual leaders, and therapists.  A superhero culture in America leads many to simply turn the page on any sense of sadness, rarely stopping to take a pulse of the severity of loss.  Addressing grief is not weakness; it is strength of the highest order.

Up to now, most enterprises have had the requirement to solely manage the emergency in front of them and the plethora of issues it has brought.  While activity gives us a clear sense of purpose in the short-term, it does cause leaders to ignore the emotional issues faced by those we lead.  Over time, the grief, and its partner fear, will creep into the daily lives of those we so rely.  From a leader’s perspective, it is easy to overlook the daily grieving at play in any enterprise at present.

The grief takes many forms:  loss of certainty, loss of plans and strategy, loss of social interaction, and the grief over the loss of happiness and hope.  Financial pains bring with them the grief over future hopes, such as funding higher education for children, financial insecurity, or even seeing their vacation savings evaporate that were intended for much needed rest and rejuvenation.  Some are facing the profound grief of losing a loved-one.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, speaks of “being strong enough to be weak.” Listen to his words as he speaks through the apparent contradiction:  “If you are a strong-willed and accomplished person, you may often give the impression that you are invulnerable to feeling inadequate or insecure or hurt.  This can be very isolating and ultimately cause you and others great pain.  Other people will be all too happy to take in that impression and to collude in propagating it by projecting a Rock of Gibraltar persona onto you which doesn’t allow you to have any real feelings.”

As a start, you can invite grief (sadness, sorrow, distress, any number of terms will do) into the conversation by devoting one of your meetings to discussing what is emotionally so for people.  Listen for what basic emotions (fear, anger, sadness) are present but may be in the background.  Start with the concept of “name it to tame it,” wherein something is not managed until it is identified.  Inquiry into grief is not meant to provide quick answers; rather, it is about allowing the topic to come into awareness and to percolate. As a leader, it is appropriate to include the emotional recovery needs of those you lead along with the business recovery needs.  Grief is not something to “fix”, but it is something to address.  Sometimes, it is helpful to us humans simply to know that one does not walk through the dark night of grief alone.

I leave you with the wisdom of Henry Longfellow:  “There is no grief like the grief that does not speak.”

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