The Grieving Leader: Prepare Now to Lead through Loss Later

AdVance Leadership » The Grieving Leader: Prepare Now to Lead through Loss Later

Welcome to Friday 411, issue #014. Grieving is an inevitable human experience, even for a leader. It can feel impossible to navigate grief while carrying the weight of leadership. In 4 minutes, with 1 insight and 1 action, you’ll be better prepared to process grief’s impact while upholding your responsibilities.

1 Insight

To serve our people best, we, as leaders, must prepare for how grief will affect our life and leadership.

Though grief is inevitable, we pretend it isn’t. We hope that it will never happen to us. We cast our vision, set our goals, make our plans, ignoring the possibility that they could all be crippled with one unexpected loss. As leaders, we have a responsibility to recognize that we are not immune from life-altering losses.

One of our most formidable experiences was losing Garland’s mother to cancer. She was young, her death quick and unexpected. We were left shaken and shattered, wondering how to carry on leading others when we could hardly lead our own way out of bed.

Grief is powerful. Left unchecked, the pain can eat away at your sensibilities and cloud your judgement. As consultants, we have heard a lot of people’s stories. Without fail, each history includes woundedness from a leader’s failure to prepare for grief:

  • That employee whose CEO lost his ability to make sound judgments, taking down the company with poor financial decisions.
  • Those children whose father allowed busyness to distract him from his pain, losing his ability to guide in a focused direction.
  • That leader who lashes out at his employees because the tsunami of emotion inside him has nowhere else to go.

I (Dorothy) grew up in Florida. We Floridians know how to prepare for a hurricane. Advanced weather systems forecast a storm’s arrival. Our faithful meteorologists stand at a green screen, gesturing toward the cone of uncertainty days before a hurricane makes landfall. These warnings give us all time to clean out the bread and water aisles. For those of us closest to shore, it’s off to the hardware store for boards and nails.

In witnessing hurricane preparation, I have never seen people wait for the storm to hit before they board up their house. When they’re covering windows, the wind is calm, the skies are clear. Imagine if they waited for the storm’s arrival to begin preparation—grabbing at boards before the wind swept them away, aiming at a tiny nail head with rain pelting them in the eyeballs, all while dodging flying debris.

When it comes to grief, we can operate under the same certainty of a hurricane hitting Florida.

The storm of grief is coming. It is just a matter of when. The time to prepare is now.

Even with this foresight, we all fail to prepare. We believe that storms happen to everyone but us. Or we fear that preparation will invite a storm to swoop in. Or we decide that there’s nothing we can do to prepare and live in chosen ignorance.

As leaders, the neglect of storm preparation is even more detrimental. We not only fail to board up our own “house,” putting ourselves at risk, but we also leave everyone in our care unsheltered. Three crucial boards must be nailed in if we are to shelter ourselves and those we lead:

Board #1: Accept grief as inevitable.

Grief is a daily part of life. We grieve:

  • illness
  • poverty
  • lost relationships
  • the loss of dreams
  • unmet expectations
  • our longing for more than is possible

Grief fills the space between hope and reality.

When daily hopes go unmet, we encounter little griefs.

I (Dorothy) experience this often at restaurants. In fact, our family has come to expect my restaurant-grieving and has titled this phenomenon “Mom’s Curse.” It goes something like this:

When I attempt to place an order, the server responds, “Oh, we’re out of that.” This seems to happen to me more often than not. Even so, my reaction is always the same.

First, denial. “You’re really out? Can you just check with the kitchen to be sure?”

Next, bargaining. “That was exactly what I was in the mood for. Maybe if we leave and come back tomorrow, they will have restocked. Or maybe I can find what I wanted someplace else?”

Then tinges of momentary depression. “I’m so disappointed. This was the one thing I was craving, and nothing else sounds good to me. I don’t even feel like eating anymore.”

And, finally, acceptance. “Okay, fine. I’ll just order this instead. It actually sounds pretty good!”

Of course, a situation like this one resolves in minutes and in no way compares to the length and depth of true trauma-initiated grief. But it reminds us that grief is constant and unavoidable.

Board #2 Use little griefs to prepare for big griefs.

These gaps between hope and reality that we encounter daily do serve a purpose. They prepare us for heavier grieving. They are our practice.

Think about your reactions to these common experiences:

  • After “settling in,” realizing that the bathroom stall you have chosen is out of toilet paper
  • Trying to bake a cake only to discover you’re out of eggs
  • Having to reorganize a day because of a sick child
  • Your supervisor shooting down your grand idea
  • Your favorite team losing
  • The price of gas going up

Little griefs. Common griefs can seem meaningless and insignificant. A waste of your time.

But these minor incidents are not a waste of your time. They are not pointless irritations. They are in your life to brace you, to gird you, to fortify you. Gentler winds reveal the areas that need to be strengthened to withstand the hurricanes to come. Recognizing little griefs as preparation for big griefs changes how we experience daily disappointments.

Board #3 Slow your pace.

In life and leadership, you will experience surprises, interruptions, and emergencies most days. While some will resolve as minor setbacks, others will ignite an extended grieving process.

Days before a leadership training, one of our clients discovered his mom had Stage 4 cancer and needed to be placed in hospice. This type of experience demands immediate space for grief. A packed calendar and hurried pace don’t leave room for grief.

Leaders often take on too much responsibility. You want your efforts to succeed, so you get involved in everything. You make yourself stressed and exhausted through all your busyness. You’re already overwhelmed, and when grief hits, life becomes intolerable. Take time now, before a storm hits, to evaluate your current condition:

  • Are you overwhelmed?
  • What commitments do you need to reevaluate?
  • What can you delegate to others?
  • Are there specific areas where you can trust your team to operate without you?
  • Are there meetings or events that you don’t need to attend?
  • If an unforeseen crisis erupted in your life right now, would you have the margin to take it on?

1 Action

Strengthen and protect your leadership by preparing for grief. Accept it’s inevitability, practice with “little griefs,” and slow your pace.


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