I remember where I was the morning of 9/11. Vividly. Do you? I remember that I staying in a hotel in Phuket that was ravaged by the 2004 Tsunami. This week I spoke to a friend whose plane flew over the Ukraine just 8 hours prior to the fateful downing of MH17.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting all leaders weigh into every international tragedy. Nor am I suggesting leaders play the same level of politics the inevitably follows tragedies of an international scale. I’m also no Psychologist so no attempt is being made to comment on that. I’m reflecting on the leadership responsibilities and opportunities that arise in tragic circumstances. It personal AND public. Simple AND complex. Servant leadership is critical.
I also remember being a a thirteen year old at my Grandfather’s Funeral and a Walter Coller, a Pastor and Leader (who didn’t know my Grandfather) turned up to be with our family. I remember being navigating the students at the school I was teaching at process what it meant to lose one of our loved and respected teachers through illness, or a student lose their father to cancer. Each moment etched deeply into my mind and heart because of what happened, who it impacted and how it affected me.
Tragedies are just that. Tragedies. They are sudden, unexpected and affect people in different ways. Here are five things you can do that will help you navigate through tragedy. I’d love to hear your thoughts on what you do to lead people through challenging circumstances.
Acknowledge the suddenness, reality and loss.
A tragedy is nothing to make light of. Suffering, loss and grief are among the most immediate things people experience. More than ever before people want leaders to be authentic in the moment of loss as well as in same way contributing to what the next best step might be. Your first job, however, it to simply acknowledge this for what it is. A tragedy. I am so sorry it happened to you, at this time. I wish I could help in some small way.
Sometimes just acknowledging the moment as tragic is both the best thing and the most you can do as a leader.
Validate the various emotions people feel.
In the grief cycle outlined by Kubler Ross it helps put in context the ways people experience and manifest various emotions. The main thing is to make sure people understand the range of emotions that are to be expected. In a leadership role validating people’s emotions is an important part of framing the grief cycle.
It’s important also to note that one tragedy can bring up unrelated yet important matters for people. They can be reminded of an experience, a loss, a memory that might be yet unresolved. As a leader you can create the space for immense transformation, healing and authentic community simply by creating the space for people to FEEL what is really happening for them. It takes courage, but it’s important.
Admit that moving forward is paradoxical
As more of life and leadership passes you by the more you may realise life is less a dichotomy than you originally thought. There seems to be less good/bad, right/wrong, black/white than a younger leadership version of you may have once believed. I’m not talking about core values, world views or belief systems. For me they remain rock solid. I’m talking about how different people take different pathways to heal, restore hope and make good. Being honest about how an event may have impacted you is essential. Being authentic about where that has placed you matters and being responsible and courageous about taking steps towards a preferred future is so so important.
As a leader you have the opportunity to both recognise the challenge it may be AND highlight the importance of the right steps at the right time and how important that will be. Again, the privilege of creating the space for next steps for people you serve is critical in your role as a leader. Helping them navigate the complexity will be the pathway to action for them.
Remind people to avoid unresourceful behaviours.
At this juncture it’s the time to be the “feel the fear and do it anyway” leader. Having the courage to frame OUT what will be unhelpful at this time is just as important as framing IN the complexity of the tragedy at hand. Being responsible about emotions, disciplined about sharing (or over sharing) on social media and gracious about blame will all serve to direct people towards paths that help rather than hinder the healing process.
The delicate balance here is leaders acknowledge the paradox (see point 3) and call for a better future (see point 5) all at the same time. It’s courageous and important that you do this.
Find hope, peace and love that unites & helps heal people.
One of the great privileges of leadership is to call people towards the pursuit of a better future, despite the challenges being faced at this present time. The concept of hope is so powerful. The sense of love can unite people in pursuit of a preferable future in ways that we have yet to imagine or experience.
To choose the law of love and the pathway of peace over all other options will serve those you lead in ways that may not have immediate tangible benefits but will place the seed of restoration that keeps the doorway of restoration and helping open. Be the leader that calls people UP to a sense of what unifies us and what we can aspire to together.
Navigating the personal and organisational challenges of tragedy are one of toughest times for true and real leadership to stand up. To be transparent, hopeful and authentic is critical to serving people in a way that acknowledges where they find themselves whilst remaining optimistic about the future we share.
My mum drove to Walter Coller’s home so I could thank him for being a leader who quietly stood up in my personal tragedy. A moment my 13 year old heart will never forget.
#leadsmall – because when you do, big things can happen.