How To Lead Through Personal Tragedy
In 2015, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's husband died unexpectedly.
What culminated in the time afterwards was an incredible story of leading while suffering a personal tragedy.
The enormity of being in leadership itself can be stressful. But how do you handle effectively leading when you have to handle a loss or tragic event in your personal life?
I myself have been through such times. One of the most difficult was what should have been the greatest event of my life. I had proposed to my wife during the weekend, and when Monday came my son had a severe allergic reaction at school, I had to conduct a major investigation involving one of my employees, and then received news that my father passed away suddenly. All within a 5-hour span.
While the cycle of grief persists, the reality of merging life, work, and loss becomes challenging and even despairing at times. Coupled with the added pressure that others are counting on us, how does one do this?
Sheryl's and my answers are not for everyone, but some insight into how we were able to still lead during tragic times may offer help and comfort.
- Be Open. The toughest thing for us to do is open up about our struggles in the wake of tragedy. By being open and relying on the support of friends, colleagues, and those you don't know (such as Sandberg found when she posted on Facebook a month after her husband's death), you will find broader support than you would have imagined. The overwhelming response to Sandberg's Facebook post was a tremendous help to her at that time.
- Be Willing To Be Vulnerable. The day after hearing about my father's death, I went back to work. There was much to do, including hosting a major event that next day. When that day came, I broke down in front of my staff and couldn't continue. Everyone told me to take the next couple of days off to grieve, that they would make sure the event would be in good hands. When we realize our limitations during these times and allow ourselves vulnerability, your colleagues and teammates will support you.
- Allow Yourself Some Slack. Sandberg said a quote that can resonate for everyone:
"I didn't get how hard it is to succeed at work when you are overwhelmed at home."
There are dangers in burying yourself in your vocation and not allowing yourself to ease up on the job. We can put incredible pressure on ourselves and risk our health if we don't allow some slack to regroup.
- Learn To Rely On Others. When my team allowed me to leave work and grieve, I discovered that my true strength was my team. I thought, in order to be strong through loss, I had to work strong. These are the times to allow them to showcase their skills and fill in the gaps to allow you to recover.
- Find Ways To Cope And Recover. Everyone has a way towards recovery. Some like myself rely on their faith in God, others on a support group, and some in their friends and family. Sandberg also found inspiration about resilience in others who had personal tragedy and also in the book Alive. Don't discount any means or resources to help you get back on track.
- Learn To Lead Differently Going Forward. What we find in ourselves as we go through a tragedy can help us be better leaders. We may not discover this immediately, but through the perspectives we may gain such as resilience, empathy, appreciation for people, and identifying our higher purpose in our lives.
We can turn these difficult personal times into ways to better influence and serve the people we impact.
Tragedy happens to us all - death, financial loss, emotional trauma, health, and so on. How we deal with it personally impacts us as leaders and everyone around us, and can inspire those around us in good and bad times. Sandberg sums it up nicely:
"Tragedy does not have to be personal, pervasive or permanent, but resilience can be," she writes. "We can build it and carry it with us throughout our lives."