When Personal Tragedy Hits a Leader (How do you manage your team when it's hard to manage yourself?)

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When Personal Tragedy Hits a Leader

None of us is immune to personal tragedy. At some point on our journey, any one of us may face a serious health diagnosis, the death of a loved one, the severing of a close relationship, a natural disaster, an ethical injustice, or personal legal or financial issues that put everything you value at risk.

When that happens, the additional weight of daily leadership responsibilities can feel unbearable.

If you find yourself in a dark time like that right now, first, I’m sorry you’re facing this. And let me assure you that this situation does not have to spell the end of your value, your personal growth, or your hope for the future. It’s just as likely that this will be the event you look back on later in life as the catalyst for helping you become the person you’re proud to be.

But what can you do in this moment while you’re still in the middle of it, reeling from the impact?

1️⃣ Don’t pretend everything is fine. It’s not. And it’s important to acknowledge that. Acting as if everything is OK when you’re really suffering from a tragedy just makes it more likely for you to make major mistakes that you’ll regret.

2️⃣ Get help. Even if you already work with a leadership or executive coach like me or one of my colleagues, dealing with a tragedy often needs a specialized kind of help. Find a professional or spiritual helper you can trust to deal with the specific issue you’re facing. See what resources may be available from your organization’s Employee Assistance Program. Supplement the professional help with a network of friends and family who will support you.

3️⃣ Communicate carefully. Depending on what kind of psychological safety exists in different relationships, you may share details, or you may simply tell people something like, “Hey, I’m not able to share much right now, but I thought you needed to know I’m going through a lot. I may not live up to the standards you’ve grown to expect from me, and I may let you down. I’m getting the help I need, but I knew you’d want to know that something’s going on.”

4️⃣ Delegate the responsibilities that are too much for you right now. This doesn’t have to be to one of your direct reports. As you build your support network, see who may be willing to help shoulder some of your responsibilities. And don’t be afraid to decide that – for a while – certain things you used to do simply don’t need to be done.

5️⃣ Commit to finding the gift or opportunity that will eventually present itself from this tragedy. At first, that may feel impossible, so don’t force it. The point here isn’t to find that positive spin right now. But consider a commitment to yourself that when you’ve had the time to process this event, you will eventually identify the gift or opportunity that this tragedy makes possible for you.

I don’t wish this kind of personal turmoil on anyone. But when you face it, you have the opportunity to come through it not just intact, but possibly even improved.

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