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4 Key Intersections of Leadership and Grief

by Michelle Light & Kris Carpenter 

May 3, 2020 

We feel that the world has changed, and we are right. It has. So, in our covid19 land, there has been a palpable sense of loss. Loss of actual lives, in a very literal sense. But also, loss of normalcy. Loss of connection. Loss of routine. Loss of work and school. Loss of travel.  Loss of eating out. Loss of going out. Loss of hugs. Loss of safety. Loss of stability. Loss of predictability. Loss of financial security. Loss of control. Loss of self. 

With loss comes grief. We are in a massive state of sorrow. Imagine a fresh snowfall at dawn leaving a thick pristine blanket of white on everything it touches and bringing life to a standstill. It is like we are covered in a vast thick blanket of sorrow. How are you grappling with the public catastrophe, private calamity, and the entanglement of loss and grief? 

Harvard Business Review published a recent article about this unique brand of covid19  grief. One of the world’s foremost experts in loss and grief, David Kessler says, “we are  feeling a number of different griefs” and we are “grieving on a micro and macro level.”  There is “regular grief” (we grieve for what’s missing, the things that are no longer) and there is also “anticipatory grief” (we grieve for new losses that we can’t yet predict, we are unsure about what the future holds, something bad is happening, but we cannot know for certain and imagine the worst). “We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.”  It is also “compound grief,” notes Diane Snyder Cowan in Rolling Stone Magazine.  What’s happening is everyone’s grieving so many things. At the same time, [people]  don’t even know what they’re grieving.” And as Robert Neimeyer points out in the American Psychological Association, “We’re talking about grieving a living loss — one  that keeps going and going.”

Often, when there is discussion about grief, there is discussion about Elisabeth Kubler Ross iconic “five stages of grief.” For our current coronavirus pandemic, this is our spin on  how they may line up: https://www.apa.org/

A.  THERE’S DENIAL

This can’t be happening! It may be a big deal in other countries, like China. But, it’s someone else’s problem, somewhere far far away. I don’t buy the hype. I’m healthy. I’m going to live my life. This virus won’t impact me

B.  THERE’S ANGER

Why didn’t anyone get ahead of this? This is enervating. You’ve canceled everything.  You’re making me stay home. You can’t tell me what to do!  

C.  THERE’S BARGAINING

Okay, fine. I can make some adjustments. This is painful, but for the best. If I agree to social distance for a couple of weeks, that will help others who may be more vulnerable, like my parents or grandparents. Then, we will get back to normal, correct? 

D.  THERE’S SADNESS

This is bleak. It’s like the Great Depression of 1929-1933 meets the Spanish Flu of 1918. I  don’t know when this will end. I don’t know if I can survive.  

E.  AND FINALLY, THERE’S ACCEPTANCE

This is happening. It is hard, but I can figure out how to deal in response. I can take prudent measures, like washing my hands, wearing a mask, keeping a safe distance, learning to function virtually. I also know, not everything in life is terrible.  

Of course, everyone does not experience these stages in the same way, or in the same order, or at the same time, or at the same pacing. We may zig-zag through the stages. We may skip stages. “Grief is a no judgment zone,” Kessler reminds us.  

What is not discussed as often, though, are the ways that grief intersects with leadership.  There are four ways that grief may come into play for you as a leader. It is important to consider where you may find yourself. That may influence what you do to process and move forward. Are you leading in, among, with, or through grief? Or, are you simply attempting to manage grief? Now is the time to assess, lean into your capabilities around leadership and grief, and pave the way for others to do the same. 

1.  LEADING In GRIEF

The grief has rocked your world. You are suffering, as something or someone that you care about has been lost. You may experience all kinds of knotty and unexpected emotions. The more significant the loss, the more intense your grief. This is dark, difficult,  and messy. You are in it. Deep.

  • Tip to consider: Be nourishing, in body, mind, and spirit.

On airplanes, there is a familiar message from the flight attendant at the start of the  flight, “In the event of an emergency, please put on your oxygen mask first before  assisting others.” It is a message many folks tune out in the safety briefings — take care of yourself in order to be effective, especially in high-stress situations — and yet, one which can make a substantial difference in leadership effectiveness. 

There are many experts which offer their own methods to nourish yourself – like Tara Brach’s RAIN practice. There is no universal prescription that will fit everyone. Find one that works for you. It will take effort, it will take energy, and it is worth the investment. Our fingerprints are unique, and so is our grief. 

Inputting on your oxygen mask, we see a few key elements which seem to be common across these methods – the four “N’s” – and we’d urge you to take into account: Notice, Name, Need, and Nurture. First, notice that you’re having an uncomfortable feeling and your habitual tendencies when it arises. For Michelle,  this may show up as having fitful nights of sleep or having migraines. For Kris, this may show up as binge watching Netflix or bitting her inner cheek. Simply recognize for yourself what may be showing up for you. Second, once you notice it, name it.  Label the emotion associated with whatever is manifesting. “I am grieving.” “I am  sad.” “I am numb.” “I am angry.” There are so many different types of emotions.  Distinguish for yourself. Whisper the words to yourself. These two steps – noticing and naming – may be the hardest. Third, allow yourself to gently experience that  emotion, how the grief may be presenting in you and your body, and ask yourself  “what do I most need right now?” This is an empowering question, as you get in touch with your core needs, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Finally, nurture yourself with care as you meet those needs. 

This nurturing may involve a potpourri of activities. Nourish your basic health,  with regular nutritious meals, restful sleep, and exercise. Nourish yourself with outside support as a release valve, like with peer groups or meditative practices.  Reach out and lean on people you trust, whether family, friends or a doctor as needed. Nourish yourself with other outlets that may offer comfort, such as reading books or articles about grief and/or journaling about your emotions. Nourish yourself with a relaxing activity to ease the pressure, such as music or a movie,  whatever brings you joy. Nourish yourself, simply by allowing yourself to express your feelings appropriately. You may tend to all of this, or some of this. You may see needs bubble up in no particular sequence.

When you are leading in grief, pay mindful attention to your needs. This is essential for you. But, it is also essential for others who you lead. Because they are watching you. You are modeling for them. Leaders often push back on validating emotions,  as if people can and should turn feelings on and off like a light switch when entering an office. If you as a leader do not make space for your own emotions, you are sending a message that your colleagues cannot make space for theirs. That is dangerous. The emotion is not what throws us off track. It is denying the emotion.  So, nourish yourself. Put on your oxygen mask. Lead yourself, so you can lead others. 

2. LEADING Among GRIEF

The grief exists in your ecosystem. It is the world’s reality. It surrounds you, even if it may not be inside you to the same degree. So, you are not immune to it. It touches you. 

  • Tip to consider: Be curious and sensitive.

When you are leading among grief, be curious and sensitive about how it is impacting you and/or how it is impacting people around you. Put energy towards observation of self and others with a mindset to broaden your perspective. Albert  Einstein said, “We see the world not as it is, but as we are.” So first, pay attention to how you are observing as a leader. What and who are you noticing? When you expand how you observe and become aware of it, you are attuned to different details and see a different world of concerns, possibilities, and solutions. You gain capacity to take new actions with new outcomes. 

Then, pay attention to what is going on with others. Consider your team. Consider those down, up, and across other parts of the organization. Ask open-ended questions and permit people to express themselves. Make room for uncomfortable conversations, and be comfortable with it. What are you grieving? What are your challenges? How can I best support you? Spend time to understand why the person feels the way that they do. Listen to word choices, tone, pace, and emotions. Really listen. As the saying goes, “we were born with two ears and one mouth; use them  proportionately.” Be aware of your own beliefs and how you interpret their replies.  Pause before you assume what another is experiencing and before you rush back to those pressing deadlines. There’s something important about acknowledging where people are at and what they have lost individually, in order to move forward with work collectively. 

A tiny shift in your own perspective as a curious, sensitive observer opens you to see more, see further and see differently. When you are leading among grief,  remember that you are in it together with your colleagues and also each having your own unique experiences.

3. LEADING With GRIEF

The grief is a companion traveling beside you. When you find yourself in moments of grieving, you let that in. It’s okay. Instead of fighting or feeding the grief – whether that manifests as anxiety, guilt, fear, melancholy, loneliness or something else – you permit yourself to be with the emotion. Emotion is important for the journey, but you don’t let it drive the car. Grief is in the passenger seat, not the driver’s seat. 

  • Tip to consider: Be present with compassion.  

When we resist an emotion, or feeling, or sensation, or thought, we may push away from it, or tighten up, or we get over-involved and let it take over. As such, we give it energy. So, the move to lead with it, is more subtle than we think. Leading with it does not mean focusing on it. If you focus on your grief while you attempt to lead,  the grief will probably get bigger. Instead, find someplace else to put your attention when the grief surfaces – like your breath, your body, a soothing sound, something visual that is pleasing. Give yourself a reference point outside the discomfort. Keep coming back to that external reference point, and give yourself space to let whatever is happening roll along. Tune into the space that’s available. Don’t push or pull against what’s happening. 

Deepak Chopra, a well-renowned author and meditation guide, dubbed the “STOP  formula:” “S” for stop what you are doing, “T” for take three deep breaths and smile, “O” for observe the sensations in your body, and “P” to proceed with love and kindness. This technique is one option to help bring more awareness for yourself when you are leading with grief. It does not necessarily mean that the grief will go away. But, you are being with yourself and your grief in a supportive,  compassionate way. This will help you bear the pain. As psychology professor  Kristen Neff notes, “Compassion is the ability to hold pain with love, and this ability is an incredible strength. If we can give ourselves the presence of  compassion, then we have more resources to hold the pain.”  

4. LEADING Through Grief

The grief moves through you. You feel the grief, you can acknowledge the grief, and you keep going. As you move through your grief, you find your way out to the other side. This  sentiment appears in the poem “Servant of Servants” by Robert Frost: “He says the best  way out is always through.” It is in the very processing of grief that movement occurs – from focusing on what is lost to what is gained. Hold onto what you value, let go of what you don’t. You can ponder, what is dying? And, what is sprouting instead as part of potential renewal? 

This touches upon what David Kessler calls a sixth stage of grief – “meaning” – beyond the five stages that we outlined earlier. When you can find meaning, you see some light in the middle of the darkness. You both embrace the pain and see an opportunity for a larger purpose. This transforms your grief into something more peaceful and hopeful. You experience growth. 

  • Tip to consider: Be courageous.

This is unchartered waters. This is your expansion. You are able to see your grief through a different lens. In turn, you will see yourself and the world through a  different lens. You may (re)consider your own past beliefs and reshape your own stories. What is hardwired will be shaken up and challenged. Institutions that may have been anchors before may no longer. Old rules don’t necessarily apply. There may not be the same predictable answers anymore. So, when leading through grief,  start to explore. Spark your own sense of wonder and deep critical thinking. Try it out in bite-size pieces. Test and see, rinse and repeat. The time of loss and grief can open you up with a sense of resilience and open-heartedness. Suffering can do that.  But, we have to be intentional about it, and have the courage to stay with it, with honesty and clarity and presence. As a leader, your grief will change you. You will have reflected, observed, and made sense of things for yourself – and determine anew how you can best serve now with impact.  

We have set forth a new lens for leaders to consider, as you are experiencing the nuances and complexities of grief. By assessing your own circumstances – am I leading in, among,  with, or through grief? – this will enable you to honor who and what you are grieving as well as your own emotions. This, in turn, will help you make choices and take steps that are aligned with your current reality and be an effective leader. 

In all four of the instances that we’ve covered – “Leading In Grief,” “Leading Among  Grief,” “Leading With Grief,” and “Leading Through Grief” – you are leading in some fashion. We would distinguish this from managing grief. In the words of Buddhist teacher  and best-selling author Susan Piver, “the word ‘manage’ is the problem.” When there is  tremendous loss, you have every right to feel grief. It does a severe disservice, to yourself and others, to think and behave otherwise. So, stop fighting the emotion as if it needs to be  “managed.” Stop trying to muck around with your inner experience. As a leader, you may manage people, processes, and operating procedures. We urge you not to manage grief.  Feel what you feel. Let others feel what they feel. Don’t be afraid of those feelings. Instead,  change your orientation to them. There’s actually something good underneath all that feeling. Alan Wolfelt, founder and Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition says,  Herein lies the paradox—a wide range of instinctive responses occur, but you get to decide as your grief unfolds into mourning if you will truly experience these responses or instead inhibit, suppress, or deny them. Actually, befriending such emotions is what makes it possible to experience, eventually, a sense of renewed meaning and purpose in  your life.” So, there’s a utility in the current pain that leads to future possibilities. 

This move – not to manage grief – is radical and brave. It is the ultimate gesture of leaning in as a leader. Facing what you or others feel, not trying to tinker with it, it is a hard skill,  but one worth striving towards. This is true whether you are leading in, among, with, or through grief. 

We’d like to take a moment to call out another important distinction – between “grieving”  and “mourning.” Recovery Village explains that grieving refers to the internal experiences of loss (“how do I privately feel about this loss”), while mourning is best defined as the outward expressions of grief (“how do I show my feelings in public”). There is no right or wrong way to grieve, and there is no right or wrong way to mourn. Grieving and mourning represent different and complementary parts of the healing process. “We all grieve… but if we are to heal, we must also mourn,” writes Wolfelt. As a leader, while you tend to grief, how will you mourn? How will you give space to your colleagues to mourn?  

Grief may never end, but it evolves. “It is a passage, not a place to stay.” Grief is not a  weakness of your character. It is a sign that you care. To be clear, grief is not neat or tidy,  despite the fact that we have laid out a neat and tidy framework here. However, in order to be an effective leader, during times of significant loss, it is essential to be attuned to your relationship to grief.  

* * * * * 

Kristine Carpenter and Michelle Light are credentialed leadership coaches, who met in the leadership coaching program at Georgetown University’s Institute for Transformational  Leadership. Outside her corporate world, Kris has been dedicated to guiding others in their own growth. For over 10 years, she’s facilitated 1-on-1 and group grief support as a trained volunteer at  Haven of Northern Virginia. Certified as a Yoga teacher (RYT200), she has also developed a Yoga for Grief class. Complementing Kris, Michelle’s unique career over the past two decades has involved numerous leadership positions, spanned various sectors, and tackled complex social issues.  Kris and Michelle have combined forces, with Kris’ grief expertise and Michelle’s diverse leadership expertise. “The result is a distinct lens that we offer, as we’ve been watching the world’s upheaval with the covid19 pandemic – and as we’re living through it ourselves. We have seen grief simmering for some and boiling for others, as we all grapple with this current reality. We are hopeful that this  article can serve as a practical resource for leaders everywhere during these grief-stricken times – and beyond.”

Kris Carpenter, Optify Team Member

Kris Carpenter

C0-Founder
Passionate about Process and People

Over the course of 30 years, Kris Carpenter has built a career rich with wide-ranging experiences, from corporate finance and management to the facilitation of yoga classes and grief support programs for the bereaved. For Optify Coaching, she is leveraging this tapestry of expertise and her work with emerging leaders into meaningful work that is well-aligned with her diverse set of passions and skills.

Kris holds a BS degree in Accounting from Penn State University, is a trained expert in Intuit Quickbooks products, Deltek Vision and Costpoint, Microsoft Dynamics NAV (formerly known as Navision), and Viewpoint. She is a trained volunteer at Haven of Northern Virginia, a certified Yoga teacher (RYT200), has developed a Yoga for Grief class that combines her yoga and grief training, and coached non-runners.

Michelle Light

Michelle had a unique career as a catalyst for change. Over two decades, she has held multi-faceted leadership roles and tackled various complex social challenges in Washington, DC, New York City, Chicago, and Israel, engaging individuals from a playground to a prison cell, a classroom to a boardroom, City Hall to the White House. Michelle relishes innovation and creative problem-solving both within and outside existing systems. She has worked with or for nonprofit agencies, government, foundations, and businesses, which has enhanced her understanding and sensitivity on how to navigate between those sectors.

Now, as a leadership coach, Michelle is harnessing her background, skills, and expertise to have another genuine impact – in a highly-customized and highly-personalized way, with individual leaders and groups of leaders.

Michelle earned her bachelor’s degree from Princeton University; her law degree from NYU School of Law where she was a Root-Tilden-Kern Public Service Scholar; and her executive certification in leadership coaching from Georgetown University’s Institute for Transformational Leadership.