Navigating leadership at a time of personal loss

Last year, on the anniversary of my father’s death, I was reminded of my experience as a CEO and business owner when he passed away four years ago. I learned the hard way about managing myself, as a leader, during this time, which set me to thinking about what I would do differently if I was in that situation now.

When my loss happened, my business felt like one of the loneliest places to be. I found my team actively avoided talking to me, even though they knew the death was a shock as it had happened very quickly. As a close-knit team my colleagues were obviously embarrassed, awkward and silent. I also accept that a couple may not have overly cared.

On reflection I can see that I was the one who needed to give the cues as to how individuals could approach the subject and act around me, and to be more open about the impact of my situation.

As a leader I wonder how often you have shared any of your feelings about loss with your team? This does not mean that you need to give full details of what you are experiencing unless you feel able and it is appropriate to do so in the circumstances.

I recommend the following tips to support you as a leader as and when loss may happen to you:

  • Let people know you are taking time away and how you will respond while off (if at all). This means they will not feel you are ignoring them or that they are waiting for an answer and constantly contacting you. Provide clarity regarding how to contact you, what they can talk to you about and what can wait.

  • Do not go back to work until the time you have planned to return, even if you feel you should or that it can’t wait. Time off to allow yourself to grieve, feel your emotions, look after your health and wellbeing, and support yourself and anyone around you is vital to take – even if you are self employed.

  • When at work ensure you let your team know how you are. Speak to team members individually if possible. If you are feeling choked, sad, emotional, anxious or unable to concentrate, express this and enable others to understand what is happening. This is not a sign of weakness as a leader, it is a sign of strength and honesty. People are generally more empathetic and understanding than we realize; by talking openly it gives permission and guidance about how they can respond to and support you.

  • If you have senior colleagues, ask for support openly, stating what you need. This can then be reciprocated when they need help or are in the same position. This fosters a sense of leaders supporting leaders as individuals.

  • Loss feels different for everyone. It may be that four months, a year, two years down the line you find yourself feeling off kilter as memories and grief take over. Acknowledge this when it happens and be kind to yourself. Let other people you trust know what is happening and schedule time off.

Sarah Hawke is founder of Sarah Taylor Hawke Coaching for Business and Personal Development.

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