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Leadership, Failure, and Space to Grieve

Leadership and grief. It feels unusual that I would write an article that links these two – seemingly diverse – topics together. This past week, however, has afforded me the opportunity to consider how we as leaders are with grief.

What do we do when we experience loss or failure? How do we be with those around us when they are in a space of grieving? What’s the example we set, the message we send, the invitation we offer?

Grief is unavoidable, and yet, too many of us do our best to avoid grief, rather than address it. So powerful is our tendency to avoid, that we actually don’t always notice when grief is present. As leaders, this is not an approach that serves well.

Grief can look a lot of ways. There’s a whole range of emotional cues that point to the presence of grief. Everything from being quiet and withdrawn to the shedding of tears which may include full-on wailing.

Grief can arise in a variety of contexts, from a variety of circumstances. We are typically on the lookout for grief when someone experiences death in some way – death of a loved one, a colleague, a peer. But grief is just as present during times of loss in general, whether death is or is not part of the equation.

It doesn’t matter whether the loss is a “sad” or “unexpected” one or not. Grief can show up just as powerfully when we reach the end of a life stage (think transitioning into adulthood), or when we finish a project that has taken up much of our time – yes, even if the results were positive.

Grief, at its core, is about loss and end. And it needs to be recognized, acknowledged, heard.

The challenge, however, is that grief is not a comfortable feeling. It’s not a “nice” place to hang out. It feels heavy, and dreary, and cumbersome. And so we either avoid it – or try to race through it. Ironically, this prolongs the whole thing because grief will stick around until it’s been given full expression. How counter-productive is that?

So, what’s the solution? How can we as leaders be with grief more effectively?

In a nutshell, we need to make space for it.

Watch your teams and notice when there is loss, when things are ending, when transition is happening. In those moments, create space and opportunity for folks to express what is going on. This needn’t be a therapy session. Instead, this is about inviting folks to speak to what is happening, for the express purpose of being able to move forward effectively. It’s about marking this moment of significance, whatever that is, and marking it meaningfully. It’s about more than just the proverbial “two minutes of silence”.

Admittedly, sometimes transitions are moments of celebration. And celebrations are fun, right? As leaders, however, we need to remember that in those moments of transition, even with the celebration, there can be feelings of grief. Give space for both. Let folks know that you’re aware of both, and that both are allowed.

The bottom-line is this: grief needs a place at the leadership table. It needs to be normalized and brought into the space. When it’s not, we inadvertently slow our progress. While grief doesn’t make us feel comfortable, it behooves us to remember that discomfort isn’t always bad. In fact, allowing ourselves to feel grief can be very, very good. It’s a release. It’s real. And it is much needed. Make space in your leadership for grief to be present. And notice how your team moves forward with greater ease. 

Tracy Harvie