Leaders must lead through and with change. Sometimes that change is happening in the organisation such as a restructure of roles, a mindset change or a change in business focus. Sometimes that change is happening within his or her own life. A marriage, a divorce, a relocation or house move, an injury or death of a loved one can all affect our capacity to lead. One thing that has been reinforced to me recently is that major change affects us all, and that even leaders, themselves, often need to go through a process to grieve the place they were in order to get to the place they need to be.
Quite recently I discovered the body of a close relative. She had taken her own life. It has been an extraordinary three months since. It was the first time I have been faced with such a situation and my life will never be the same. It was the first time I had been confronted with another human being making such a dramatic decision. When we arrived at the scene the person was gone. The shell was empty. Seated peacefully with hands clasped she had at least, it seemed, experienced a peaceful and painless death. The individual had lived with chronic but manageable illness for some years. Bless her heart, a kind and independent person who had made a choice that for most of us is unimaginable. Some people use the word selfish, others courageous. Whatever the reaction it has left the two of us who found the body shocked. And shock usually seems to change the way we look at life forever.
Since the event I have attempted to show leadership on the issue, especially to my immediate family. Calmness, compassion and moving forward, has been my motto. Holding hands, keeping positive and trying to supply those around me with a balance of logical and spiritual sense required when dealing with the unexplainable. I have tried to maintain my own equilibrium by a disciplined schedule of work, fitness and family time. I cut my rigorous travel time table. But it’s been a tough journey and that has had the potential to have a marked affect on my moods and consistency.
The other day I decided I should have a debriefing because a few people around me suggested it’s a good idea when you have been faced with such an experience. I visited a counsellor. I explained to her that I didn’t feel this was all that necessary because I seemed to be coping pretty well. After twenty minutes of standard questions I began to explain the sequence of events that had occurred that Friday. Tears ran down my face as I recounted the story. It was uncontrollable. The tower of strength was quickly broken down. I realised the pain had been hiding itself. Leaders tend to do that. We put away the pain associated with everyday living: stresses, difficulties with relationships, sexual problems, business decisions gone wrong, failing at something we care about, loss of a job, marriages and relationships gone wrong, and of course, terrible shocks. We put them away and allow them to fester. And while my attempts to put away the suicide were definitely admirable, they had been taking their toll. I could feel the energy running out of me like water down the plug hole. I was exhausted from telling the story.
When I had finished dissecting the experience, the counsellor explained that change, especially such intense change, generally requires us to undertake a process by which we can rediscover some sense of equilibrium. And that through that process feelings such as anger, depression, disorientation, denial are all normal. It was helpful, because I hadn’t let myself experience any of them. Basically I hadn’t let myself grieve. Yes with change, I was reminded, people need to grieve. People grieve what has been, what no longer feels or looks the same. They grieve patterns that once were and no longer can be. The psychologist explained to me that when one gets stuck at certain point in the grieving process that is when they need intervention.
Since the session, I have thought about all the changes people face in the workplace. I felt about how we often just impose new structures and roles on people without actually managing them through the process of change. Many of these changes are actually life changing for them and we expect them to just ‘go with it.’ For example, breaking up a team that has worked together for years alters the life patterns for all team members. Some might embrace the change willingly but for others there can being quite some period of grieving before they accept the change.
I thought about the great sportsman that finally has to ‘give it away’ for a real life. How a musician must feel when the band stops selling albums and they have to give away stardom, a politician who is voted out. I thought about why so many of them are driven to drink, drugs and suicide because the shock and grieving associated with change is never managed. I thought about how a vulnerable the terminated employee can be.
Last Thursday, I also realised that leaders also need space to grieve the impacts of the major changes we are faced with; especially those that are enforced upon us by events out of our control. Few of us independent souls called leaders want to place the burden of grieving on others, but we do need to find the space to let out what needs to be let out. Those tears which had been really quite uncontrollable were the build-up then out pouring of emotion. They were the release of weeks of anxiety associated with a major change. And, if I am honest, they were inhibiting my decision making and the clarity of my communication. The lesson is really quite simple. Leaders need to manage and grieve change to ensure their own sustained performance.