How Loss Informs Leadership


I opened Facebook this morning to find a heartfelt post from a friend who had recently lost someone very dear to them.  The depth of their loss was apparent as they shared images of their great love and respect for a departed confidant.  In some small way, their pain became mine as they sought to put into words their deep sorrow.  It felt as though they was using their words to process their way forward – not fully knowing which direction that was.

I’ve been processing loss in my life too.  Not the loss of life – but loss just the same.  My loss has been in the form of unrealized expectations.  The loss of feeling like I was headed solidly down one path – and then life not going the way I thought it was going to be.  The loss of feeling like I could quickly right my life with a few strategic decisions – and those decisions not playing out like I had hoped.

I have resisted writing about this – not because it hasn’t been relevant – but because I was concerned that it might be viewed as overly dramatic – a “pity party.”  I have a love/hate relationship with the “pity party.”  I love it because I want people to notice me and my hurt.  I want them to acknowledge me and care for me.  But I hate it because it can come off childish and full of drama.  It can appear that I don’t have my act together and that I can’t take care of my stuff.  And, if so, maybe people won’t respect me as capable and in charge of my life.  It’s like a battle of values.  One value saying – “Be vulnerable!”  “Be authentic!”  And another value saying, “Never let them see you sweat!”

That said – I find it somewhat comforting – and also curious – to think that I’m not alone.  I’m pretty sure that loss is everywhere – and I do mean everywhere.  And not just loss – big loss – painful loss.  Aren’t there varying levels of sorrow, remorse, fear, frustration, confusion and disorientation that are happening to you and me on a regular basis?  And aren’t each of us using the tools that we’ve been taught (as far back as childhood) to seek to manage ourselves through it?

I’m continually surprised at how deeply loss seems to affect me.  I’m equally curious as to how I can be affected so deeply and yet somehow be ignorant of how deeply it must affect others as well.

There is a leadership competency that says – “Speak to loss.”  I understand this to mean that for those who will lead well – they must learn how to recognize loss – their own loss and the loss of others.  And they must not only recognize it but learn how to respectfully speak to it – “this hurts – ouch!”

As much as I hate to admit it, maybe my feelings of loss are offering me an opportunity to develop my leadership tools.  Maybe they are offering me a Petri dish to get a better sense of understanding of what others might be feeling as well.

For instance, in the midst of my loss – what have been my mannerisms?

  • Quiet
  • Turned inward
  • Short tempered with those closest to me
  • Emphatic statements – “This was not supposed to happen.” “It’s their fault.”
  • Distant
  • Frustration

I feel confident that different people respond differently to loss.  So I don’t offer my list as a definitive one.  At the same time – I think it might have something to teach me.  Namely – that when I see these mannerisms in others – maybe – just maybe – they are experiencing loss – just like me.  And if I will choose to lead well – I need to stay open to the notion that progress (mine and theirs) will very likely be connected to our ability to somehow recognize and speak to the loss.

Isn’t it interesting how leading well often means that we have to be one another’s care givers?  That even if I disagree with you and your views it doesn’t mean that I can (or should) ignore your feelings – your frustration – your loss?  Quite the contrary.  Somehow – real leadership has to take seriously that loss is everywhere.

I take some solace in recognizing that my loss in these days is teaching me something.  Don’t get me wrong – it hurts like hell sometimes.  But in my more cognizant moments – I believe it is inviting me to not only be more aware of my own need to make progress on my grief but how to recognize it in others as well.  And – if I am wise – I’ll remember this grief.  Not as a means to wallow in self-pity – but to remember how others feel.  And maybe it will teach me how to lead better.

I hope so.

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