When Being There is All You Can Do December 18 2012

Like millions around the world, the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut last Friday has weighed heavily on my heart and mind these past few days. In all of the coverage and conversation, I’ve yet to hear anyone, myself included, come up with the words to explain how such a thing could happen or to fully console the families and friends of those who were lost.   In his remarks at a Sunday night vigil, President Obama eloquently remembered the victims, provided solace to the community and offered his thoughts on how and why the country should respond to the loss.

The President offered two examples for leaders on Sunday night.  First, he took the time and emotional strength to put into words what many of us wish we could have said.  He spoke on our behalf.  Second, he demonstrated what all leaders can do in times of tragedy even if words fail them.  He went to be with his people.

In times of tragedy, leaders need to be there. If, as the leader, you can come up with words of comfort so much the better, but in times of great tragedy you need to physically be with your people. They need to know that you’re with them. Seeing that can be more important than hearing that.

That was first brought home to me in late October of 1998, when I was the VP of HR for an interstate gas pipeline company. The day before Halloween, we learned that one of our area managers had lost three grandsons to a carbon monoxide leak as they slept in their home in Mississippi.  As we’ve been reminded so terribly this week, losing children is one of the hardest things to bear. When we heard the news, my boss arranged for the company plane to fly me, our senior operating executives and another HR exec to Mississippi for the funeral the next day.  I didn’t want to go.  I was scared that I wouldn’t know what to say or do.  Cathy, my boss, practically insisted though, that I make the trip.  Our delegation went to Mississippi on behalf of hundreds of others who couldn’t.  That was part of our job as leaders in the company.

It was the right call and was one of the most difficult things I’d ever done to be there with the family during the final visitation for those three boys and to be there at the graveside.  I have no recollection of what I said to them that day, only what it was like to look the grandparents in the eye and to offer my sorrow and an embrace.

There will be times, as a leader and as a human being, when words fail you. It’s at those times that being there for those in need is all you can do. It’s likely what matters most.

7 Responses to “When Being There is All You Can Do”

  1. Larry Plaisier says:

    Dear Scott, I love reading your posts! But, this one is a stretch. Great leaders lead ALL the time, not just when you have to or there is an opportunity for a photo opportunity. Don't get me wrong, he is a family man and I am sure he aches like we all do, but, please, he is required to be there and someone wrote his speech. He knew full well that if he did not go it would have been a political nightmare. You are giving him way too much credit here for Leadership.

    I think we are better writing about the Govenor or the Police chied or the first responders. They are the ones who showed incredible leadership. They spoke the words and they were there for their people!


    • ddewey says:

      I agree that those on the ground in Newtown are carrying a heavy load as leaders at all levels, but your cynical characterization of the President's role seems unnecessary and unwarranted. If you don't like him, just say so, but that's a separate issue.

  2. John Peppard says:

    ddeway is absolutely correct. The President showed great strength and compassion and LEADERSHIP!. Events such as this does not create character; it reveals character.

    Jack Pep

  3. HighwayWorker says:

    I brought my TEAM into a conference room first thing Monday morning. This tragedy in our backyards and personally affected employees. We know some of the families and worked with them. I made it clear we have EAP contact them if you need. You want to take a moment, leave work, go for a walk, do it. As construction personnel we try to work through things, try to be strong, etc. It was made clear there was no reason for this tragedy don't try to rationalize your grief, mourn if you want.
    I disagree with the President's assessment above, Obama should have been there he was, but he took the opprotunity to use it for a Political Statement and that was uncalled for.

  4. My experience with "being there for those in need" aligns with yours, Scott. Through the years, I attended several wakes and funerals of employee family members. Each time, the appreciation for my being there was real and palpable. (Even the one time I paid respects at the wrong wake – a female staffer's mother had passed, and I didn't know her mom's first or last name – oops!) Showing up to pay your respects – especially when you don't "officially" have to – is truly appreciated by those in mourning.

  5. Steve Rosentel says:

    I am a proud Sandy Hook resident for 26 years and am disgusted by comments made by Larry. The memorial started late because of the extra time the President spent with the families. I have seen photos taken in the band room of him with Emily's sisters smiling broadly as the President is on a knee hugging them both. I have seen the response he took the time to write on a white board to teachers. My father always told me when you don't know what you are talking about-SHUT UP! I don't agree with virtaully any of the political views of Governor Malloy, but he also truly deserves our thanks and appreciation for the efforts he put forth to help us get through this very tough time. In the words of Rodney King "why can't we all just get along". I guess my rant doesn't count as one of the 26 acts of kindness that I committed to that Ann Curry started and I promised my daughter I would do.

  6. Mike Howard says:

    Great post and points as usual Scott. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences!

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