Leading Through a Loss

Posted 08.21.2012

The beautiful dog in the photo is my family’s Collie, Shades. A couple of weeks ago, Shades’ hip dysplasia and a respiratory condition took a turn for the worse and, with the counsel of our wonderful vet, Dr. Thorndike, we decided to put him down last weekend.

If you’ve owned a dog that’s become part of your family, I don’t have to tell you how hard the last couple of weeks have been for us. Shades came to our house as a puppy in 2001 just a week before 9/11. He was an immense source of comfort that year and, as our sons grew up, was a catalyst in strengthening my relationship with my boys through our nightly dog walks. Some of the best conversations I’ve had with my boys took place on our walks with Shades in the dark of night.

We were fortunate to be able to be together as a family last week to let Shades know how much we loved him and to say our goodbyes. Needless to say, I’ve been thinking a lot about loss these past couple of weeks and as I thought about what to write about this week, the subject of leading through a loss naturally came to mind.

If you’re a leader for any length of time, the odds are you will eventually have to lead your organization through a loss. It could be a horrific tragedy like 9/11, something as common as the death of a co-worker or any number of events between those two ends of the spectrum. Like anything else you do as a leader, preparation matters. While the nature of a loss might be unexpected, the likelihood that you’ll have to lead your organization through a loss should be completely expected. Here are some thoughts to help you prepare for when it happens:

Focus on the People – When you’re leading people through a loss, your focus needs to turn to them and what they need. Do things that reinforce a sense of community. Create opportunities for people to connect with each other. Stay flexible and be aware that different people will need different things in the early hours and days. Leading through loss is a leadership moment of truth. It will define for people who you really are. Be mindful of that by focusing on them.

Create Space to Remember – In his classic book, Managing Transitions, William Bridges wrote that before anything new can begin something else has to end. You can facilitate the transition for your group by creating space and opportunities for them to acknowledge what they’ve lost.

Provide Meaningful Work – One of the most inspiring stories I read after 9/11 was about Howard Lutnick, the CEO of Cantor Fitzgerald, the trading firm that lost most of its employees when the towers collapsed. The night after the attacks, he called the surviving members of his management team and presented a choice – they could close the firm or they could rebuild it to take care of their victims’ families. They chose the latter and succeeded because they had a larger purpose in mind. After the shock of loss, people need work that can help them move forward. Part of the job of a leader is to define that work.

Based on your own experience and observation, what other advice do you have for leaders to prepare to lead in a time of loss?