Leaders in Grief

Dear Plucky,

The leader of my company just received some devastating news about his elderly father’s health. We know this is going to be a tough year for him and I, along with my peer managers, are trying to figure out how to best support him while he’s processing this personal news.

At the same time, our company has just had a round of lay-offs. I’m optimistic that we can turn things around but it feels like insult to injury for our leader. We need someone to lead us but we are understanding that our boss needs to focus on family, too.

How do we hold the company together while our boss grieves?


Dear AAL,

First of all, let me commend you for your empathetic response and your instinct to care about the leader you work for. At the end of the day, we’re all a bunch of humans trying to make shit happen. Humans have human lives outside of work; sometimes these lives take a difficult turn.

I have known a number of leaders in grief. Your boss’ news is classic for the population of leaders whose parents are getting older. But grief comes in other forms too. Diagnoses, divorces, miscarriages, bankruptcy, betrayals. My heart hurts just thinking about them all.

In this note, I want to convey two things to you. Ready?

  1. You can have an impact on the support your leader needs.
  2. You are entitled to a safe, fulfilling workplace that provides you with professional growth and professional challenges.

Let’s dive in.

1.You can have an impact on the support your leader needs.

You know what’s tricky about the highest levels of leadership? They don’t have anyone to vent to about work. If they are good at their jobs, they will not vent their work stress to the folks who report to them. Their spouse gets a little tired of hearing about it all the time. Their friends and families burn out on this, too. (Often this is where I – or another coach- enter the scene to provide confidential listening and coaching.)

If a leader is experienced in life, he will have a number of tools and supports at his disposal to receive the venting. Exercise routines, peers to meet up with, faith communities, a regular cadence of time off, coaches and therapists all fit the bill.

But a leader in grief may not be able to see these resources or even remember they exist.

(If your leader has never built up a system of tools and supports and resources, then that is his present work. Perhaps you have a few things to recommend (if he’s open to it). He might resist getting help the whole way. That’s not your problem. To be pointedly real about this, that’s HIS journey. Not yours. Offer what you can, then step back.)

So what can you do? You can ask “how can I help?” You can gently remind him of the resources you know he’s leveraged in the past. You can buffer the team for a few weeks while your boss processes the news about his father. You can give him the benefit of the doubt.

This kind of helping is often invisible work. I suspect at the end of our lives we’re going to get a final receipt that lays out all of the invisible work people did for us along the way… and GEEZ is it going to be long and SHEESH we had no idea how many people were paving our ways! What I’m getting at is he might not realize you’re helping and the thank you card may never come. But you are having impact. Keep going.

And now for the twist.

2. You are entitled to a safe, fulfilling workplace that gives you opportunities to professionally grow and professionally rise to challenges.

Continue supporting your boss and the company as long as you feel it is appropriate. That might be a month or a quarter. For some of you, that will be a year. There’s no algorithm but you will know when a line has been quietly crossed.

And if that happens, remember that I gave you this permission:

You are entitled to a safe, fulfilling workplace that gives you opportunities to PROFESSIONALLY grow and PROFESSIONALLY rise to challenges.

If you find yourself holding together someone else’s emotional state, their life, their family, their kids, their meals, their bills, their pets, etc, you must step back and ask yourself if this was the reason you took this job. And, of course, it was not. A line has been crossed.

Part of the difficult work of being a leader is realizing that you have less time to get your shit together then others. It is part of the gig. That’s why it’s so important to have those tools and resources in place when things get hard. If your leader has been unable to bounce back or provide an interim leader, the workplace that you are in is no longer professional. It’s personal.

At that point, you will feel you have exhausted 94% of your options. (We ALWAYS wonder afterwards if there was more we could have done? Maybe one more talk? Maybe one more month of patience? There wasn’t.) And at that point, you should start looking for new job at a more professional workplace.

Hear me when I say: I want your leader to grieve and process and find peace with whatever turmoil has fallen in his lap – but it is not your job to save him. You do not deserve to sacrifice your career in the process.

Grief is hard. We’re all going to go through it many times in this life. And I know it’s possible to be kind and worthy with each other, to help each other through hard things. It’s one of my most favorite things about humans.

But I also know that strong leaders support themselves through grief by asking for & accepting help and taking breathers so that their personal grief does not destroy their professional workplaces.

Have courage,
xo Jen