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Learning and leading through loss

A woman is sitting at a table in an empty high street café.  It’s mid-morning.  She’s drinking a coffee and writing in her notebook.  So far, so everyday.  Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline comes onto the sound system.  Tears start to roll down her cheeks and she weeps uncontrollably, whilst trying desperately not to draw attention to herself.  The barista asks if she’s okay.  She explains through tears that this song was played at her mum’s funeral.  She loves being reminded of her mum but she finds it hard to listen to the song.  The man discreetly changes the record.

That woman was me.  And, if you’ve ever suffered the loss of a loved one, you’ve been that person too.  You’ve had your ‘Neil Diamond moment’.  It might be a song, a smell, an image, a phrase; often out of nowhere, something will trigger us.  Learning to understand those triggers is an everyday part of grief.  Accepting that life will never be the same again and that unexpected things may floor you is part and parcel of loss.  However, losing someone and missing them so deeply also gives you insight and experience that I believe genuinely changes the way you work and live, usually ultimately for the better.  It’s just a tragedy that it takes the experience of grief to do that.  I want to share with you my reflections on loss and leadership.

Grief is having something of a moment right now.  The success of Cariad Lloyds’s excellent and ground-breaking Griefcast demonstrates how much people want to explore and express grief in a fundamentally human way, with all the flooring despair, joy of remembrance and humour that involves.  Death is a natural part of life.  It is all around and yet, for decades, we British have brushed it under the carpet.  We have sanitised it and hidden it from view.  Roll back a century and death was ever-present and much more integrated into life.  As primary caregivers, women were central to that.  We should be thankful, of course, that we, at least in Europe, benefit from low infant and maternal mortality, increasing life expectancy, the absence of war and the avoidance of epidemics, such as the Spanish Flu.  However, with this, we also risk being very closed, suffering in silence and being unable to share how we really feel, possibly for fear of appearing ‘weak’, ‘self-pitying’ or ‘odd’.

When we lose someone, it is easy to lose interest in work and to start to question our own skills and resilience.  I found myself collapsed in tears after I started doing some consultancy work at a hospital.  Even though my mum had been very well cared-for throughout her NHS treatment for ovarian cancer, the unmistakably clinical smell of a hospital ward completely took me by surprise.  Does that mean I should pack my bags and give up now? How can we turn the experience of loss and grief into something positive, something that we can learn and grow from?  There are four main ways that I feel grief can impact and help us be better leaders, whatever leadership means to you.  We are all leaders in some way, as everything we do impacts on and influences others, either directly or indirectly.

  1. Be vulnerable

Vulnerability is recognised as a powerful attribute in leadership, even if it doesn’t conform to the stereotype of a ‘strong’ leader.  It takes guts to recognise and not seek to hide your vulnerability at work.  But accepting and expressing it makes us human.  That humanity helps establish a connection and empathy with those around us.  People want to be led by someone they can connect with and respect.  Grief is the ultimate leveller and there is absolutely no shame in acknowledging how your loss has affected you, in whatever way you feel comfortable with.

  1. Gain perspective

Everyone says that losing someone close to you makes you focus on what really matters in life, and they’re right.  However, sometimes it’s still hard to rise above the general background noise of email, endless meetings and other demands on our time that is modern working life.  We can play a role in helping people to step back and focus on what is really important.  What are we really trying to achieve?  Let’s not sweat the small stuff. Question whether the balance is right.  You can do this with both work and life.  Losing someone, especially a parent, tears down the tent poles of life; it challenges your fundamental, underlying assumptions about the world.  Use that to powerfully question the assumptions that make people carry on doing what they’re doing at work.

  1. Create the joy

We all spend a long time at work and those who have suffered loss are supremely well-placed to bring joy to teams, projects and clients, because they know how precious time is.  There is no rule-book that says work has to lack humour or joy, although some of the more Victorian working practices we’re seeing springing up certainly mitigate against it.  My discovery of improvised comedy (as a performer and practitioner in the workplace) coincided with my mum falling ill.  Being able to find the humour and genuine playfulness in our interactions with each other is part of the joy and uniqueness of being human.  It’ll make everyone feel better and create a climate where collaboration, innovation and creativity are the norm.

  1. Be positive choices and commit

A feeling of drift, in work or life in general, is common after the loss of a loved one.  I found myself in a Catch 22 situation.  As I realised life is so short, my thirst to learn about new things and my curiosity went into overdrive.  However, I found it hard to really focus on anything with sufficient energy as I had an overall sense of the futility of life.  If it can take away a woman with so much still to live for, what’s the point?  Now I feel I owe it to my mum to give things a go.  I’ll always find it hard to narrow things down too much (that’s just me) but, if you make a choice, commit to it.  Give it your best shot.  Energise others and success is likely to come.  If it doesn’t, take the learning and try again with something else.  It will give drive to whatever you’re doing and people will want to get on board.

Whenever my mum and I spoke on the phone, she would invariably end the call with the words ‘have fun and don’t work too hard.’  That’s as reasonable a basis for life as any I’ve heard.  Looking back, it probably reflected the wisdom she gained by having lost both her parents within a year of each other when she was a young mother.  The depth of what she really meant only occurred to me after her death.  Life is short.  Find the joy and have purpose but don’t work too hard.  Keep a balance.  Maintain perspective.  You’ll feel better, you’ll achieve more and you’ll be lovely to be around.  You’ll genuinely be a leader.   Have fun and don’t work too hard.

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