Leadership in Turbulent Times

How effective leaders respond to profound loss and grief.

By early August, the COVID-19 pandemic infected nearly five million individuals, resulted in more than 160,000 deaths, and devastated America’s economy.

Leaders have a central role and critical responsibilities in this crisis, and their actions will be vital even after the current threat has passed. National, regional, and local leaders as well as individuals in leadership positions in business and the private sectors are trying to find their way through these ambiguous times. Even parents— mothers and fathers who are raising our next generation—face these leadership challenges in their own families.

Leaders across all sectors and levels of society need to:

Be decisive.

In the face of crisis, effective leaders (across all levels of leadership) act decisively, and in the face of uncertainty, their actions are based on established and accepted higher-order goals and values important for the well-being of those they serve.

Honor unheard voices.

While leaders must recognize and thoughtfully respond to a diversity of opinions and perspectives, they must also hear the unspoken voices of those who, because of their station and/or status in society, typically go unheard.

Avoid vagaries.

Effective leaders provide timely, clear, and specific information on what is being and will be done in response to the crisis. They show receptiveness to knowledge and wisdom from true experts regarding the issues that have to be addressed. Importantly, they make every effort to be transparent.

Demonstrate humanness.

Effective leaders deliver messages to those they serve with a language and tone that conveys confidence, provides clarity, reflects a sense of selflessness, demonstrates empathy and kindness, and models compassion for those affected. They make it clear to everyone that we are in this crisis and we need to get through it together, while also acknowledging that there are disparities that must be addressed in any effective response.

Reassure others.

Effective leaders provide necessary reassurance, backing up their words with deeds—recognizable measures, quickly and confidently put into place—to prevent the situation from getting worse and, once under control, provide clear guidance on how the crisis will be resolved.

Accent positives.

Effective leaders help people see beyond the immediate moment toward a longer perspective and a positive outcome; they offer realistic hope. They acknowledge and honor in the present, as well as at an appropriate later time, the deeds and self-sacrifice of those who have and continue to meet the requirements of society—heroes big and small.

Lead the charge.

In the presence of the darkness of loss and associated grief, effective leaders show up, are fully present in the moment, and are meaningfully engaged with those most affected. When people who look up to leaders are struggling, that’s when the presence of those leaders is most important.

In the midst of loss and grief, effective leaders continue to move forward and recognize when to offer encouragement and direction and when to just be present in the moment, present with those who are struggling.

In those moments, effective leaders understand that although those they serve may be distraught, they are not helpless. Leaders see, acknowledge, and encourage confidence and hope in those they lead and always foster their inherent capacity to succeed.

This essay has been excerpted from a piece that appeared on smerconish.com. It originated from a webinar panel on grief leadership sponsored by the Association for Death Education and Counseling.