All Articles Education Educational Leadership Leading through loss: Being a leader after someone dies

Leading through loss: Being a leader after someone dies

The death of a colleague can affect leadership. Fred Ende shares three insights from his recent effort at leading through loss.

5 min read

EducationEducational Leadership

man with hand over face, leading through loss

Adrian Swancar/Unsplash

A good colleague passed away a few weeks ago. Despite all the loss that we experienced during the first two years of COVID, this stopped me in my tracks. Maybe it was that during the worst parts of COVID, we were always prepared for loss, or that we never moved too far from it. Or maybe we were some of the lucky ones who were only tangentially hit with loss at the worst times. Whatever the reason, from the time I heard the news until the time that my body and mind could actually process, I was literally incapable of effective work, engagement and sense-making. This will come as no surprise to anyone who has experienced loss recently, but our own reactions to loss can surprise us at best and incapacitate us at worst. Leading through loss is rough.

Fred Ende

As leaders, we have to deal with some elements of loss regularly. Loss in the person and human sense certainly, but also in the sense of time, resources, flexibility, etc., as well. The hope for all leaders is that the win/loss balance will favor the win column, and hopefully, significantly enough that the support gained from these great experiences can offset the challenges we all face from the losses we experience.

While there are many strategies we can take when leading through loss, here are three that I was able to put into practice during my most recent experience with this difficult time and process.

Welcome the grief

One hard part (at least for me) of loss is that I have to allow those challenging feelings in. Welcoming grief is hard for many of us, and, as I have learned, if I attempt to keep it shut out, it just comes through in other ways. 

As a leader, the best option for me in these cases is to let it in as it needs to enter, because then, at least, I can recognize its appearance and its impact on me. 

Dealing with loss starts with dealing with our own feelings and making peace with the ways it impacts our work. That awareness also helps us to be more capable of making decisions, or, if we have reached the stage where we can’t make effective decisions, recognizing this and putting those decisions off until we can make them rationally. This is an area in which I have grown significantly over time. It is also the best place to start (in my humble opinion) when it comes to leading from loss.

Share your feelings

 I briefly mentioned looking inward through the welcoming of grief. That helps us get grounded in loss and prepare to address it. Another important step is to share where we are and how we have been impacted with others we can trust.

 The best leaders are appropriately vulnerable, showing that they are, in fact, human and are challenged by the same emotions as everyone else. Leaders who have built their skills at being balanced and reflective sometimes need to be vulnerable sharers even more so; it can appear like the more grounded of us are also the more robotic. For all the challenges of loss, leading through loss provides an opportunity to share our vulnerability in an open and honest way. 

When this person passed a few weeks ago, the notifications I shared with educators across our region clearly showed the way this death had affected me. A number of close colleagues reached out to offer their ears to listen and their support as needed. 

While we all know that support structures exist for us when needed, sharing our feelings helps strengthen us by adjusting the weight of the experience and utilizing the community that we have developed throughout our professional and personal lives.

Let time take care of you

I have written before about how we have to be careful with time and not let it control us. Under normal circumstances, I am a firm believer in the necessity of leaders keeping time on a short leash (rather than the other way around). 

With loss, though, I feel a bit differently. I think that time has a way of helping us deal with loss in ways that we can’t simply power through. Because time is special in that way, respecting its course makes good sense (at least to me). 

So, while the first practice (welcoming grief) looked inward, and the second one (sharing your feelings) looked outward, letting time lead the way looks to the space beyond and gives up control and power to the unknown. For me, once I recognized how I was feeling and had the opportunity to share with a number of different people how affected I was, I took the remainder of the day and weekend to just go with the feelings and let my body and mind float along as they needed to. Spiritual? Maybe. Necessary? Definitely.

These three practices helped me to accept the loss and continue to lead through it. Of course, our use of these practices and how we can best incorporate them (and others) into our larger leadership toolbox will vary. Still, leading is first and foremost about recognition. What do we observe?

It is only once we ground ourselves in both the inward-looking and outward-facing world that we are able to appropriately act, whether to support others through a challenge or support ourselves in moving forward.

Fred Ende is the director of curriculum and instructional services for Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Ende currently blogs for SmartBrief Education, and his two books, “Professional Development That Sticks” and “Forces of Influence,” are available from ASCD. Connect with Ende on his website or on Twitter.


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