Leading Through Trauma

I teach a class at Vanderbilt University called Leading Business Through Times of Crisis. This week we read a 2002 Harvard Business Review (HBR) article titled Leading Through Trauma. In the article, the authors argue that:  

“Although the human capacity to show compassion is universal, some organizations suppress it while others create an environment in which compassion is not only expressed but spread.” 

They have a good point. 

Whether trauma happens at the individual level – unexpected medical diagnosis – or at the collective level – a disaster strikes a community – the fallout is not only real but calls for leaders to express more than empathy. 

The article explains that leaders can meet this challenge by understanding the need for meaning and taking appropriate action.  

  • Meaning occurs when people try to make sense of the traumatic event and often find themselves soul-searching – asking difficult questions.  
  • Leaders can take action by making it ok for people to process the tough questions, providing knowledgeable resources to support the effort, establishing routines that provide stability, and creating networks of those who can learn from and help each other. 

As I discussed the article with my students this week, I felt a sense that we all long for this type of leadership. We discussed the complexity of today’s world and how we are experiencing both heightened awareness of traumatic events and a lack of humanity.   

It’s with these thoughts in mind that I created this week’s tool and video. Use the tool as a reminder of the need for both meaning and action. Additionally, work to bring the ideas into practice by considering who around you might be dealing with a traumatic event and exploring how you might step up to meet their needs. 

By the way, this isn’t just a top-down leadership idea… 

Ten years ago this winter, my mom passed away. The funeral was held in a small church outside of Chicago. Family and friends filled the building. I looked around at the many faces and recognized so many. All showed up to mourn the loss and celebrate her life.  

Of all the faces I saw that day, one stood out to me above all others. I didn’t see him when I was in the church, but my eyes immediately caught his when I stepped outside. 

His name is Mike Matera. Mike was a leader in my company who worked in our Washington DC office. If you looked at an organizational chart, I was technically his leader, but it was he who was doing the leading that day. Unbeknownst to me and at his own expense, he bought a plane ticket and traveled to Chicago to attend my mom‘s funeral.  

Mike had never met my mom.  

He certainly didn’t need to make the journey.  

However, he saw that I was going through a traumatic event and he stepped up to show his support. To this day I’m grateful to him for supporting me, and going way out of his way to meet my needs.  

I encourage you this week to consider those in your life who may be going through a difficult time. Reach out to them. You don’t have to jump on a plane and travel halfway across the United States. You can simply pick up the phone, send an email, or drop a card in the mail.  

I think we all would agree that we need a little bit more humanity in the world, take this opportunity to provide it. 

One last thing…  

I’m thrilled to help a friend this week who is experiencing a positive event. Dorie Clark’s new book The Long Game: How to be a long-term thinker in a short-term world is out. In celebration of its release, I decided to dedicate this week’s podcast to revisiting what Dorie shared with me when she visited The Leadership Lab in June 2020.   

I encourage you to give it a listen and pick up a copy of Dorie’s new book. You won’t be disappointed. 

Photo by Tom Pumford on Unsplash