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Leadership in Crisis: Leaders and The Grief Cycle

  Jun 19, 2020

Grief is a word that encompasses many emotions: sadness, unhappiness, resistance to change, anger, fear, and regret. 

In today’s world, there are many things that can cause grief. With the COVID 19 pandemic sweeping across the world, people all around the world are struggling to find ways of coping and managing their personal lives. Many have lost jobs or their sources of income. Businesses have folded or are on the brink of doing so. Others are unwell, with pre-existing medical conditions. And yet others have been infected with the coronavirus and are struggling, fighting for their lives.  

This is one time the world is united in scenes of grief. Stories from countries like Italy, the UK, and the US on the loss of lives mean people are going through a lot of grief. 

In 1969, Elisabeth Ross wrote a book called On Death and Dying. In it, she outlined the 5 stages of grief and loss, more popularly known as the Kubler- Ross Model. These stages are denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. One of the first things she highlighted was that these stages do not necessarily occur in order. She also pointed out that not everyone goes through all the stages. But it is a useful model to use to understand how to help those who are going through grief and loss and can be applied to any situation.

Take for example an individual who owns and runs an events company. The events industry has been hard hit by the COVID 19 pandemic. Restrictions on gatherings mean that it isn’t possible to hold events, conferences, or engage with customers via roadshows. This is likely to be the case for the foreseeable future, as the coronavirus continues to ravage populations across continents. This entrepreneur is anxiously waiting for the lifting of restrictions with the hope that ‘corona will end’ and life can go ‘back to normal.’ A good example of someone in denial and who has refused to see the reality for what it is. Denial is a defense mechanism as it helps us deal with the pain from the problem.

The next stage is anger. The country is going through severe hardships. People are struggling to make ends meet. Many are going hungry as the counties continue to be locked down and travel remains tightly controlled. Never in the history of Kenya has there been a dusk to dawn curfew that has lasted this long. And yet the events organizer is angry. Angry at the Chinese because he believes they eat bats that harbored the virus. Angry at the restrictions forcing him to stay home unable to engage clients and get new business. Angry at the authorities for forcing him to wear a mask as soon as he steps foot outside his house. Angry at not knowing what is coming next. Anger is an emotion that if left unresolved can consume you and eat away at your soul. 

The third stage is bargaining. This stage has a lot of reflection most of which use the ‘if only’ approach. If only he had closed the deal on more conferences. If only he had taken down payments, he wouldn’t have suffered losses from the events he had to cancel. If only he went to church more often, then God wouldn’t have let this happen to him. This stage is also compounded by guilt and a lot of questions. It can result in self-doubts where one wonders what else he could have done to foresee the situation.

The fourth stage is depression. In the case of our events organizer, he is now looking at his life which he may perceive to be in shambles. He doesn’t see any way out. He is deeply sad, perhaps even unable to think of a way out. The emotions are weighing heavily on him and he may not be able to do much.

The last stage is the acceptance stage. Here there is a level of calmness that arises from accepting the situation. It is not a happy stage by any standards, but it isn’t depression either. This is a stage of exploring options and of finding a way forward. Our events organizer finally accepts that everything happening is beyond his control and sits down to review what he does have control over and what he can plan to do about his business. 

What of teams?

As a Head of Sales and Marketing, you are most likely to have a team that is looking up to you to provide direction under this crisis situation. Targets are still in place, sales must come in, yet these front line customer-facing employees are unable to do their work in the traditional way that is known to them. It calls for you as the team lead to use all your leadership skills to keep the team together and motivated so that you find ways to go about your tasks no matter how challenging the circumstances. As a leader, you need to have those 1 on 1 conversations with individuals to encourage and coach members to get to the acceptance stage so that the way forward can be found. As a group, the members may need to help one another by providing support and help. 

How can you tell if you or your colleagues are going through grief? There could be several symptoms that may point to that. These include feelings of worry or anxiety, depression, loss of sleep, headaches, frustration, guilt, and general stress. In severe cases, a qualified counsellor or doctor would be best placed to help diagnose mental health challenges. In not so severe cases, or where people get to the acceptance stage quickly, it could be possible to work with a coach to help come up with a plan of action designed to drive the desired outcome.

People handle stress and grief very differently and based on their personalities and life experiences. There is rarely a model or template that one can use to manage these situations. One thing is clear, the COVID 19 pandemic is going to be with us for some time. What are you doing as a leader to help yourself and your colleagues through this?

As C S Lewis said, “Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley, where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.” 

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Article by Thrity Engineer- Mbuthia. She is the current Acting Chair – Chartered Institute of Marketing Kenya. 

She is also a leadership coach with an interest in Personal Development at Strathmore University Business School.

This article was first published in the Marketing Africa Magazine


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