Why and How Great Leaders Grapple with Grief

Why and How Great Leaders Grapple with Grief
Thomas Thompson
April 12, 2022
min read

You won’t see this word in any MBA program, business best seller list, or search term for CEO job listings.  But it is a word that leaders will ignore at their own peril.


Leaders who fail to get good at grief fail to lead themselves and their teams well.

“Get good at grief?”  What does that mean?

It means you acknowledge grief exists.  It means you intentionally introduce grief into the culture.  It means you allow grief to be welcomed into the conversation.  It means you give space for grief to live–in your own life and the lives of your organization.

After 25 years of leading organizations through change, I can now see how often what I perceived as opposition to change, resistance to progress, or personal rejection of my leadership was really people grappling with grief. The grief of change.  The grief of loss.  The grief of losing something beloved.

And I realized that the grief of leadership–decisions I had made at great cost, leading through seasons of high pressure, carrying the weight of resentment and responsibility, being misunderstood, misrepresented, and misquoted–had shaped my own leader heart in ways that didn’t serve me or the people I led.

Why don’t leaders grapple with grief?

We live in a grief avoidance culture.  

Our world avoids pain. We turn the channel, close the app, press "next." We don't want to spend time swimming in the uncharted waters of grief. This is especially true for leaders.  The heads of organizations are expected to shoulder weight without consequence.  To absorb loss, to rally for the troops.   To live grief free and be strong for others.

We think it weakens our leadership position.

If a leader is hurting, how can they lead well?  In my work with corporate sabbaticals, it is common to find that there is a sabbatical policy on the books, but it has never been tested.  Why?  People associate times of rest as weak, burned out, revealing a leader unable to cut it.

Why do leaders need to grapple with grief?

We need it for the people we lead.

All transition is loss.  When you lead an organization through change, people will grieve.  And spinning it by talking about all the positives denies the reality of loss many are going through.

We also need to recognize the toll grief takes on our staff and teams.  The person who loses a loved one needs more than a few weeks off.  They need to be given space and intentionality to live in what is for them, a new world.

We need it for ourselves as leaders.

Grief piles up on us in unexpected ways.  A few years ago, my mom passed away unexpectedly.  My wife and I flew to Texas to begin the process of arranging her affairs.  Incredulously, I planned on a few coaching calls my first day there.  I struggled through the first call, unable to focus.  My gracious client gave me permission to process, and to reschedule.  I immediately canceled my next session.  

I was unprepared for a season of unexpected diminished capacity.  

For months my life and coaching practice (and family) felt the brunt of me trying to navigate the depths of grief.  Bursts of anger, lethargy, turning to food and drink to get me through.

If you don’t navigate grief well you will face struggle.  For some, it is a diminished capacity.  For others, mental fogginess, unhealthy habits, or even addiction. 

Having an experienced counselor helped me unpack years of unresolved grief and learn new and healthy ways to grapple with grief. 

Leaders, you need to see the toll unresolved grief can take on you...and lead yourself to navigate it well.  

Three ways leaders can begin to grapple with grief:

  1. Understand grief is a consequence of love.  You grieve because you cared.  People grieve change because they love what was built.  Grief has a positive side to it–it means something was good about your life or leadership, and while that thing is now gone, there is good in our life for having known it.

  1. Get acquainted with the concept of grief.  Pursue counseling or therapy for your own life.  Begin to give yourself space to learn about grief.  What podcasts, books, or conversations could start you down this road?  Even asking other leaders or your own team about how they have navigated grief is a start.

  1. Anticipate grief in any transition.  In any transition conversation, I lead people to name the losses in the transition.  You have not led transition well until you ask “who has lost what?”  Lead your teams to ask this question so they are prepared to recognize grief when it arrives.

Thomas helps leaders navigate what’s next in their lives, leadership, and teams.  If he can serve you in this, reach out to him HERE.

Photo by Marcus Ganahl on Unsplash

I founded Thompson Leadership to come alongside leaders like you. Together, we will unpack your unique leadership, unearth your biggest challenge, and create an action plan to close the gap between where you are and where you want to be.
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