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Leading During Crisis: How to be OK When We’re Not

I, like much of the Jewish community, have been deeply impacted by the events that took place on October 7, 2023. The overwhelming sense of grief has been prominent in my daily life. Following the below has been a tremendous help in allowing me to move forward during these difficult times. I hope this can be of some help for those struggling like myself. Please know that you are not alone.

“I’m not OK, but I have to be OK.”

We've all been there and may be there now (deep breath). We’re not so OK inside, but we have to keep our day-to-day lives going, and often even excel. Whether we're navigating the turbulence of grief, witnessing heartbreaking political strife, wrestling with an important relationship, or acclimating to the altered reality of a post-pandemic world, one thing is clear, life doesn’t pause for our struggles.

How do we keep it all together?

Showing Up at Work When We’re Not OK

The daily “stuff” at work can seem insignificant compared to the grief or turmoil we’re feeling. Yet these difficult feelings can often cause us to lose our drive and sense of purpose. Sadly, doing so only perpetuates the problem. Here are strategies that can help us cope during hard emotional times.

Allow Ourselves to Feel and Grieve

Inner turbulence is a healthy yet often painful and difficult response to a loss in our lives. Research tells us that pushing those feelings away actually makes them more powerful and harder to manage. This is even more true when the feelings are painful and uncomfortable, and when we are experiencing different stages of grief.

Most of us are familiar with psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who first proposed a model of five stages of grief in her book “On Death and Dying” in 1969. The stages listed below are not linear or universally experienced but represent common emotional responses that one might go through when coping with loss. I have found this to be so helpful both in my coaching and chaplaincy work. When we can identify what we are going through, we can make better choices for how to react and respond. Grief can be full of unpredictability. Allow ourselves to experience the ups and downs and acknowledge that our feelings are normal. For centuries mindfulness has taught that “riding the wave” and allowing ourselves to feel rather than fight our discomfort, provides space to bring us closer to acceptance and healing.

Denial. Initially, we have feelings of shock and disbelief that make it hard to accept the truth. Tools: Listening to ourselves without judgment and expressing emotions in a journal or with trusted confidants.

Anger. As reality sets in, we often feel very frustrated, angry, and even livid at ourselves, others, and/or the situation. Tools: Lean into safe and supportive spaces and people to express these emotions. Be prepared that it may take several rounds to begin to feel relief. That’s OK.

Bargaining. We attempt to negotiate to regain what we’ve lost. This may involve making promises or reversing the loss. Tools: Mindfully observe the fear and pain we may be feeling. Self-soothe using loving words to hold ourselves as we begin to feel the reality of the difficult change taking place.

Depression. We start to feel deep and heavy sadness, emptiness, or hopelessness. Tools: Move slower, clear our calendars to sleep, walk, meditate, talk, cry, and allow our sadness to flow. And, reach out to others for support as our energy is low and the loss hurts deeply.

Acceptance. Eventually, we begin to come to terms with the reality of the situation. Tools: We begin to acknowledge the loss as a changed reality. We experiment with how to adjust to life again, even while still not feeling OK. And move forward one step and a day at a time with hope as our guide.

Name the Loss, and Pair it with Purpose

By giving the loss name or label to our experiences — sadness, anger, denial, shame, and/or fear — we can begin to understand and process more effectively. Recognizing and verbalizing our emotions allows time and space to confront them, explore their roots, and gradually come to acceptance. Grief, loss, and other difficult emotions cloud our sense of direction.

Positive psychology emphasizes the importance of consciously reconnecting with what brings us fulfillment and joy as a means of coping in the moment and fostering resilience for the future. Reinvesting in meaning, purpose, personal goals, and values can serve as a guiding light to help us move forward. Think about leveraging our strengths and channeling energy positively to stimulate growth and healing.

Hold Both Truths

There’s an idea called emotional ambivalence. This refers to our ability to experience and hold contradictory emotions or states of being simultaneously. In other words, it’s within the “normal” human experience to hold different narratives simultaneously, to feel OK and not OK at the same time.

Being aware of these narratives and understanding that they can and need to co-exist, can help us a great deal to work through the pain. The key to holding both truths, however, is to validate and honor our feelings without judgment or resistance and in time to return to our mission and purpose.

Be Kind to Ourselves

Self-kindness and self-compassion can be the most difficult practices to maintain in the face of grief. It’s often easier and more natural to empathize and comfort others through their struggles. Some of this is part of being a “helping professional,” someone whose focus is to help support and guide others, especially in hard times.

It often helps to speak to ourselves with empathy, warmth, and understanding, just as we would to a beloved family member or close friend. Using supportive, encouraging, and empowering words, rather than self-deprecation can stimulate positivity in our minds. Increased positivity is energizing and motivating and can help soothe our grief.

Engaging in self-care and self-love activities like a yoga class, warm baths with calming salts and essential oils, journaling, or simply giving ourselves extra time to rest can help us release grief and/or sadness.

How to Successfully Lead Through Crises

To the CEOs, VPs, managers, and other leaders reading this: the responsibility to uphold an enduring sense of positivity and nurture a culture of perpetual growth might feel as though it’s bearing down solely on us. Here are some strategies for managing a team through stormy waters.

Devote Crucial Face Time to Each Team Member

During times of crisis, we managers and leaders need to cut the "busyness" on our calendars and give one-on-one time to each person we supervise. When people are struggling internally, it's easy to bury the feelings and pretend like everything's OK. As leaders, it's our job to provide a platform in which talent can speak openly and comfortably about not being OK. Providing this space will very often result in reconnection and recommitment to work, their sense of purpose, and feelings of being increasingly more OK.

Talent will often feel the need to put up a facade and hide what they are going through. As leaders, it’s crucial to acknowledge and honor what’s happening and empower our teams in feeling seen and heard. It’s also crucial to model our values, that we are human above all else. This means showing up for others in their struggles and, when appropriate, letting employees know we are doing the same with our own internal struggles and grief.

Dedicate Time to the Difficult Narrative

Whether for us or for our teams, it’s important to allocate time each day to acknowledge our personal struggles and/or worldly crises. As we know more than we may want to admit, the only healthy way around difficult situations is through them.

Dedicating time to this narrative may mean engaging an individual who’s struggling and being there for them. It might even mean scheduling a weekly “Wellness Wednesday” meeting so the team can discuss non-work-related realities.

Lean On Other Leaders

We leaders need to remember that the burden isn’t entirely on us and it’s not healthy to go through it alone. Connecting and collaborating with colleagues to organize gatherings with a sense of purpose and discussing the problem together will create much-needed relief and camaraderie. Meals, break times, and even ‘happy hours' can be designed to meet this need in person and online when meeting live isn’t possible. Encouraging talent who are interested in helping organize these gatherings is often helpful as well, as it provides outlets for those who need to take action.

Immerse Ourselves in Community

For us and our team members, human connection and support is even more crucial during times of grief and sadness. Immersing ourselves in community can greatly lift up our spirits. At the core of every difficult situation can be unity, compassion, and a new opportunity.

Further Guidance

Overcoming grief and distress is a journey that is unique to each of us. As leaders, we need to allow talent the space to process as they see fit while creating a system of support and community. Over the last four years, I have undergone intensive chaplaincy and grief training at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles and the UCLA Santa Monica Hospital. It has been an invaluable emotional, spiritual, and intellectual growth experience in understanding and learning to cope in the face of shock, grief, sadness, and the eventual return to purpose and meaning. For anyone struggling, regardless of faith or background, I am here to support in any way possible.

For those in crisis or in need of immediate help, please contact the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988.

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