The recent terrible, tragic shooting in Orlando struck close to home for me, literally. My family moved to Orlando almost 30 years ago. Although not born there, it’s the city I think of as home. My immediate family still resides in or near Orlando. For a period of time, I lived about a mile from the Pulse nightclub, the scene of the tragic events. For seven years, I taught at the University of Central Florida. When the names of the dead were released, I checked the names and photos to see if any were former students (they were not).
My close connection to Orlando led me to reflect on tragic events, and the challenges they present for leaders. In this column, I share some of my reflections and observations.
The first thing to understand is that beyond a few basic facts, most of what you hear, even from those “in the know” will end up being incorrect. The initial story is often pretty far from the one that emerges over time. This is a tricky situation for a leader, but it’s important to separate fact from speculation. Another reality made abundantly clear in the aftermath of the Orlando shooting is that individuals and groups will use the tragedy for their own purposes, to advance their own agendas. This is especially troubling given the fact to speculation ratio of the early days following a tragedy.
For organizational leaders, tragic events offer significant challenges. The closer to home the event, the bigger the challenges and the greater the consequences of responding poorly. As a leader, people will look to you for several things. First, they will look to you for stability, for leadership and for cues as to how to react. In some cases, your team may also look to you for information. Taken together, this means that you must be very careful about what you say, and how you act. If your team believes that you have insider information, they may take everything you say as fact, even if you explicitly state that your words are opinion or speculation. At the same time, you may have to deal with speculations. Keep in mind that even though speculations and rumors may be far from the truth, you still have to deal with them. People are also likely to express strong opinions after certain types of events. Don’t engage these individuals in debate, even if you have strong opinions. There may be time for that later, but not in the heat of the event.
Also keep in mind that people will react differently – some in ways you may find inappropriate. For example, when my maternal grandmother passed away, my family gathered. As Southern families do, we gathered and ate. I remember being quite upset at the amount of laughter and levity that accompanied our meal. Later someone (I don’t recall who) pointed out that this was just my family’s very effective way to deal with grief. While there are inappropriate behaviors, be sure that you don’t impose your way of coping on those you lead.
When a tragedy is close to home (your work “home”) one of a leader’s biggest challenges is processing and regulating her own emotions and reactions, while still seeming human. You don’t want to come off like a robot, emotionless and coldly logical, but you do need to recognize the impact your emotional reactions will have. You will need to find ways to process and deal with your emotions. One approach is to seek either a trusted friend who is not connected to your job, or a mental health professional to whom you can freely express your emotions. Just keeping them bottled up is not a good idea. However, letting them pour out publicly may be detrimental to those you lead. Your goal should be to serve as an anchor, a rock to whom your team can cling for stability in difficult times.
When tragedy strikes close to home, it can be tough to follow my advice. But such events are a test of true leadership. Let me leave you with one final thought. When the events have faded into the distance of time, so may the memory of the leadership you provided; this is natural, be content knowing that you’ve done your best for your people. FBN
By Craig Van Slyke, Ph.D.
I’m honored to lead Northern Arizona University’s W.A. Franke College of Business, home to over 3,400 students, and faculty and staff who are dedicated to the success of those students and the economic development of Northern Arizona. For more information on The W.A. Franke College of Business, please see: franke.nau.edu/. I welcome comments and feedback on these columns. Email your comments to: email@example.com, or follow me on Twitter @cvanslyke.