To Lead with Resilience, Allow Grief

By Abby Saloma and Brandon Srot

There are “those who didn’t die, and those who came back to life.”

That is how renowned psychotherapist and child of Holocaust survivors, Esther Perel, describes the two groups of survivors who surrounded her when she was growing up in Antwerp, Belgium.

While the Holocaust is one of the most extreme historical examples, this concept could be applied to any crisis – a national tragedy like 9/11 or even a personal loss. 

It is resilience that enables human beings to survive, recover and even thrive in the wake of adversity. And, it is resilience that is going to enable leaders around the globe to navigate through and beyond COVID-19 to ultimately re-shape Jewish organizations and communities to be even stronger than they were before.

In order to access resilience, Jewish community leaders need to recognize and attend to the pervasive grief within their teams at this time. 

In this recent Harvard Business Review article, world-renowned grief expert David Kessler names the discomfort that so many people are feeling right now as grief. He says, “The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.”

Not only is grief being felt in the present moment – whether it is due to the loss of physical connection, the dissolution of boundaries between work and caregiving or the loss of a job or loved one – but as humans, the only species capable of contemplating a future, we are also grieving what may or may not transpire. This is known as “anticipatory grief” – forecasted losses of “future memories” such as not being able to celebrate lifecycle events, spend time with an aging parent or travel. Grief also connects people to the past. For those from marginalized communities, it can highlight and compound social and economic vulnerabilities that result from historical injustices. 

Since the start of COVID-19, the Schusterman Fellowship, a leadership development program for leaders committed to driving change in Jewish communities around the world, has been holding almost weekly calls to support our network of more than 100 senior executives including CEOs, rabbis and lay leaders. The topics of grief and resilience have surfaced repeatedly.

Fellows are seeking strategies to tend to their own grief and that of their teams. They are also expressing a desire to create a post-COVID future that is more equitable and just for them and all members of their communities. This tells us that if given the space and support to navigate grief, they will be more likely to emerge from the pandemic better equipped to exercise the caliber of leadership needed to create the future they are envisioning. 

Through the program, Fellows explore the four domains of leadership – physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. Grief impacts each of these domains. From compromised immune systems to a fogginess of mind, from lower motivation to a deeper questioning of purpose, the shadows of grief can be far-reaching. 

At this time of COVID-19, we see a range of responses; there are those who struggle to be productive and those in overdrive. Some have surrendered to the disruptions of daily life while others are grasping for order and control. Many endeavor to just get through the demands of home life while others offer an outstretched arm to those in need. 

Just as the process of grief knows no rules, so too are the varied ways in which people can respond. In organizations where there is no container for the grief, we might see increased levels of apathy, confusion and disengagement. Team morale may dwindle as people withdraw and feelings of fear and loneliness rise. 

Conversely, in spaces where leaders grant permission to ride the natural waves of loss, team members will feel emotionally safer, more supported and respected as human beings. Such psychological safety can become a meaningful base for moving through grief – and for building strong organizational cultures where people and teams can thrive.       

As Marty Linsky, author of “Leadership on the Line” recently said on a call for leaders navigating the crisis, “If you are a CEO or board chair, you need to recognize that you are in the grief counseling business. That will help you and the rest of the organization get through this and get to the other side.” 

The following are five steps leaders can take to acknowledge their own grief and that of their teams so they can tap into their personal and collective resilience: 

  1. Check In

As you start the day, open a meeting, or have a conversation over Zoom, take time to check in to see how you and your team are doing and feeling. Be present and empathetic to yourself and others. Recognizing where you and your team are in this moment provides critical insights into team dynamics, morale and expectations. Questions such as “How are you really doing?” or “What is bringing you energy and what are you struggling with right now?” can lead to meaningful check ins. Leaders need to recognize that team members may require varying levels of support as a result of intergenerational, systemic and/or personal traumas that they may be holding in this moment.

  1. Practice Acceptance

Know that some days will be easier than others; grief is an ongoing process of trying to accept and adjust to the reality of the loss. When programs have been cut, staff let go or budgets severely diminished, people need time to process and adapt to these changes. Practicing acceptance allows emotions to arise without judging or diminishing them. Where you are today is not necessarily where you will be tomorrow, and what is being experienced is not permanent. State of mind impacts performance, so leaders dealing with difficult emotions will be best served by taking a break – even just 15 minutes – and encouraging team members to do the same. 

  1. Process Emotions

Feelings need to be named and felt, conversations need to be had, memories need to be shared. These are some of the ways in which we process our emotions. An organizational culture that allows – even encourages – talking, sharing and reminiscing can help team members process their grief. In doing so, we allow ourselves and our colleagues to adjust to new realities. Recognizing the boundaries of their expertise, leaders can also access professional grief support for themselves and refer their team members, if needed.

  1. Explore Meaning 

Loss can present an opportunity to connect with or be reminded of deeper meaning. What can the organization learn from this moment? Is there a way the organization can return to its core values, mission and purpose? What is critical and why? Attributing meaning is a human reflex; exploring meaning is the work of leadership! 

  1. Create Rituals 

Just as we tell our story from slavery to freedom or as we move from Shabbat into the rest of the week, rituals have a way of marking important moments and can help leaders to express that which is difficult to communicate in words. Creating rituals can help teams and organizations honor important transitions, whether it is the passing of a colleague or the end of a program. Some powerful rituals include lighting a candle, reading a prayer or poem, wearing a specific color of clothing, singing together or installing a gratitude practice.

Some people believe that speaking about grief bears the risk of generating more distress. The imperative to “toughen up and get on with it” unfortunately still echoes through many workplaces. What we know, however, is that recognizing, naming and processing emotions loosens their grip and softens the pain. 

The experience of grief can be an asset, and when given time to be acknowledged, can be a tremendous resource for resilience that leaders need to transcend this crisis and bring their organizations and communities back to life.

Abby Saloma is the Senior Director of Leadership and Talent at the Schusterman Family Foundation where she oversees the Schusterman Fellowship. 

Brandon Srot is a psychotherapist, a leadership facilitator with expertise in adaptive leadership and a Schusterman Senior Fellow.