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How Leadership Transitions Trigger Loss & Grief


Anyone else feeling a bit rudderless and adrift despite all the good news?


Amidst the joy and (cautious) optimism the past six or so days have brought, I have also felt a combination of deep sadness and mental paralysis as I process the last four years and daily monotony of lockdown. At first, I was disappointed that I couldn't shake the heaviness amidst all of the celebrations but then realized what I'm actually feeling is the grieving process. Oh, that old chestnut.

I'll continue to eat my feelings.

The fact is, everybody's grieving a loss.


Leadership transitions are both exciting and disruptive no matter how we slice them and we sometimes forget that they (like every significant change in our lives) spark some sort of grieving process. It doesn't matter if we directly benefit from the new "change in management" or not, we will at some point have to process what we're losing or giving up as a result. This can be deeply personal for some and not always immediately felt.


I'll never forget when my favorite high school choir teacher told us she was leaving the following year. I'll also never forget the day one of my toxic managers was finally shifted to another team and I got my life back. Two very different transitions, but both deeply felt and I grieved during both. According to the International Well Building Institute, "Building a supportive and resilient framework" can help during these times.


Our "losses" can range from saying goodbye to a beloved corporate culture or a favorite teacher (still not over it) to the ending of a toxic boss, which can be an ongoing process requiring extensive time and healing. Our losses can come with the brutal discovery that those we look up to never had our back in the first place.

Leadership transitions directly impact our health and by acknowledging that – and the inevitable grieving process that occurs – we can create systems of support.

Not having the right support can create fear and doubt (who has had enough of that lately?), and introduce stressors and anxiety which can negatively impact our health. Having the right support system in place will help everyone navigate the changes more successfully and at every level, not to mention help bring others along in the process.


How stressed are we? According to the 2020 study by The Commonwealth Fund which closely-examined COVID-19’s effects on people’s mental health and economic security as well as trust in national leadership during the pandemic, "One-third of U.S. adults reported experiencing stress, anxiety, and great sadness that was difficult to cope with by themselves, a significantly higher proportion than in other countries."


A leadership transition can certainly ease these already prevalent stressors – or worse, exacerbate them. While the stressors may go away, the grieving process remains.


Ask any change management or communications consultant and we'll highlight the importance of having a plan in place during a transition. That's because we know that organizations are communities, and therefore inherently human. As humans, our trust is earned over time – through strong and compassionate leadership, yes, but also clear communications, transparency, and information-sharing. Essentially, the sooner we can understand how the shift will directly impact us (our lives, jobs, security, etc.) the better.

We know that organizations are communities, and therefore inherently human. As humans, our trust is earned over time – through strong and compassionate leadership, yes, but also clear communications, transparency, and information-sharing.

Still, whether or not we're directly or indirectly impacted, there's no denying that leadership transitions are for many of us, a hard slog. Simply holding space for the grieving process to take place (no matter what you're giving up or the "side" you're on) will help in the long run.


Moving forward in 2021 will depend on people’s regained sense of control of their environment and autonomy in their daily lives. This gets us out of survival mode. Even the most minuscule changes can have a massive impact. This is both overwhelming and absolutely achievable – and it starts with a smooth transition and having a plan.


Reach out if this resonates, and let's connect. If you're looking for regular insights and tools, connect with me on LinkedIn and @jpaynebu on Twitter.


Until then, please be safe and be well.

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