Leadership through a personal crisis

One of the hardest things about being in a leadership position is understanding that you’re so visible, and your actions or behaviour — whether intentional or not — can send ripples through a large sphere of influence. In this post I want to give some tips about how to handle times when you’re not in a good place, balancing taking care of yourself with your leadership responsibilities.

I vividly remember Tom Blomfield — a person who’s been very open about his challenges — once telling a story in an All Hands about the moment he realised the influence he had on how others were feeling. I’m paraphrasing here, but the story was around how if he was to walk through the office looking utterly dreadful, people would worry about him, worry about the company’s situation, and maybe even worry about their jobs. If he was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, he could in the same way radiate positivity, motivation, and excitement.

As a person in a leadership position, your influence is felt sometimes more widely than you realise. It’s not just about how well you can carry out your work. Even subtle things like how tired you look, how quiet you are in meetings, your tone, abrasiveness, or abruptness changing even slightly can impact those around you.

The problem is… things happen in life whether we like it or not. We can’t all be totally ok all of the time, and the goal shouldn’t be to put on a fake front whilst inwardly crumbling.

Everyone’s level of what constitutes a personal crisis is different, but it could be anything from dealing with a bereavement, relationship problems, health issues, the loss of a pet, or just a day where the black cloud of depression looms a bit too close.

I’ve shared pretty openly about having some tough times over the last year, and this is a topic I’ve reflected on a lot. This stuff is hard. Thinking about it in advance can hopefully set you up better for if something bad subsequently happens, and so I thought I’d write a post with that in mind.

The goal isn’t to pretend that we’re always ok

When awful things happen, for many of us the inclination is to carry on. Work can be a welcome distraction, you may be in denial or not ready to face up to what’s happening, you may be embarrassed or feel unable to vocalise what’s going on with you, or you may be scared of letting your work know for fear of your job.

As a leader, there’s arguable an increased amount of pressure to carry on as usual. You may feel unable to step away from practicalities at short notice, you may experience guilt, or even worry about how people will think about your competency. “I should be resilient and able to rise above hard times” is a common pattern that many equate to “I always have to be ok, no matter what”.

The usual cavats apply here — in your situation maybe this actually is the case. Maybe for whatever reason you do have to carry on as normal (especially if you’re in a toxic workplace, or as a member of an underrepresented group are subject to more scrutiny), but I’d always challenge you to think about whether you can take care of yourself. Regardless of your situation, I’ve got a few tips that you may find useful, especially if you’re in a leadership position where you can influence and advocate widely on behalf of others.

Set yourself (and others!) up for hard times by planning in advance

Build a culture where people can be open about life challenges

It’s a whole lot easier for people to ask for help and share that they need to make adjustments if you’re actively building a culture where psychological safety, trust, and empathy are core principles. Diversity can also be a huge factor here, as the more varied people and lives there are, the greater the appreciation becomes for different types of struggles.

It’s really important to make sure that this is continued at leadership level too. Part of doing this well is about being clear to your teams and the wider company: “I’m a leader, I have responsibilities, but I’m also human and vulnerable. There will be times where everyone, including me, need to step away from work, and that’s to be expected”.

However, consider how much you share. There’s a balance between openness and giving people something to empathise with or understand the gravity of your situation, vs over-sharing and making people worry about your capabilities or competence generally. “I’m going through a divorce and need to take some time to step away and focus on my family” leaves people with a very different feeling than, say, “my husband left me for my sister, I’m drinking wayyyy too much every day, and I just really don’t care about work or myself or life at all right now”. Both may be true, but they’re very different ways of communicating. The former can come across as a really tough life event that people can empathise with but still gives confidence that you’re somewhat in control. The latter could leave people concerned about your wellbeing, judgement, future at the company, and more. It’s also possible to create a culture of over-sharing negativity where people end up dragging each other into a “doom spiral”. Make sure you consider the balance here.

Have trusted people who agree to watch out for warning signs, and tell you when to step away

Even if you’re keen to work through your challenges it’s worth bringing at least one trusted person into the loop to have your back. When working through a personal crisis your perception may not match how other people feel — you may feel fine to work, but could be making others uncomfortable, upset, or concerned without realising.

Not many people will feel safe to call out their boss to stop and take time away, or not everyone will have the relationship with you to feel they can pull you up. Having an agreement with a trusted colleague who’ll tell you honestly if they think you need to step away for a while can help you stop second guessing yourself.

Again, your situation may vary, but I hope that stepping away is always an option for you. Sometimes it’s absolutely the best thing to do, both for you, and for the people around you. This can also come in varying degrees. For example, taking a month off, taking a day off, or simply dropping some of your responsibilities down. For me line management 1:1s are the first to go as I know I won’t have the emotional energy to support people properly. I’d rather skip a 1:1 or point someone to a stand-in than do a terrible job.

Think about what you do and don’t need from others, and communicate this

Communication is so, so important. Depending on how you’re doing you may want to do this directly, or may want to bring in someone else to do it on your behalf. Regardless, it’s really important that people know what your intentions are, and what you do and don’t need from them. This can also include how you want to be treated! People can find it really hard to know how to respond when you’re throwing out heavy stuff, so nudging them on this front will really help. If you’re taking time off, let people know your intentions and ideally give them a time period and plan for your return rather than leaving this as indefinite.

Let’s use another hypothetical example: you’ve just been diagnosed with a really serious illness. In this case you may want to share something similar to the following.

“Hey Joan. I know I’ve been off for a couple of days, but I wanted to catch you up on my situation. I’m sharing this to give you context in case I’m erratic over the next couple of weeks, but also because I’d like your help with a couple of things. I’ve been diagnosed with X, which is going to mean that I need to make several hospital trips over the next month. I’ll be putting them in my calendar. It’s also going to take me a bit of time to fully process it mentally, but I’m doing ok on that front so far, and I’m otherwise ok to work. I’d ask that nobody treats me any differently as I don’t want to wallow - I promise I’ll ask if I need anything. On that front it’d be a huge help if you could cover my responsibilities on X project so that I don’t have to worry about clashes with my appointments. What would you need to be able to do that?”

Give people permission to call you out

Similarly to having people watch your back, or asking for what you need, communicating that you give people permission to call you out if they notice anything off can also be really powerful.

Without this, people may not give you feedback on the impact you’re having, especially if they know you’re having a tough time. Maybe you’re going through a breakup, you’re not sleeping, and you’ve been snapping at people in meetings but haven’t noticed. I promise you the people around you have noticed, but they may feel like they’d be piling onto your misery by pulling you up for bad behaviour.

By thinking about how you tend to react in hard times, and sharing advance permission of “if you notice this, I want you to tell me and would consider it help”, it makes it easier for folks to feel they can watch our for certain things, and can then approach you kindly by referring back to the previous conversation. “Hey, you mentioned you may have a tendency to get snappy at points over the next few weeks. From my perspective your interaction with Megan earlier was harsh, and I wanted to bring it up in case you hadn’t noticed and wanted to apologise. I hope things get better if this is an indication that things are particularly hard for you at the moment.”

Be consistent

If you tell people you’re ok to work, then you need to be ok. If you tell them you’re not ok and need a month off, don’t turn up the next day and say you’re ok after all. Setting an expectation for one thing, then going against that not only makes it harder for people to trust your judgement and competency as a leader at that point, but it also makes it much harder for them to challenge and support you.

This also builds over time — the more clear you are about your needs, and the more reality matches that, the easier others will find it to help you through tough times.

This can be really, really hard in the heat of the moment as sometimes you genuinely don’t know what you need! That’s ok. Again, try to lean on your trusted people for their guidance and support, and keep this tip in the back of your mind when you communicate more widely.

Succession planning is always useful

Planning your succession proactively can really help lighten the load and give everyone confidence if you need to disappear for an extended period at short notice.

For some this can feel challenging. Nobody wants to feel like they’re replaceable, but that’s not the goal here. By planning cover for the bulk of practicalities it should be easy for the business to keep the lights on; do the business as usual pieces without you. They won’t get the added value that you normally bring, it won’t be exactly the same (you will be missed!), but crucially things can function without you.

This is great to do anyway, even if that crisis never comes! Thinking about succession planning can help find opportunities for others to pair and grow into new things, it can help you think about whether you really need to keep owning that one thing you’re precious about, and it also makes it easier to go away and switch off for more positive breaks, like holidays!

Role model how you’d want others to look after themselves

Finally, the point that I want to end on is probably the one that I care about the most. As a leader, if people see you not stepping away from work even though you’re having a crap time, regardless of what you say they’ll internalise that they can’t either. Even if you’re sure you’re somehow able to carry on as normal, consider taking some token time off to help others feel they can do. Not everyone is as superhuman as you may be, and so think about how your actions could be interpreted.

Bad times aren’t opportunities, they’re crap. However, through role modelling behaviours during this difficult time you can also make things better for others in the future. For example, I’ve been deliberately open about personal experiences of death, miscarriage, relationship challenges, therapy, and antidepressants, in the hope that others will feel like they can similarly ask for help (or come to me to talk) if they end up in a similar boat.

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Balancing and mitigating the impact of a personal crisis across your leadership responsibilities, personal wellbeing, and the impact on your team/the business is always tough. It can be made even harder when you’re dealing with it reactively whilst also processing what you’re going through. Hopefully this post can spark some ideas of how to set yourself up well for anything in the future, although I wish you a life free of drama as much as possible!

Thanks to Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash for the header image.