It’s the death you mourn alone that hurts the most.
I have to warn you up front: this one is going to read more like a philosophy statement and less like a statement on leadership or strategy than my usual posts. I hope you’ll understand.
A year or so ago, I had a conversation with a crusty, tough, absolutely stoic executive. He had completed countless restructurings, fired and hired multitudes of people, and extracted value from untold situations that others might not have been able to find. He had been through many tough times as an individual and as a professional, and I had never seen him respond with any emotion, much less sadness.
And then he told me about the death of his dog, and he crumbled. He told me what a mess he was at the death of his longtime companion, how he had been reduced to tears at even the thought of losing his pup. It was enough to make me go home and contemplate…
Without resorting to psychoanalysis of this particular case, let me just put it this way: It’s plausible to say that the most acute pain one can feel is the pain of mourning alone, the pain of not having others to share grief with. It’s the pain that nobody else can understand, because they never experienced the subjective joy that has been lost.
But why write about this on the blog of a strategy consulting firm? Good question. I’ll give you two examples of why this lonesome mourning is relevant to top-level strategists and executives. First though, let me let you in on a secret: Senior executives have to deal with many lonely circumstances. Understanding that executives mourn completely alone on some topics is tantamount to understanding their role in the world; to those below, the CEO looks like he has it all, but you may not know what he’s dealing with behind the scenes.
What? No way. You’d take a half-mil a year to be lonely any time, am I right? Well, sure.
But suppose that behind the scenes, your board or your CEO is actively working toward removing you from your position in the firm; while you’re conducting your day-to-day duties both pleasant and not, you know there’s a target on your back, and no one else does. Maybe some of you would be perfectly comfortable with having to glad-hand and present to the crowd of employees while knowing that your board or CEO is in the process of seeking your silent ouster, but some of you would not. Either way, the emotional work required to maintain “state” duties while being silently attacked is an example of the emotional work of mourning in solitude. That is, it’s a pain unlike any other, and part of it is that you’re experiencing that pain alone. The more you as the executive like your role and your team, the harder it will be for you to go through this alone.
In addition, the (solitary) pain for you increases the more ham-handed your board or CEO is in seeking your exit. Having witnessed about a half-dozen botched senior executive firings from various points of view, I can tell you that there are both dignified and undignified ways to achieve a desired departure.
Which brings me to my second point.
Strategy involves big decisions including big resource moves, and sometimes, these kinds of decisions do involve putting people on islands and forcing them to deal with their plights alone. It may be the sales leader who’s losing a territory, the executive who faces reassignment or termination, or the machine operator who now has to go from running a beloved machine to managing inventory.
All of these persons could–not necessarily will but could–have to go through their own personal mourning periods, alone, and you as a leader can recognize their losses and respect their dignity or dismiss them with no concern. Choose dignity. You never know when your executive decision has just murdered the pet of some otherwise stoic and crusty-tough player on your team, so it might be best for us to think about that when we foist change on our organizations.
This is not to say, “Don’t change.” It’s to say, “Don’t be a jerk about it,” because you don’t know what others are going through, and—for you yourself as well as for anyone affected by your decisions—it’s the death you mourn alone that hurts the most.