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Unexpected Lessons about Grief from a Leadership Coach

Sometimes we’re grieving and don’t know how it’s impacting our lives so profoundly.

Photo by Mike Labrum on Unsplash
Photo by Mike Labrum on Unsplash

Sometimes we’re grieving and don’t know how it’s impacting our lives so profoundly. 

My students and coachees remind me of this all the time. They never cease to amaze me and I’m so grateful for them. Their lessons are so ever important now during these heightened times of grief, loss, and injustice in the United States, but too around the globe.   

Intense feelings. In talking with a human rights community organizer, friend, and coachee, I am reminded of the quote “Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life…as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed” – Booker T. Washington. So true and something I see in my leadership practices all the time. We grow leaps and bounds when we harness how our actions are fueled by our emotions. I’ll sum up why success involves learning from grief and my experience with three unforeseen lessons.   

This is how it all started, my community organizer friend, very much a high achiever and client, shared with me a loss she experienced in her life. I knew she experienced this loss and injustice but I never heard her talk about it in this way with me. Since she’s my friend, her loss is a by-product loss for me too. Although very traumatic, we talked about how the powerful gift of coaching with me, was to her, but least she knew, making a profound impact on me. 

Through our laughter, and eventually, through our tears, she reminded me of three enduring pearls of wisdom about grief. With permission from this friend,

Act Anyway while Grieving. Her conflict and ultimate loss spontaneously grew her, both personally and professionally. She told me that, although she discussed this same issue of grief with her hairdresser just the other day, it wasn’t the same. Differently with the hairdresser than me, she talked about, due to how grief inspired her actions, she has grown to be the person she is now. This grief helped her with her life purpose. In her loss, she said to me that it like her emotions were ripping her apart. Subsequently, she took a gap year. Along with our many coaching sessions later, she became anew.  

Pearls of the Unknown.  A leadership truism that we all need right now: our why is more important than our how. My friend went on to tell me that it was hard for her to explain her loss because of so many of the unknown why’s of her loss. She told me that explaining the unknown was hard because they sparked feelings of sadness and confusion. She realizes that she probably will never know the “why’s” and the unknowns still spark grief. I tell my students and clients that grieving the unknown helps with all kinds of losses – no matter if they’re personal or professional. A timely message for what’s going on in the world now.  

Look in the Right Places. My friend was looking for outside approval and happiness from the source until that source was gone. She’s evolved since. Outside sources (social media “likes,” job, neighborhood, marriage, relationships, empty nest, etc) are circumstances, but you and the circumstance will never evolve unless you change your inner world. Her story reminded me of, in my work with leaders that, while they are high-achievers (attorneys, humanities professors, social entrepreneurs) and receive professional high marks, they still feel the need to grow somehow. Many think it is because they need to switch job-roles, professions, or even end their marriage, but they never end up finding the feeling they’re looking for because they start their search with the externals. This is sad because we need people in the helping/caring professions now more than ever. So instead of leading outside of themselves- I have them begin their next life iteration by leading from the inside out

Because of her loss story, I thank my friend for these reminders. 

She could not change what she lost – for it was gone – but all she could do was show up in her life as the best version of herself she could. She was going to grieve her loss no matter what she’d done, but she learned to understand how to be at peace with her lifelong grief. 

I’m grateful she’s my friend, for her three pearls of wisdom, and the gifts she gave me. I’ll never be the same.

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