How to Lead Even When You Have a Heavy Heart

Our feelings are a feature, not a bug

I have a heavy heart today. What’s going on in our country is sad and horrible, no matter your beliefs or affiliations. I know I am not alone in this feeling. Nor am I alone in asking, “how do we lead in such a tough time?” And far beyond this season we are in, we as individuals, our teams, our communities, and our companies are alive, experiencing personal and professional wins and losses.

So then, “How do I lead even when I’m not doing so great”? This is a question I began to answer many years ago, culminating in the ‘leading-through-tough-stuff’ muscle that I have today. Although the experiences that shaped me were challenging, I’m grateful for the lessons. I’m also thankful for the ability to decide what feels right for me and my teams when bad things happen at home, in our communities, or in the business.

While I continue to evolve and grow myself in this area, these lessons about leading with a heavy heart may be helpful as you have your own challenges, trauma, and responsibilities, and as you continue to lead yourself and others. 

The Tripwire

I was recently asked, “how do you stay positive as a leader in tough times?”

My response: Sometimes positivity is not the answer. In some situations, expressing positive sentiment is the most tone-deaf and ineffective thing we can do. At a minimum, in really tough times, it conveys we are not connected to (or empathizing with) a lived experience or worse, we are aware and connected, but ram forward with “business as usual” anyway. This business as usual approach is particularly damaging to both others that are hurting as much as it is damaging to ourselves if we are walking with a heavy heart. 

Not to mention, in the most challenging moments, it’s often inauthentic to our feelings and experience to express positivity, even if coming from a genuine desire to help others. 

This made me think about the fact that some think positivity is the only answer, even when they are going through a tough time. This is emotional labor - the gap between who we most naturally are in a given moment and who we put effort into becoming for a situation. Too much emotional labor can lead to great stress, which ultimately can add up to mental, emotional, and physical health issues down the road.

As leaders, we are humans first. Some days we will “bite the bullet” and lead despite what weighs on our hearts and minds. Other times, we may take ourselves out of the game, excuse others, reschedule the meeting (for ourselves or others), or change the format to be less demanding. 

In lieu of positivity, or when I feel it’s neither appropriate nor my genuine sentiment, I focus on these things instead. This varies a little if it’s an entire group vs an individual:

  1. Confronting reality - simply saying “I see what you see, and we are where we are” is powerful

  2. Focusing on possibility instead of positivity - talking about what’s possible can give hope and the sense of exploring options vs. promising positive outcomes that some just cannot see or believe in a given moment

  3. Pointing out some things that are changing for the better and my “reasons to believe” in the possibilities

  4. Asking individuals to share their perspectives if it’s a group, and ONLY IF they have the energy and desire to do so (this helps convey a variety of perspectives that show it’s worse for some, better for others, and just talking about it can help)

  5. Sharing what we can control and creating a supportive environment to act on those things - change the world, start at home

  6. Sharing the opportunities the tough moment may create. Some call it silver linings, but in the peak of trauma, no one wants to hear about silver linings. Save that for later, when things are more processed

I have had many moments when I and/or my team feel the weight of the world, even if it’s just coming from something at home. And I've seen and learned approaches that help me best care for myself and others. I hope a few of these stories are helpful, inspiring, and freeing. 

When you are experiencing deep personal loss, grief, or trauma

I remember my second miscarriage. I had just traveled from Atlanta to Phoenix for a keynote the next day. I was in my hotel room when it happened. It happened before, so I knew what it was, and I wasn’t scared, but I was devastated. Daley and I wanted our son Ocean to have a sibling. And of course, my mind thought, “the clock is ticking”. 

When we experience pain or loss in close proximity to needing to be there for others, like work or parenting, I’ve learned to ask myself a few questions: 

  • Am I physically ok? (In this case, I called my Dr., and the answer was yes)

  • Are you emotionally ok? (In this case, the answer was, no…but I can process this)

  • Are you mentally ok? (In this case, the answer was, kinda)

I take the answers to those questions and make a personal decision on if I have the energy to show up for others, even if a little less than normal. This time, I decided that I had time to reflect, eat, and rest and that I would be strong enough to focus on my keynote the next day. I also felt the keynote would feel like a bit of normalcy, and that I welcomed the distraction. The keynote went incredibly well, they never knew, but I cried most of the flight to my next work meeting in Dallas. 

When it’s time to take some time

Our team had an evening happy hour scheduled the night I arrived. I sent a text to them saying, “I’m not feeling well. Going to stay in tonight. You guys enjoy. See you tomorrow”. All gave a thumbs up reaction, no big deal. One asked, “Need anything?”, and I responded, “All good”. I’m sure I missed valuable bonding time and maybe even an important conversation, but it was the right choice for me. 

I ate dinner in my room, cried a little, talked to my husband, and went to bed early. The next morning, I felt strong enough to go to the meeting. Before it started, over coffee with my team, I shared this: 

“Just so you guys know, I have some personal stuff going on, so if you see me checking my phone ( I knew my husband would be checking in on my), stepping out, or a little distracted, it’s got nothing to do with you or the meeting. Please let me know if I’m distracting in any way.” 

One asked if everything was ok. To which I said, “I’m sure it will be.” Another said, “do you want us to kick off the meeting without you, and you can join later?” I thanked them both and shared that I would be there, but may step away if needed. 

In the absence of information, people come to their own conclusions, and rarely positive ones. What may seem like a simple distraction to me may look like disapproval or disengagement from others. Sharing just enough about where your head, body, and/or heart are on a given tough day can prevent misinterpretations of natural emotions. It even motivates some to step up and help. 

Sometimes staying in the game is not the answer

Sometimes the right thing to do is to take a beat. To pause. To close shop (literally or figuratively) for the day or week - as a person, a team, or as a business. What leads to that decision varies widely and is deeply personal. But it IS a path. Protect yourself, process, reflect, heal, whatever you need to do. Stepping back in order to come back stronger is a powerful decision, despite the feeling we have to tough it out, stay “on” 24/7, and not let themselves skip a beat. 

Here are some ways to convey you need to take some moments for yourself. Protect your energy when you need to dial down your presence, go offline, or take some time off to be the best leader for yourself and others.

  • Let’s make this a quick call instead of Zoom (add: it’s been a long day/week if you want to add a reason)

  • Would one of you mind running the meeting tomorrow? I have some things I need to tend to.

  • I’m taking the day off. (Add color if you like or feel you need to)

  • I need to unplug for a few hours, a day, a few days and recharge. I’ve rescheduled these meetings, talk to you then!

  • Just reschedule things (dinner, meeting, call, appointment, etc.) and no explanation is needed.

  • Talk to a life partner or friend: Today has been hard, can you help (take the kids, handle something they ordinarily wouldn’t, give you space, keep you company, etc.)

Not everyone feels they have the ability to cancel a meeting or say, “I can’t be there today”. Think about all the hierarchy and power dynamics in most groups, and be sure you aren’t letting that cause someone to silence themselves and not ask for what they need.

I’m hoping this inspires others, no matter the level of employee or leader, to realize this is what is best sometimes and to feel more confident speaking up for what we need while being sure others know they should do the same. 

When it’s others that have a heavy heart (individually or as a group, in addition to you or separate from your experience)

It’s especially important for a leader to tune in to the team and be aware if one, some, or all are feeling heavy, whether or not the leader also does. This is easier and more natural if the leader sees them as the individuals they are, has a personal relationship, and is familiar with general and specific things going on in their community and lives. That’s one more reason to build connections with teams when times are good - it becomes foundational to optimally navigate when things are bad. 

I’ve learned that I’ll never say exactly the right thing, but waiting is almost always a bad idea. Silence reinforces a feeling of invisibility (or worse, can lead some to believe that it’s not that you don’t know how to address something, it’s that you won’t). My approach: see something or sense something, then say something. I have been the beneficiary of leaders checking in on me, or calling out if something seemed off. 

Here are some ideas for demonstrations of care and concern that will help you tune into the needs of an individual, a group, or an entire company:

  • There’s a lot going on right now, how are you? Is there anything we should push or reschedule? I want you to have the space you need.

  • There’s a lot going on, and I know this week is heavy for many. Out of reverence for that, I’m moving tomorrow’s call and presentation to early next week. We can follow up one on one for anything that is time-sensitive. 

  • I know you are going through a tough time, would you like me to take on tomorrow’s client call for you or reschedule it?

  • I know the line of work you are in is only reminding you of “x” and is very difficult right now. Let’s talk about that. What can we do differently?

  • I’ve chatted with you/some of you, and I know this is a difficult time, here are some ideas from the group for how we move through the next few days (share what you’ve heard)

  • This may not be true for everyone, but my heart is heavy and my mind is a little distracted by what’s going on. I propose we move X important meeting from zoom to call, and we move tomorrow’s presentation to next week. What are your thoughts? 

  • I know how heavy this is. I want you to know you can take time or space if needed, and we have X available to help or support you (resources, team members they can delegate to or that can take on part of the work, etc.)

Leading when we have a heavy heart varies depending on the situation, but as a leader, you must protect yourself and your energy in order to show up for others. And keep in mind the same is true for your teams. You have choices:

  1. Take a pause, delegate, or cancel commitments and take care of yourself

  2. Still engage, but let the team know you have a heavy heart, things on your mind, etc., and manage expectations for your involvement

  3. Decide to show up and use the distraction of work or responsibilities to bring yourself connectivity and joy, but be sure to still being tuned into the needs of your team, who may be experiencing similar or greater heaviness at any point in time and may have or need different approaches to cope and process

We are only human. As leaders, we must care for ourselves, communicate at least a little of what we are going through, and manage those dynamics with grace and compassion for ourselves and others. At the end of our days, we are not going to remember or care about one more meeting. We will care about how we took care of ourselves to show up for our friends and family, and we will certainly care about how we made people feel along the journey.