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As a leader, it’s easy to minimize the personal crises we're going through.
We’re typically the support system for the individuals on our team, usually their first line of support at work. We’re acutely aware of the different crises these individuals are going through, so when one of our own pops up, we’re desensitized. We minimize. We forget to give ourselves permission to feel sorrow. We struggle to write an article on leading through a personal crisis because we ask ourselves, ‘are we really going through a crisis? Is it enough of a crisis?’
But sorrow is heavy. It weighs. Even dismissing a crisis requires acknowledging there is a crisis first, and that alone can be exhausting. How then do we lead when we ourselves are overwhelmed? How do we maintain the courage to have hope? How do we show up?
We need to stop minimizing our personal crises.
2022 has been a year of crises for me personally. From my parent's cancer diagnosis and parents separating to helping a close relative manage their mental health at a critical junction and a grandparent being admitted to the hospital for COVID-19, the crises have come one after the other, all in a span of weeks.
My first inclination was to minimize: my coworker who is actually fighting cancer is in a far worse position. Or the coworkers who are worried about their parents and family members in Ukraine. Or the coworker who is actually going through a mental health crisis.
But it didn’t work. Ignorance is hardly leadership and by minimizing, I was failing to recognize the impact my personal situation was having on myself and those around me. Worse still, my refusal to admit that I was overwhelmed only meant I was creating an environment where being overwhelmed was expected: I was burning out others. Something had to change.
As I reflected on the situation, I was reminded of the training offered to all leads at Shopify. It focuses on leading the business, your team, and yourself. I realized that my ignorance was a failure in leadership at all levels; not only was I failing to lead my team and the business, I was failing to lead myself. This had to change.
To lead effectively, I had to find the courage to be vulnerable and the self-compassion to be authentic.
Having the courage to be vulnerable
For me, vulnerability meant having the courage to accept being uncomfortable and being willing to open up. It required courage to be willing to take a highly personal risk to share not my personal situation but my emotions. My feelings. There was a risk of being invalidated – to be seen as not strong enough – or worse, burdening others. But it had to be done. Failing to be vulnerable was a failure to lead myself, and without that, there was no leadership at all.
I chose to share my situation and how it was impacting me with my team. Doing this forced me to be pragmatic and even optimistic about how I could balance everything. I didn't want to ‘dump’ my problems or make excuses; rather, I wanted to share what I needed to be impactful.
For example, my time had become compressed due to me accompanying my mother to her cancer treatments and I needed to change my working hours. I considered several options: taking a short-term leave, leveraging flexible hours, or working part-time. I tried flexible hours at first but quickly found myself drained working every evening to ‘make up’ the time. I was (and am) adamant about keeping weekly 1:1s so I tried maximizing my time by turning them into 2:1s, meeting with two people simultaneously. It was a worthwhile experiment but didn't have great results.
Eventually, I ended up switching to part-time hours combined with ruthless delegation, but the point is that being vulnerable made it easier for the team to accept and even propose changes. Everyone was open to experimentation and positive even if experiments failed.
Most importantly, my vulnerability gave permission to others to be vulnerable, to share what they needed, and showed them how to share what they needed. Everyone goes through crises at different times and at different levels. As leaders, we have an opportunity and responsibility to develop resilient teams by sharing our own journeys and being vulnerable.
Having the self-compassion to be authentic
Authenticity for me has often meant integrity and self-acceptance, which then makes it possible to be vulnerable with others. Vulnerability is an emotional risk, but only because we let it be. My failure to validate my own feelings meant I was susceptible to any judgment, any hint of invalidation from others which would make vulnerability a reckless risk. I needed to take the time to say to myself and my lead, ‘I am overwhelmed.’
‘I am overwhelmed.’
Being authentic meant acknowledging this fact, and self-compassion meant that it didn't matter how much worse someone else had it. To be authentic meant acknowledging that no matter how hard I tried, my work and personal life were intertwined because I was the common denominator in both. One affects the other, and it is too much work to be two people. The choice to be authentic made me secure enough to be vulnerable as my own validation was enough and the judgment of others became irrelevant.
My security in myself allowed others to understand and support me. A small step of kindness to myself was followed by hundreds of steps of kindness by others. When we take the step to help ourselves by recognizing our own needs and being our true selves, it can be followed by the entire universe conspiring to help us. It's paradoxical because those who are struggling to help themselves need the help but in my experience, those who help themselves are the ones that receive more help.
It's now four months into the year. My mother's chemotherapy treatments are progressing well and her bloodwork is promising. My grandmother recovered from COVID-19. Mental health for my close family member is a longer effort but I am optimistic that this too, shall pass. New crises will come but even so, I am hopeful. Any crisis is a growth opportunity and makes us stronger. I've become stronger as a leader and far kinder as a human. I build stronger connections with others. I delegate more. But most of all, sorrow no longer weighs on me.