How Personal Hardships and Vulnerability Can Create Better Leaders (and People)

September 20, 2019 / POV
Tom Lindell

The following article was originally published in PRWeek.

In late January, the unthinkable happened. My family and I were flying back to Minnesota from a trip to Phoenix when our home was destroyed by a fire, just as a remodeling project was nearly complete. Neighbors texted photos during the flight, providing up-to-the-minute reports as the flames and smoke spread.

Despite the efforts of nine fire crews, nearly everything inside and outside the house was burned or unrecoverable. In the midst of a minus 50 degree wind chill, our only possessions were the warm-weather clothes in our carry-on bags. We had never felt so helpless and vulnerable.

As a leader of a 50-person PR agency, I quickly realized that this traumatic experience would follow me to the office. It would not only impact my role as a leader but also greatly affect my colleagues, particularly the agency’s senior executives. Every workplace has employees who face personal struggles, from family issues to health concerns. But what happens when the personal struggles are your own? How do modern leaders recover after experiencing such loss and vulnerability?

My family’s journey since January has been overwhelming at times but also filled with hope and strength. We have navigated through it with the help of friends, family and colleagues. But as far as I could tell, there are few manuals to help leaders adjust to unexpected events like this and continue to lead and inspire their organizations. I had to learn the hard way, and I can share insights to help prepare for the aftermath of an unexpected crisis in ways that can actually benefit organizations.

My first days back at the office after the fire had many awkward moments. I am well-known for avoiding hugs at all costs, but it was the one thing everyone could do to express empathy and support. I caved in within minutes of returning to work. Frankly, I needed them more than I realized and have since gotten over my reticence. I accepted many hugs during those first days – from colleagues, clients and friends. The real kind that demonstrated care.

Also, while some coworkers approached me almost immediately to offer condolences, others thought it best to avoid me. I learned quickly that it was best to acknowledge the topic head-on and answer any lingering questions about the fire so we could all move forward. I was also quick to admit that my life was very difficult, but I presented it with a positive outlook and even moments of levity. This helped people feel they could talk about it and that we could deal with any difficulties at work, despite what happened to me. But there were times when it was hard to interpret some of the lingering questions or comments, like when someone commented they were glad that all we lost was just stuff that could be replaced. Despite mixed emotions, I tried to always respond with gratitude and grace.

I look back on those early weeks with the belief that letting staff and colleagues understand my hardships helped us recover faster and promoted a workplace culture where people are allowed to be their real and true selves. My early behavior had a profound impact on ongoing productivity, employee culture and client work. For a while, people thought it was a burden to include me in certain meetings or on correspondence, when in reality it only made my job harder and could have slowed down the work. It was important for me to state that my work involvement should continue as always.

Of course, staying focused at work wasn’t easy. Soon after the house fire, my workload goals for the day were adjusted to navigate a barrage of meetings with investigators, adjustors and recovery specialists. It helped that I have an amazing wife who divided and conquered the burden with me. But I constantly reminded myself to turn off the chaos of my new reality while at work, even though that was harder than ever. Compartmentalizing agency work and personal matters made me more productive and better able to handle the upheaval. Being disciplined in this way is a practice that must be formed long before a personal crisis occurs.

One of the most important lessons I learned was about kindness as a business imperative. How we treat others and displaying genuine interest has a profound impact on productivity, retention and revenue growth. There is another dimension to kindness, and it’s about receiving generosity from others. Before the fire, it was much easier for me to show compassion to colleagues than it was to accept it. Today, I recognize that compassion goes two ways. Generosity — like colleagues making weeks of meals for my family or chipping in to replace the well-loved shoes I lost — helped us heal and move forward. It also created a supportive workplace culture that’s better prepared for other unexpected events where people want to be each day. A kind and nurturing work culture is an environment I’m proud to support.

While setbacks are inevitable within the advertising and public relations industries as well as in life, I don’t think anyone can be fully prepared for personal tragedies or crises. The most successful marketing and PR pros have developed resilience skills to effectively navigate work life with personal life. A leader’s response to setbacks can inspire the people they work with and help organizations succeed any challenge, whether it’s professional or personal.