One of the executives I work with shared with me the challenging impact of the current crisis on his business and people. He was quick to point out his message to the senior leaders, “Our job is to shepherd our folks through [the five phases of grief] as honestly and as quickly as possible.”
First, I appreciate his emotional intelligence in that he recognized that people feel, deeply feel the impact of the crisis and the accompanying variety of emotions. He especially highlighted the five stages of grief (Kübler-Ross model). These feelings are not negative. They are real! To ignore the feelings, bury them, or pretend that making a quick decision to move on from them is dangerous. Feelings need to be named and felt. Who better to learn from than grief expert, David Kessler who said about the crisis, “We are dealing with the collective loss of the world we knew!” In fact, in Kessler’s recent book, Finding Meaning, he identifies a sixth phase to the grief process. Think of the process as a scaffolding for the human grief experience: denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, acceptance, and meaning.
This executive honored people by honoring their feelings and leading them through the process toward healing and meaning. After all, when we get through the pandemic, we will still make choices on how to authentically show up in the new normal.
Secondly, the executive knows intuitively and from experience that leaders dare not shrink from actual leadership during this crisis. More than ever, this is the time to lead: courageously and vulnerably. He specifically highlighted that a way to lead is by “shepherding.” We don’t hear much about how to shepherd. Let’s start with the definition of the what a shepherd does:
- tend (sheep) | give guidance to | carefully manage (resources or a team)
- guide or direct in a particular direction
Got it, a shepherd tends to the sheep. Which begs the next question, “How does one shepherd people through loss?”
I pulled down two books on shepherding that provided me insight over 25 years ago. Another reason for being grateful for my Master of Divinity. The authors brilliantly give insight into the ancient skill and art of shepherding. To shepherd is something to be mastered over time by practicing specific skills.
In order to keep this simple and achievable, below are the verbs, or TEN ACTION STEPS of a leader who makes the choice to shepherd. The goal is not to be perfect shepherd, rather to be human. Since you know the importance of following a process, you might use these TEN ACTION STEPS as a self-evaluation at the end of each day. Rate yourself, “On a scale of 1-10 did I do my best to…?” and then reflect on your answers.
Leaders Who Shepherd
- Be Present – FOR THEM. The goal is to benefit the flock. Your constant preoccupation is that each Teammate will flourish.
- Guide – People rely on you. They adjust to your style and need direction from you. They anticipate it whether they say it or not.
- Know – Get to know your people personally and professionally, caring about them. When they feel you know them, they are willing to trust.
- Lead – Steer them away from unhealthy or barren land (staying in a victim mindset) toward green pastures, cool shade, and clean water. Lead them to a better place than they are now.
- Comfort – Provide empathy, listen and “hear” what they are saying by acknowledging their feelings. Show compassion – literal meaning “to suffer with.”
- Be Honest – Address beliefs and behavior that are counterproductive and help them identify obstacles that are preventing them from living healthier.
- Teach – Show them a good path forward, or a better way. Invite them to create their own solutions.
- Protect – Keep watch! We are susceptible to negative talk, media, opinions from others, etc. It makes it a challenge to define reality. As shepherd, you can offer skills to help them defend themselves from internal or external predators. Even, give certain people extra time if needed.
- Speak Courageously – Let them experience the benefits of following your voice, providing strength and stability.
- Affirm – Consistently highlight the unique impact of what each person brings to the organization.