These are difficult days. The tragedy of the terrorist attacks has impacted all of us in some way. So what do leaders do in difficult times? Particularly when, as leaders, we are going through our own reactions. As a country, we have all agreed to go back to work, to help each other rebuild, to come back more united and stronger. How do leaders help the people who work for them do that?

As with most leadership skills, the skill of leading people to be motivated and productive during a crisis starts with us as individuals. If we want our people to do anything, we have to demonstrate it, model it. So the first thing we, as leaders, have to do is start healing ourselves and re-igniting our own personal motivation. Ask yourself: “Do I want to go to work myself?” One of my executive clients captured this natural ambivalence when she said; “I don’t want to be a leader today. I want to stay home in bed for 3 days…but I have no choice.”

I believe there are 3 things leaders can do to help our people in their healing and to return to feeling productive.

  1. Handle your own feelings.
  2. Focus on your unique contribution as a leader.
  3. Support your people by listening deeply and actively helping them with strategies to rebuild.

Let’s look at each of these solutions and the questions leaders can ask themselves.


The key to handling our own grief while also leading is this: Include your grief in your leading. When you show up for work, share your feelings along with your resolve to rebuild. Demonstrate to people that we can feel all of our feelings and still make a great contribution at the same time. As leaders, we may be concerned that if we express our own emotion, it may come out too strong, or it may not appear appropriate, or it may look less than “leader-like.” The solution for this concern is to handle your own emotions outside of work with your own friends, family or therapist before you express them inside of work. So as leaders, our most important work right now is to process what the tragedy means to us.

A valuable and common phrase in leadership is “know thyself.” Get crystal clear on how this tragedy has impacted you. Here are some self-coaching questions to ask yourself or to process with a trusted friend or mentor as you start leading your staff again:

  • How has this tragedy hurt me?
  • How has this tragedy motivated me?
  • What lessons have I learned from this event?
  • What beliefs have I changed as a result of this event?
  • What am I concerned about as I think of the future?

As you process and integrate your own feelings, you will be in a more centered and grounded place for leading others. Then, when you express your feelings, they will come out in a more balanced way.


During a crisis, focus is critical. When we are emotional, it is easy for our attention to be scattered. Feelings are natural and feelings can also have us be all over the place. So what should a leader focus on? Keep it simple. As one of my teachers says: “Focus on your burning desire in life.” As leaders, now is the time to refocus on why we are in leadership positions in the first place. Why did you want to lead? To help people? In what way, exactly? Here are some self-coaching questions to ask yourself to help you refocus on your contribution:

  • What do I feel passionately about as related to this tragedy?
  • What have been my most meaningful memories as a leader in the past?
  • What do I contribute as a leader that is unique?
  • In light of this tragedy and how has it affected me, what do I now want to contribute to the world?
  • What am I waiting for?

The reason to get refocused on the contribution we feel passionately about is because then we become unstoppable. When we remind ourselves, as leaders, of what we value and care about, that passion will overcome obstacles. By modeling this to our people, it helps them remember that they can do the same.


Once we have done steps 1 and 2: handling our own feelings and re-focusing on our unique contribution as a leader, we are in an excellent place to help our people. The most important and valuable gift you can give to people is listening with your full undivided attention. Listen without doing email at the same time. Listen without using call waiting. Listen with your heart as well as your head. Listen with full eye contact. This motivates people. Your undivided attention will help people heal. Listen for their sorrow, their fears, their anger, and their questions.

And you don’t even have to give brilliant advice. You don’t always have to have the answer. Just by listening, people often create their own answers. As a leader, you are there to provide a safe, supportive space in which they can be heard. Then, help them with ideas and strategies so that they can rebuild for themselves. Here are some self-coaching questions for leaders:

  • Have I listened to my direct reports enough to know how they were impacted by this tragedy?
  • Do I know if any of my people need therapy or medical help?
  • Am I making myself available enough during this difficult time? Am I being proactive about going to my people vs. waiting for them to come to me?
  • Do I know what they need to get back on track? How am I helping them rebuild?
  • There is a lot of focus on “what’s wrong, what’s not working.” How am I helping my people focus on “what is working,” the positive?

These are difficult days. However, as leaders, there is a lot we can do to make a difference.

To hear Val’s talk about leadership, get the audio CD Leadership.