The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church of Charleston, South Carolina is not an imposing structure. In fact, during our visit to Charleston this past Thanksgiving week, we nearly walked past it as we strolled the streets of this historic city where nearly every building seemed to bear a placard proclaiming its historical significance. With more than 400 churches, Charleston is often dubbed the “Holy City.” But a small display of flowers and cards caught my attention and suddenly, like a picture coming into focus, I realized we were standing outside the very place where nine innocent people lost their lives six months ago at the hands of a crazed gunman. What a tragedy. And it’s one that seems to be happening more and more often lately.
How do leaders respond to tragedy? Sadly, the rule books fail us at times like these. Times of danger, confusion, fear, and anger can bring out the worst in people. It’s in these times, when people are searching for meaning and a reason to hope for the future that leaders play a crucial role. Professors Jane E. Dutton and Peter J. Frost writing in Leading In Times of Trauma, suggest that leaders need to create a space where “people can freely express and discuss the way they feel, which in turn helps them to make sense of their pain, seek or provide comfort, and imagine a more hopeful future” and secondly leaders must “create an environment in which those who experience or witness pain can find ways to alleviate their own and others’ suffering.” D. Michael Lindsay, President of Gordon College, writing about the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing said that as leaders we “must recognize our role as “chief comforter,” as well as Chief Administrator.”
Robert Hunt, Leader of Renaissance Executive Forums of Dallas, lays out 5 steps every leader should do to be ready when tragedy strikes:
Talk about it as a company – be real.
Build a feeling of safety.
Build a feeling of family.
Have a response team and plan ready – and in writing.
That last bit of advice is crucial. Don’t wait until tragedy strikes to dust off your response plan. Practice it regularly. When the spaghetti hits the fan, you will respond by instinct. Be ready. In my military days, I had my “WarBook” at my fingertips. Written in the days before thumb drives and smart tablets, this 3-ring binder was my brain. It contained lists of emergency contacts and pre-planned procedures for just about any contingency my team and I could dream up. In the “fog of war” it saved my bacon more than once. But there’s one thing that can’t be planned for: Every tragedy is about people. Model dignity, act with compassion.