The Paradox of Leading After Shock…When You Feel You Are Scattered into Pieces

In life, there are periods when things seem to go well. There are periods where things don’t seem to go so well. Sometimes, there are events that feel completely devastating. A death, a divorce, a child overdosing, some event that results in shock, something traumatic. Within this reality, the task of leadership doesn’t stop, the responsibilities, accountability and authority of leadership sits waiting…impatiently. There is very little patience in a world in which the allotted time to get through shock, through grief, is very short, often just a few days. And then you are expected to get on with your leadership as though you are operating from a place of your personal well-being. This is the paradox of leading after shock. Being expected to lead as though everything is fine…even when it isn’t.

Scattered into pieces

When I am in shock, I feel myself to be scattered into pieces of me that are all over the place. I know the desperation of not being able to assemble those pieces of me quickly enough. The quickly enough comes from my own self-judgment plus the expectations of those around me. I was in one such moment of my life when I was a CEO of a non-profit health and social service agency at the time of my separation from my first husband. Shock, trauma, four children to take care of, and the expectation to offer stellar leadership for the organization.

How was I to pull the scattered pieces of myself back together again? At that moment, it seems an impossible goal. Then, I think of what it is that I am pulling the scattered pieces of me into? Am I pulling them back into the me that used to be, before the shock? This doesn’t even make sense to do because life now is different than life ‘before the shock’. Am I pulling the pieces of me back into the me that others expect me to be? This seems like an impossible task. How can I pull myself into a me that others expect me to be, when I don’t know what I am pulling the pieces of me back into? And do I really want to do that anyway?

Returning to normal

Within this picture of being scattered into pieces, after a few days off of work, I return, I engage in leadership. I am also not fully present. My cognitive functioning is in slow motion. I am not feeling whole. Plus, I don’t know what my wholeness is or is meant to be. I don’t know how to pull those pieces together again…or into what I am pulling them together. And yet, at work and at home, I am leading, I am expected to make responsible decisions, there is no room for stumbling. Too many people would experience consequences of my stumbling.

It’s unrealistic to pull yourself together quickly

It is completely unrealistic to pull oneself together quickly in an authentic way after a shock. At the time of the situation I describe here, it took about two years. During other times of shock in my life, pulling myself back into a whole me from all of those scattered pieces took long times. Throughout those periods when i was not yet my whole self, I continued in my leadership roles…not fully present and yet still, somehow, getting the job done.

I am not alone in this paradox of continuing with the work of leadership, even though personal trauma had devastating effects. Every leader I have mentored has had similar stories. Heartfelt stories of needing to engage in leadership when they felt the pieces of themselves were scattered from a shock, or multiple shocks. Despite this, they keep leading, being accountable for their organizations, carrying out their responsibilities, and using their authority to lead. It is however, hazardous to long-term wellbeing to keep this up while not also working on pulling back the scattered pieces of themselves.

Simple focusing techniques to support the paradox of leading after shock

For my clients dealing with the scattered parts of themselves after shock, there are two concepts that I emphasize.

  1. You are whole, always. You may not feel whole, you may not know what whole is. This knowledge will come. For now, keep a picture of yourself as whole. In time you will find the scattered parts and figure out what your new wholeness is. You are not those scattered parts.
  2. Show up into the present. This means, for now, letting go of thinking about and making plans for longer-term vision, goals. Looking ahead to the future is too hard. It is too easy, while you feel scattered, to make decisions about the future that you might not make when you are at your best. Decisions can be made when you have collected yourself together again. Take small steps, stay focused on doing your best with the present. Start with 15-minute increments, then in one-hour increments, and working your way up to the full day, and then the full week. Find your peace in being present to being the best you can be in the moment. Let go of the need to occupy yourself with dwelling on the future…for now.

The first concept provides reinforcement of wholeness rather than brokenness. You don’t want to get caught in a thought pattern of brokenness or scattered. You want to reinforce your wholeness. The details of the wholeness are not necessary and not realistic yet as you don’t know what ‘whole’ they are putting their scattered pieces into. As we go through the mentoring over time, we continually anchor back into the picture of wholeness.

The second concept provides information for the creation of personal boundaries via a boundary of time…the present time. When a person feels scattered, personal boundaries become critical as orientation points for navigating life – personally and professionally.

Recovery is an ongoing process

The recovery work goes on, recovering the scattered pieces, sorting out the details of wholeness, and moving onward. This healing work occurs while the leader is doing her/his best to carry out leadership. I remember what that paradox felt like. And what it took for me to find those scattered pieces until I was fully present in my life and my leadership again…yet differently.

We have a simple, self-study module that is of benefit to help you to navigate: Leadership Competencies for Thriving in Constant Change. If you are in the paradox of leading and feeling scattered, there are tips within this Self Study module that will help you sort through how to navigate this time. A key component is the recognition that change is constant…and you need to be able to thrive, not just survive.


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Birgitt Williams
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Birgitt Williams is an international management and organizational solutions consultant, author, meeting facilitator, teacher, keynote speaker and executive coach. Her business focus is to create inspiring work environments that are highly effective in achieving their purpose and fulfilling their vision.

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