Like millions around the world, the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut last Friday has weighed heavily on my heart and mind these past few days. In all of the coverage and conversation, I’ve yet to hear anyone, myself included, come up with the words to explain how such a thing could happen or to fully console the families and friends of those who were lost. In his remarks at a Sunday night vigil, President Obama eloquently remembered the victims, provided solace to the community and offered his thoughts on how and why the country should respond to the loss.
The President offered two examples for leaders on Sunday night. First, he took the time and emotional strength to put into words what many of us wish we could have said. He spoke on our behalf. Second, he demonstrated what all leaders can do in times of tragedy even if words fail them. He went to be with his people.
In times of tragedy, leaders need to be there. If, as the leader, you can come up with words of comfort so much the better, but in times of great tragedy you need to physically be with your people. They need to know that you’re with them. Seeing that can be more important than hearing that.
That was first brought home to me in late October of 1998, when I was the VP of HR for an interstate gas pipeline company. The day before Halloween, we learned that one of our area managers had lost three grandsons to a carbon monoxide leak as they slept in their home in Mississippi. As we’ve been reminded so terribly this week, losing children is one of the hardest things to bear. When we heard the news, my boss arranged for the company plane to fly me, our senior operating executives and another HR exec to Mississippi for the funeral the next day. I didn’t want to go. I was scared that I wouldn’t know what to say or do. Cathy, my boss, practically insisted though, that I make the trip. Our delegation went to Mississippi on behalf of hundreds of others who couldn’t. That was part of our job as leaders in the company.
It was the right call and was one of the most difficult things I’d ever done to be there with the family during the final visitation for those three boys and to be there at the graveside. I have no recollection of what I said to them that day, only what it was like to look the grandparents in the eye and to offer my sorrow and an embrace.
There will be times, as a leader and as a human being, when words fail you. It’s at those times that being there for those in need is all you can do. It’s likely what matters most.