Recently, 21 families lost loved ones in a shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. The shooter, who was 18, used an assault weapon, a semi-automatic rifle. His intentions and his plan were clear. Unfathomable, but clear.
There are no words that can adequately describe the horrendous situation that occurred in Uvalde, which marks the 27th school shooting and one of over 200 mass shootings this year.
But leaders still need to lead, even after these horrific events. Here are three suggestions for how to lead following a tragedy.
Show your humanity
Now is the time to show your employees that you care about people and feel deeply about the situation. Discuss your outrage and disgust at the murder of innocent children who were not safe in their classrooms. Condemn the behavior. These are human times, requiring human reactions and emotions, not stoicism or buttoned-up statements about company policy.
Whether you have an impromptu meeting, send a written email, or record a video, let your staff and constituents know that you care and are upset and stunned by the senseless gun violence in Texas and elsewhere.
Let them see your humanity with your words and deeds. And if you get choked up while speaking, that's OK. Demonstrating your authentic humanity is how you connect with others and join the collective human experience.
Let that experience be cathartic for you and your team. Be present with them so you can process the trauma together. When we can connect and relate to one another's experiences, it bonds us and makes us feel a part of something.
Start the process by expressing your feelings about what took place, how it impacted you personally, and how it may have affected your employees and the organization. As soon as you talk about your reaction, you give others the green light to express themselves as well.
Create an opportunity for open dialogue
No one is immune from what goes on outside of our companies. During times like these, we cannot forget or ignore that everyone is affected. Talk about what happened, and allow people the time and opportunity to express their feelings. Reassure them that you are a safe person to speak to. It's important to let your employees process their grief, and they will appreciate the opportunity, even if they don't participate.
Give your staff a chance to talk about the situation in team meetings or as a company. Don't be afraid of their emotions. Allow them to say what's on their minds and respectfully validate their experiences. Appreciate that they stepped forward to share their feelings. Even if you disagree with their perspective, appreciate that they opened up.
Managers should also be asking their teams if anyone needs support, because you cannot know everyone's trauma history, and different events are triggering for different people. So ask everyone: How can we support you during this time?
"How can we support you?" is a powerful question, and it conveys a message that we, as a company, care about you and your well-being. Offer coping strategies for those who want help lowering their stress reaction and feelings of being overwhelmed. And consider having mental health services available for those who require more support.
As hard as it may be, now is not the time for an angry public debate. Everyone is entitled to their opinion as long as they express it respectfully. As the leader, you can take a firm stand about how you want to proceed based on your beliefs and values. And if someone disagrees strongly with your views on gun control, mental health, or school safety, they can choose to work somewhere else.
What are you going to do in response to another senseless tragedy? How can you affect positive change?
If you believe in banning assault weapons and increasing mental health services, tell your employees that you are calling your local lawmakers. Then provide them with a list of local and state representatives if they want to take action too.
If you want to take more direct action, such as donating your time or money, share your plan with your employees. You might come together as a company and close the office for a day to volunteer for an organization. Or you can provide your team with the names of organizations accepting donations.
If you need a good place to start, the Community Foundation of the Texas Hill Country and the San Antonio Area Foundation are both accepting donations in support of the families and survivors in Uvalde.
There are many ways you can mobilize your organization and take a stand to support the causes you believe in while also supporting your staff and community.
As a leader, your purpose is to serve. You cannot ignore the horrific gun violence that plagues our nation. Sharing your opinions and feelings about these tragedies allows you to process the trauma together with your team. And bringing people together in a supportive and safe community is how we, as human beings, connect and comfort one another during the darkest times.