How To Lead At Work When You’re Having A Personal Crisis

Your world may be crumbling around you, but how you respond and lead is the true test of your leadership abilities.

How To Lead At Work When You’re Having A Personal Crisis
[Photo: Flickr user Carlo Mirante]

Into each life some rain must fall, as the saying goes. But sometimes that rain is actually a monsoon-size personal crisis that can affect your ability to lead.


It might be a serious illness, the loss of a loved one, or some other significant personal problem that drains your energy and affects your focus. However, you still have responsibilities that need your attention.

“Many people believe erroneously other people will think somehow less of them; that they’re damaged or not as capable,” says Houston, Texas, leadership consultant Todd Dewett, PhD. “These things have to be talked about, so I like to talk about authenticity in owning your situation.”

If you’re navigating a big challenge in your life, take these key steps to get through it, and still ensure that your leadership role is fulfilled.

1. Feel What You Feel, But Don’t Ruminate

When you’re faced with a personal crisis, people are going to notice you’re not yourself, so don’t try to pretend that everything is rosy, says psychologist Casey Mulqueen, PhD, director of product development with business consultancy The TRACOM Group. At the same time, don’t ruminate, or think about the problem over and over.

“When people have strong emotions, they think about it and think about it, and it affects their performance,” he says. “Recognize that you feel that way, but don’t get lost in it. For some people, that takes practice.”

2. Find A Confidante

When Dewett was in a leadership role as a professor and dean of a university, his father was dying of cancer, and he was going through a divorce. He says that his consulting and his personal experience have shown him that we sometimes need a second set of eyes on our leadership during these times.


He recommends finding a close confidante with whom you can share the situation and your feelings, and who can also point out to you if it’s affecting your work.

“When these things happen, you can’t assume that you are still capable,” he says. “With the increased stress and the elevated emotions, we lose our ability to assess ourselves as objectively and taking the advice of a close confidante who will shoot straight with you is typically of the utmost importance.”

3. Take Care Of Yourself

When New York-based marketing consultant Molly Reynolds was going through a contentious divorce while working as a marketing director, she was under a great deal of stress. However, she says she kept her focus by eating well, getting enough sleep, and going to the gym regularly. Things seem much worse than they are if you’re tired, hungry, or just feeling bad about yourself.

“When you’re going through something like this, you’re dealing with so many other things that if you forget to eat breakfast and it’s noon and you get–we always call it ‘hangry’–or hungry and angry at the same time,” Reynolds says. “That is something that could trigger you.”

4. Stay Organized

To maintain her focus and ensure that nothing fell through the cracks while she was dealing with her divorce, Reynolds kept a running list of everything she needed to do every day. She wrote down every task, even if she thought she’d remember it.

The feeling of crossing off items on the list gave her relief that she wasn’t missing anything, as well as a feeling of accomplishment.


5. Delegate

Good leaders delegate regularly, especially in times of crisis, Mulqueen says. When you’re dealing with significant personal issues, it’s a good idea to take some of the responsibilities off your plate and let someone else handle them temporarily.

It’s not a sign of weakness; it’s a sign that you are dealing with the most urgent issues so you may refocus your attention on your leadership role sooner, he says. When you hand off the task or responsibility, explain that it’s temporary and, if possible, when you expect to take on the role again yourself.

“Showing vulnerability can be a very admirable trait,” Mulqueen says. “People in companies will respect that. It shows that you’re human.”


About the author

Gwen Moran writes about business, money and assorted other topics for leading publications and websites. She was named a Small Business Influencer Awards Top 100 Champion in 2015, 2014, and 2012 and is the co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Plans (Alpha, 2010), and several other books