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Leading Anger: Navigating Institutional Grief in Crisis

Leading Anger: Navigating Institutional Grief in Crisis

A mighty wave of anger is on its way to America and its institutions! Buffeted by the rising tide of coronavirus, we can expect successive waves of emotion to keep rolling in over the weeks and months ahead. Having experienced these realities in Kirkland, Washington, where death first reached America’s shores, our local leaders may have a short head start on the process of grief and loss that COVID-19 has set in motion across the world.

According to the model first introduced by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969, the Five States of Grief and Loss are:

  1. Denial and Isolation
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

I have come to realize that I am in stage two today. There is no use pretending that denial or bravado is faith. Hopes of an immediate V-Shaped economic recovery or even a W-shaped recovery at this point seem to be denial. It is far more likely, as I have said before, that much of the world as we knew it just weeks ago is gone forever. The pandemic will effect changes that we have not yet predicted, and we have good reason to mourn the loss of full employment and a booming economy, not to mention the far graver loss of loved ones to death and the potentially crippling loss of a sense of security. I stand by the statement that if the world as we know it has gone away, we should get busy building a brave new world, even as we process our grief.

This process of mourning for the golden age of last month can be done in ways that are full of faith. Just read any Psalm of Lament, like Psalm 22. In all of these Psalms, you will see the psalmist level a bitter complaint at God, vent anger, offer bargains such as sacrifices and praises, descend into depression, and then return to praise and the expression of faith as acceptance sets in. The ancient Hebrews knew grief and loss just as we do—an inescapable fact to anyone who has read about the trials and tribulations of Israel throughout the Old Testament.

In a literal, physical way we have never seen before, denial has found ironic company with isolation. People not only feel isolated; their physical isolation has come by government mandate. Anger always follows denial, but the intensity of today’s isolation means we will too soon see people around us move from denial and isolation to anger. Expect it, and try to be patient with them. If you feel anger rising in your own heart, try to balance it with faith. Here are some suggestions for leaders in dealing with anger in these days of crisis, loss, and grief:

  1. Control your own expressions of anger, tempering your legitimate emotions with the reasoning that understands that this stage of grief will pass.
  2. Recognize that when people display anger, they may be actually manifesting grief.
  3. Don’t tell people not to be angry. Let them know that you understand and have felt the same anger yourself. Listen to their rant and credit their fears. Then mix reason and hope into their mental stew.
  4. Don’t take their anger personally. While they may vent their anger on you, you are not really the reason for the anger. Summon the strength to absorb the shock, and share that strength in response. Leadership and weakness do not mix well. Vulnerability is essential, but complaining about your wounds will lead to no good place.
  5. Don’t try to rush people into the next stage of bargaining. They will reach it on their own.
  6. Do channel the energy of anger into productive work that moves your institution forward. Give angry people something to do.

Whatever you do, don’t answer angry people with anger. As the Scriptures say, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 14:1). In your own anger, seek and find and occupy a place of peace. Leaders are not immune from the passions that other people experience, but failure to master passions will destroy the credibility and legitimacy of any leader. Leadership implies going first, so be the first one to overcome anger in your organization.

If you feel anger, know that I do too. How do we channel it into change?