Cindy Vallance on the mood and leadership responsibilities after the referendum
Early on the morning that we learned the UK had voted to leave the European Union, I found myself reeling with the news. The first person I spoke to that day was the man who handed me a free newspaper to read on the train. He asked me, “What was the result?” When I told him, struggling to hold back my tears, his response was, “this changes everything.”
On my train journey, I was surrounded by a group of young teens on their way to school. Brexit was their only topic of conversation. Around me, commuters were glued to their mobile devices, plugged into news channels and early morning broadcasts, looking for answers in a world that had seemingly turned upside down.
I was on my way to a leadership programme session with a group of senior staff at one of the Leadership Foundation’s member universities. Travelling to the event, I asked myself, how can I possibly focus on the planned agenda and what will the group want? Will they even come to the session or will I find myself alone in the room?
I was unsure whether to be happy or disappointed when, one by one, the group members entered and sat down. There was a part of me that simply wanted to be left alone with my own thoughts, to grieve. Yes – to grieve. A strong word, a word we do not use lightly. However, when I asked the group how they wanted to spend our time together, one of the first comments a participant shared was “I feel as though I am grieving over something I have lost.”
Somehow, this acknowledgement helped set the stage in a positive way for the discussion that followed. Naming that feeling, naming grief and putting it boldly on the table, meant that we could all be honest and share our responses to the news in a very real way, opening the door for us to also work through other emotions.
Many will be familiar with this sequence of words: grief, anger, depression, bargaining and acceptance. It is from the grief cycle model developed in the 1960s by psychologist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross to describe the process that terminally ill patients progress through when informed of their illness. Since that time many adaptations have been made to the original model and applied to the process that people go through when experiencing organisational change. Here’s just one example of a commonly used ‘Change Curve’:
A positive outcome from that session on the day of the Brexit news was the common conviction expressed by those in the room that one of their leadership responsibilities is quite simply to be there for their staff and students as they work through their own emotions. Naming our feelings and allowing others to do so is a step we must take to work through what is, and will continue to be, a deeply emotional issue.
Cindy, is the Leadership Foundation’s Assistant Director, Membership. She liaises with higher education institutions in London and across the South and East of England developing relationships with our members, coordinating events and leadership development initiatives that support and complement individual institutions’ strategies and the higher education agenda.
Other sources of information
A view from higher education using the same model: Seven stages of grief on the way to acceptance