What is leadership in the time of crisis for an employee and their family?

In 35 years of leadership, I have never had an employee pass away while still employed – until this week. Tuesday, June 21st, around 10 p.m., Tara, the wife of a beloved team member, Dr. Dan Hawthorne, called me in tears. The paramedics and the coroner had just left her home. She was alone – really alone. Dan had become disoriented while making dinner and just fifteen minutes later, he was gone. A tragic mystery. A felled domino. What sadness this would bring.

The next morning, I called an emergency meeting for the whole staff to share the news. I had directly contacted all individuals that couldn’t make it to the meeting. The pall of despair made it immediately clear everyone was so in shock that few could muster words. “I thought we’d have more time” was the extent of the response. 

Dan had been fighting through pancreatic cancer, and we sought to do our best to support him and his wife throughout his cancer diagnosis, difficult surgery and months of chemo. His cancer temporarily retreated, spurring great joy across the whole team and unshackling talks of the future, but it sadly came back with a vengeance just a couple of months later. Any conversation about the “future” was now limited to weeks or months, not years. Doctors said he should have another year without any of the special treatments he was a candidate for, so even with the return of his cancer, we were all shocked at his sudden passing. 

As a leader, what do you say in times when words fall empty? What does your team need? As few words as possible, but whatever ones might be helpful. I had to realize that this balance is something that likely nobody can get “right”, because nothing about this is right. Over the years, I’ve been helped to understand that as a leader, my job is not to have all the answers; sometimes it is just to be a little bit ahead, relaying back to others my experience to prepare them for what’s coming. It’s possible some people may have never experienced the loss of someone they cared for, so their grief comes with confusion and myriad emotions that may have never been processed together.  

I shared information about what we will do to help Dan’s wife and gave them the freedom to cancel any meeting to make room for processing the situation. To give them time to gather their thoughts and an outlet for expression, we set up a company-wide video call 24 hours later for our weekly office happy hour to honor Dan, savor his amazing homemade Limoncello and remember his joy as we listened to music from his favorite band. We hugged each other. We cried together. We sat in silence for a while. I canceled most of my day’s schedule, took a walk, wrote in my journal and read a long history of communications with my friend Dan through text, Slack and email.

Over the last year of his cancer battle, the question we kept before us to filter each decision was, “What does Dan and his family need?” rather than “What do our benefits provide?”. 

What they certainly didn’t need was anything else to worry about. So, during his surgery and recovery, we chose to fill the 20% gap in his pay that disability did not cover and provided lots of meals. We relieved all pressure from his schedule, allowed him to record conference presentations just in case he didn’t have the strength to travel, and let him dictate when and how much he worked. We checked on his family members periodically, and did what we could to listen and encourage. He loved his job and knew he was making an impact that would help many disadvantaged people succeed in life and careers, so he had made extra effort to wrap up projects and educate others on his work.  

Our weekly 1:1s leaned into difficult subjects of preparing for death and protecting his wife from all the complicated logistics. Frankly, it sucked to have these conversations, but it is what he needed. The filter of “What does Dan and his family need?” had to win.

Now, as we face life without a dear colleague and friend, we have to remember that he didn’t leave our company – he was involuntarily taken from us. It wasn’t his choice or ours, so his family is still part of our family. Tara texted the night of her husband’s death, “I really hope there’s some way to stay involved with you, Susan (my wife) and PAIRIN.” The filter dictates that as long as I am in leadership, Tara will be invited to all events that include spouses and partners, at our expense, including our annual long weekend retreat in the mountains. When my wife and I sat with her this week eating comfort food we brought, she expressed a concern about health insurance. I told her that we will cover her health insurance premium for six months to a year, giving her time to get her life sorted. She cried. The filter wins again.

I find that as a leader, when I choose to create values-based filters to drive my decisions, it makes it much easier to know what to do in difficult times. For the people in your company who are experiencing difficulty, shouldn’t what they need be exactly what we need as a company? That filter sure does make decision making easier. 

What filters do you have that supersede your corporate policies? I recommend you not wait until a crisis to think about them, because when it is difficult to think, the filters are your guide.

A Memorial Service will be held for Dan Hawthorne on Thursday, June 30 from 12 p.m. – 3 p.m. MT at the Radiance Event Venue (8301 Rosemary St. A, Commerce City, CO, 80022) and will streamed live at www.radiodeadair.com/listen-live/.

If you’d like to provide a meal or donate to Dan’s wife, Tara, you can do so at MealTrain here. Donations are also being accepted in Dan’s honor to Project Purple and Tabby’s Place. More information is available on Dan’s CaringBridge site.