“You take this job too personal.” A concerned resident said this to me several years ago. That comment stuck with me, because I never really knew how to take it.

As an inexperienced CEO at the time, I was offended.  If for no other reason, I thought I should be. Over the years, however, I’ve started to embrace the comment.

Recently, a resident I would consider very special passed away unexpectedly. Like many of our residents, I felt a special connection. The reasons were self-centered. The resident made me feel good about myself and my leadership abilities. Selfish, I know, but sincere. The loss was a punch in the gut. I know the impact on close family and friends was profound, as well. Having supporters in your corner is reassuring … and losing one is heartbreaking.

The field we all chose to work in is filled with ups and downs. We share in the most intimate of journeys, each other’s lives. Day in, day out, residents spend their time with us and we become connected. Team members who form meaningful relationships are the team members we want working in our communities. People who care a lot also hurt a lot … when we have to say goodbye.

When I learned of this surprise death, my first instinct was to not show emotion and to hold back tears. My second instinct, and the one that won over, was to let the tears flow. Leading through tears takes courage. It shows vulnerability and maybe even weakness.  

Some might expect “leaders” to not show emotion.  However, the work we do is personal. It’s when we try to separate our feelings from functions we get lost. We feel. It’s natural. Trying to separate the two leads us down a dark road of performing tasks and not living alongside the residents we serve.

A remarkable thing happened in the following days. My teammates could sense something was off with me. We shared in the memories and the grief together. Notes, smiles and encouragement helped. Here’s where the learning hits home yet again. My leadership lesson was to become comfortable and allow those around me to lift and build me up, and not worry so much about building others up, if only for a few days.

Leadership through tears is possible. We have the privilege of working in people’s homes. We’ve been invited into their lives and showing emotion is just one of the thousands of reasons why this work is so important. It’s those of us who care enough to really get to appreciate, know and love the residents we serve, that make the communities we work in truly amazing.

Julie Thorson’s “Living Leadership” blog was named the 2016 “Best New Department” Bronze Award winner by the American Society of Health Publication Editors. The president and CEO of Friendship Haven, a life plan community in Fort Dodge, IA. Thorson is a coach’s daughter at heart. She is a former part-time nursing home social worker who quickly ascended the leadership ranks. Now a licensed nursing home administrator, she has been a participant in LeadingAge’s Leadership Academy and LeadingAge Iowa’s Mentor of the Year. She is currently a mentor in LeadingAge Iowa’s Emerge leadership program.