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Supporting Leaders in Times of Personal Crisis

Originally published in eConnect, Electronic Newsletter for Leadrs and Area Administrators in USWest Area Network, August/September 2011, Issue No. 19.

A personal crisis can happen without warning. A death, a lawsuit, domestic abuse, a sudden household move, a birth with complications, hospitalization, a divorce, home fire, or an episode of mental illness can bring us to our emotional knees in a moment. And whether these crises happen to you, a family member, or a co-Leader, the aftermath can bring up difficult and uncomfortable questions, often directed to a District Advisor (DA) or the Area Coordinator of Leaders (ACL). Discretion, patience, and active listening skills are the watchwords.

The ACL–or another Area Department Coordinator (ADC) or Area administrator–may get the call or email that asks immediate action be taken. What should I do? the Leader might ask. Should I take a leave of absence? Do I need to tell everyone what’s going on or keep this to myself? Retire?

The DA or ACL can encourage the stressed Leader to take care of her own health and family first. The Leader can then contact the ACL again when she feels she can talk. A Leader may not identify–and certainly is under no obligation to identify–the nature of the crisis. You can assure her that no immediate action needs to be taken. Your ear and nonjudgmental presence will help her explore leadership options. An ACL can also help the Leader with a response phrase, such as, “She’s taking a break,” or “She’s going to concerntrating on her family for a few months,” whatever public script she’d like to use. Our volunteer work certainly doesn’t need to add to the problem. And, because you will be thinking more clearly and analytically than the Leader in crisis, you can help her immensely by sorting through the LLL issues. The following are some open-ended questions you might ask.

Who are the affected La Leche League parties? Sometimes a Leader will only need to stop leading meetings for a while. Sine this will only affect her co-Leaders, it’s possible that the ACL will never hear of the crisis. Co-Leaders might collaborate and rearrange responsibilities in a way that does not affect anyone beyond the leadership circle.

A lone Leader can pull back to the most basic of responsibilities, and even those can go on hiatus. When I was training to become a Leader, my sponsoring Leader moved away and the Group continued with “breastfeeding support meetings,” led many times but he mothers themselves. This option is certainly open to a group of mothers when an LLL Leader is unable to continue. A Leader not affiliated with a Group may ask that her contact information be taken off phone lines and Web sites.

If the Leader-in-crisis is working with a Leader Applicant, she will need to inform and review options with the Applicant. Many training sessions can be done long distance by email or phone, where previously they were done in person. The Coordinator of Leader Accreditation (CLA) or other LAD representative can also help the sponsoring Leader with options.

What are her current responsibilities? If she’s answering phone calls, perhaps her name and number need to be delisted from Web sites and help lines. Might she want to be taken off newsletter of blog listings? Is she scheduled to lead some meetings and needs to ask for substitute discussion facilitators? Was there a workshop or conference sessions she needs to step back from? I remember being in the middle of putting out the Area Leaders’ Letter (ALL) when my father died. Finishing that ALL felt very healing and used a non-grieving part of my brain that appreciated the exercise. You might be surprised at what a Leader wants to keep doing through her crisis. Never assume you know her feelings or her wishes.

What kind of LLL support does she wants? Her personal support is her own business, but you may need to help her sort out her continuing or to-be-discontinued LLL support and involvement. Perhaps she wants to stay on the Area’s Leader chat list but not go to the upcoming workshop. Or maybe she wants to keep going to your Group’s breastfeeding cafe at a cozy coffee shop, just not lead Series Meetings. You can reassure her that those decisions may change week to week, and that you’re not keeping track; her support is her business and may not look like another Leader’s support. Perhaps she wants to meet you for tear of lunch, just not involve her co-Leaders for whom the details of her challenges are well known. She might also want to be surrounded by La Leche League friends even more or in new ways as she works through her situation. She may choose not to involve you at all.

What kind of timeline might she like to set up? Does she feel a deadline for some kind of decision about her LLL status would be appropriate? Would she like to be contacted in, say, three months to have another conversation? My brothers, their wives, and I went through different grieving timelines when my mother died. Some had grieved more during the illness and were ready to clear out and sell the house once she died. Others had held in their grief till the funeral and took much longer to want to be active. Give this Leader plenty of time and options. On the other hand, you may be surprised at their continued LLL involvement or how fast she wants to be involved again. Assure her that you’ll check back with her on a mutually agreed upon date.

Does retiring from LLL feel like her most comfortable option? Assure her that she will not be judged for retiring. Retirement takes courage. You can help the Leader discreetly detach from LLL lists and contact sites. You can also remind her that reactivation is a future option and may not even be necessary if retirement has been less than a year.

Even in the most difficult of circumstances, however, a Leader’s belief in LLL’s mission and philosophy usually remain intact. Leaders may have had a fairly trouble-free nursing experience, but knocks in later life humble them in new ways. Dealing with difficult personal crises can fortify a Leader so that she has even more to offer mothers and co-Leaders. Some Areas keep retired Leaders’ contact information (with their permission) and occasionally involve them in activites, such as World Breastfeeding Week Celebrations, so that is another option you can offer. LLLI’s Alumnae Association is also active and published a newsletter Continuum.

Be aware, however, that a Leader’s statement that she wants to retire may be based on the perception that this is what she thinks she’s supposed and expected to do. Let this Leader trust her instincts, and help her sort through whether staying on or retiring are appropriate in her case. Perhaps she could just attend but not lead meetings for a while, or she could attend meetings in another Group where she’s less well known.

Would she like to do some extra reading? In general, explore options that can soften the blow of the personal distress. Suggest she reread sections of the Leader’s Handbook, especially if direct dialogue is too painful right now. The Introduction, Mother-to-Mother Help, Managing the LLL Group, and Additional Opportunities for Leaders may be particularly helpful sections. Might some self-help books like Difficult Conversations give her some ideas for problem solving?

Remember that if and when you are the Leader in personal distress, you will also depend on the caring, helpful ear of another Leader as you sort through issues with information and empathy, not advice. Leader Department representatives can help transition a hurting Leader away from and then back to fulfilling LLL leadership. We can also help you with dialogue, questions, and approaches if you are the support person sought out by that Leader. Resources and understanding can be a phone call or email away.

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