I am known for being emotionally level. People have called me an automaton, and I’ve taken it as a compliment. But even I cry at the library. My most tear-filled week was in September 2009, when there was a murder-suicide in our parking lot.
I was out at a meeting when one of my managers called and said, “We’re all fine, but there’s been a shooting in the parking lot and I think you need to come back.” The hour it took me to excuse myself from the meeting, get back to my car, and drive to my library was one of the longest hours of my life. I made calls to my family and my Board Chair, and couldn’t keep the tears from flowing while I explained that there had been a shooting and that I was racing back to the building. After I finished the calls, I spent the rest of the drive crying.
The parking lot was sealed off when I arrived. I parked across the way and walked through the crowd of reporters and onlookers. The Deputy Police Chief recognized me, pulled me aside, and filled me in: A man had killed a woman and then killed himself. He wasn’t going to let me by. My eyes teared up; I was frustrated that I couldn’t get in there to do my job. I told him I needed to get in to the library to talk with my employees, my managers, my patrons. I needed to get in there to plan, to contact my board, to make arrangements to close for the day. He conferred with the Public Safety Director, and told me to walk the long way around the building (to avoid the crime scene), but he did let me go in.
Once inside, I tried to be all business. I called my managers together and we discussed the details of closing–all the notices and processes and signs that needed to be taken care of. I remember having a moment, checking myself; two members of my community were dead in front of our library, and I’m sitting here talking about issues as mundane as changing the phone message? It seemed crazy and surreal, and yet it needed to be done. So I did it. I held it together–we all held it together–and got the practical items taken care of.
When all of the patrons and staff gave statements and the officers left the building, officially closing us down, I called my employees together. Looking at their expectant faces, I burst into tears. (I’m not an attractive crier, by the way–the eyes puff, the nose runs, the mouth twists into grotesque sobs.) I cried as I told them how proud I was of their quick actions to call 911, secure the building, yell at people to get the *$@! away from the windows, and protect innocent people from harm. I cried as I told them how the phone call made my stomach fall. I cried as I said how glad I was that none of them were hurt. I cried as I told them how sorry I was that I hadn’t been here for them. I was still crying when I told them that we would not reopen that day, and that everyone should go home and be with their families.
Our HR manager arranged for a grief counselor to come that week. I was one of the first people in line to see him, and when he patted my arm and said, “I know you are probably blaming yourself in some way, and you shouldn’t. This wasn’t your fault,” I started crying again, in front of this stranger. Because it was true–I couldn’t help but feel like I’d failed by not being here when the shooting happened. I am the director, I am responsible for my people, my patrons, their safety–I should have been here, I should have protected them. He said this was a natural tendency, and we had a good talk.
I felt weak for crying in front of everyone–my family, my board chair, the police, my coworkers, the counselor. I believed that good directors don’t cry in front of their employees. Still fairly new, in only year two of my job, I was convinced that I’d lost all credibility–no one would ever take me seriously again, and I would forever be branded as an emotional wreck of a boss who cried (a lot).
I was wrong. Employees came by to check on me. They hugged me (which made me cry–I told you, I cried a lot that week). They told me that crying humanized me. My tears showed how much I cared about them. My clear sadness about the deaths of two of our neighbors showed how much I cared about the community. My Board Chair told me later that my ability to focus on the situation while also crying at the same time showed that I was the right person to lead the library, that I had a good balance of head and heart (I think she was being overly generous here because she knew I was at a low point–I am way more head than heart).
I am still largely a level-headed automaton, but I learned that week that it is possible for me to be emotional at work and still be considered an effective boss.