Stand In through Trauma with Diana Hendel
Updated: May 20
I was fortunate to meet Diana Hendel many years ago when she was CEO of a major medical center here in Long Beach, Southern California. I was working with her Human Resource organization to look at recruiting strategy. I held a breakfast meeting with a community of HR leaders the morning of April 16, 2009 and recall that members of her HR team received urgent messages to return to campus. This turned out to be the morning of their tragic and deadly workplace shooting.
Fast forward to today and Diana has just released her new book, Responsible. It’s a riveting and personal account of leading, as the hospital’s CEO, through the acute phase and aftermath of that deadly shooting in April. It brings us insight into the effects of trauma on her, her team and the organization. We learn about the complexity of Diana’s experience as leader and eventually as a patient with PTSD, and how she embarks on the healing process for herself and the medical center.
Since 2009, there have been too many tragic, unbelievable traumas in workplaces. Now, we are dealing with another kind of crisis – COVID-19. This is a global and unprecedented event which will impact all of us in different ways for a very long time. I wanted to talk to Diana about her experiences and what she learned about leading in times of crisis and unpredictability.
Sherry: What made you decide to write your book?
Diana: At its heart, this book is a tribute to my colleagues who lost their lives that fateful day. It’s also a tribute to my former co-workers – co-workers whom I considered family, my work family – who I continued to work alongside for six years after the shooting.
In sharing the story, I highlight the impact of trauma on individuals and on the organization as a whole. A lot has been written about how trauma effects individuals, but very little has been published about how it affects the culture of an organization.
I also wrote it to raise awareness of PTSD. In the book I come out as both a leader, and a vulnverable patient, with PTSD. I am hopeful that coming out so personally will help to de-stigmatize PTSD and to advance the conversation about, as well as our understanding of, PTSD.
The book also explores the word responsible. It’s a simple word on its surface, but one with many meanings, complexities and nuances in its interpretation and application.
And, lastly, although I wrote it from my unique point of view. I wanted this memoir to serve as a voice for many. Certainly, to offer hope and inspiration to people who have gone through trauma – or to raise awareness and understanding for those who know someone who has. And, now, in the days of Covid-19 – that encompasses pretty much all of us!
Sherry: What has been the impact of this experience on you as a leader?
Diana: Experiencing the trauma and all that happened in its aftermath profoundly changed me as a leader. What I learned was that, more than ever, when trauma occurs within, or to an organization or a community, a different kind of leadership is needed.
Once immediate safety and security had been established, launching a well-organized incident command system, ensuring unity, and providing clear and consistent communication was vital. And long after the acute phase was over, the experience of the trauma transformed how I led. It changed how I communicated – and how I engaged and listened to others. It greatly influenced my perspectives and approaches to team-building. It altered our entire decision-making structure in a novel and unique way. And it changed what I focused on as the senior leader, the leader responsible for the organization. Small things no longer bothered or upset me in the same way…paradoxically, I experienced a form of fearlessness. I stressed less about everyday upsets and adversity (the worst had already happened, and regular business worries paled in comparison). I became razor-focused on what mattered most. I had come face-to-face with impermanence and true vulnerability, and emerged with a very different understanding of control.
Sherry: What was the impact on your organization?
Diana: In the book, I share my observations, discoveries, and the lessons we learned – the things, in retrospect, that we did really well and the mistakes we made. In studying this trauma, and others that occur within organizations and communities, I found some themes and patterns that consistently emerge: namely, how blame, shame, and guilt can infuse and permeate, and, how an event, that is too taboo to discuss, can become unspeakable. Unspoken, it may be mistaken as gone, “over” or now in the past…. but it is not. Instead, it remains ever-present, lurking and haunting, and the narratives surrounding it threaten to become urban legend.
And while this book tells the story of a workplace shooting, there are a myriad of traumas that occur in organizations that effect its culture: the death of a leader, financial ruin, fraud, natural disasters, sexual harassment/assault, and layoffs to name a few. Each with the potential to transcend what we might consider a crisis or scandal: events that disrupt or shake the organization to its core – that don’t simply go away with the passage of time.
Sherry: What did you do well in the aftermath?
Diana: We were in the unique position of responding to our own trauma. We had very well-defined and well-practiced emergency command preparedness protocols. Before this particular trauma, I had not appreciated how relying on the formality of framework and process served to steady us emotionally. The structure was reassuring and allowed us to focus on the tasks at hand and not be waylaid or buckle under the enormous stress and shock we had experienced.
We intentionally focused on unity because the identity of the shooter and his rumored motive had the potential to divide us. Unifying was paramount to our ability to continue functioning – we could not close; we had more than 600 other patients unrelated to the shooting still in-house that needed our care.
In parallel to the damage that the trauma inflicted, not just on that single day, but throughout the aftermath, we grew in ways that we could not have in the absence of the trauma. Our alignment with mission and purpose, our ability to collaborate, unify, and bond, and our sense of belonging strengthened and increased in ways that were palpable. I learned that division and isolation does not lead to recovery and healing. And though I could not guarantee unity, I could support and foster the conditions for it.
Sherry: You use the term “Stand-In” in your book – what does that mean to you?
Diana: On the day of the of the trauma, I had the unenviable, but necessary, responsibility of addressing our entire management team to convey what had happened, outline the next action steps, and communicate what we expected to transpire in the coming days. As I stood in front of more than 200 of my colleagues, gathering my thoughts and reflecting on what had occurred in the hours before, I became aware of a new meaning of being responsible:
“It takes a team, of course, to manage catastrophe or tragedy. But standing there that day, I realized the critical importance of having a person, visibly and overtly, assume the role of point person to ensure unity when confusion and fear threatens to unravel the organization. A person to “Stand In” – unflinchingly and without hesitation – when faced with uncertainty, extreme ambiguity, or unwanted change. Even when afraid, even when there was no guarantee of a positive outcome. To “Stand In” meant sometimes being the lightening rod. Sometimes being the protector. Sometimes the defender. To “Stand In” often meant taking the heat – absorbing and containing it without deflection or avoidance. To “Stand In” meant shielding others from harm whenever possible. And never causing more harm.
The events of that day, and in their aftermath, would test all that I had believed about leadership, redefining what it meant to lead through tragedy, and even changing the way I led in routine, every-day circumstances thereafter. “Standing In” became my private code phrase, a signal to lead with equanimity and resolve, through the din of tumult and chaos, whenever we were faced with adversity. To do, and to be, what was called for, even when blaming or hiding felt easier. Especially then.”
This book serves as a voice for many, as Diana would say. It is incredibly applicable to situations today as we deal with COVID-19.
Thank you Diana, for sharing how we can show up and be present. How we can guide an organization, even in the most difficult times. I know that all of you that read our newsletter worry about the health and safety of your people. You also worry about financial impacts. Standing in as a leader means taking responsibility and not blaming others. Diana’s story inspires us to communicate as honestly as possible and listen on a new level. I highly recommend reading Diana’s book and using it as a conversation with your team about leading through life-changing events.
Diana Hendel works with teams and leaders now. She serves as a trusted advisor and thought partner to senior leaders. She sees how organizations that are traumatized deal with things that are beyond the normal and it ripples through culture. Her goal is to help leaders through this trauma.
You can reach her at:
Responsible is available via Amazon here.