How a family tragedy offered a lesson in transparent communication

All families know pain and loss—and one comms leader reflects on how those experiences offer wisdom in the face of the many challenges of 2021.

A tragic lesson in transparent comms

Corporations are fertile grounds for spawning great leaders. Some executives make their mark turning around faltering companies. Others rise to the occasion when an unexpected crisis occurs.

There are certainly countless additional examples of what defines a great leader. Despite a long career in communications and corporate affairs, my epiphany on leadership came at the most unexpected time: following the suicide in 2012 of my 28-year-old nephew, Brooks. And the teacher wasn’t a high-powered CEO. It was my late mother, Elaine Winton.

My three brothers and I were raised on the family dairy farm in upstate New York. My mom also helped raise the next generation of our family, which included Brooks and two of his siblings who had all been abandoned by their mother when they were very young. Mental illness was not uncommon in that rural community of about 500 people, though no one ever spoke about it.

We were all shocked when Brooks died by suicide. Certain people suggested that we sweep the cause under the rug, and some went so far as to encourage my mom to tell people that he died of natural causes. Again, he was a healthy 28-year-old, a robust dairy farmer and steel mill worker with no known physical illnesses.

All of this weighed heavily on the family as we wanted to be transparent in the eulogy I was honored to deliver. However, we also didn’t want to create an uncomfortable situation for my other family members or others in our community.  As our family gathered in the pastor’s office of that small United Methodist country church preparing for the funeral, I vividly remember my mom’s conviction and resolution that we should address what had occurred explicitly and in detail. My mom fervently believed that candidly discussing my nephew’s mental illness might open hearts and minds to a critically important and devastating issue in that small rural farming community.

My mom married on her 18th birthday, and was 20 when I was born as the oldest son. She didn’t have the opportunity to go to college. But her resolute decision that day was one of the most inspirational examples of leadership that I have witnessed over the course of my four-decade-long career.

In the business world, we often come face-to-face with sensitive or unpopular issues that are hard to communicate. We must always have the courage to meet those challenges head on, communicating honestly even when the news is not what our audience wants to hear. Transparency builds credibility.

In addition to serving as co-founder and CEO of the communications agency, Jeff Winton Associates, and owning and overseeing our dairy farm, I continue to advocate for addressing mental health openly and genuinely to rural audiences wherever I can. Although my mom is no longer with us, I will always honor her spirit and determination by being bold and communicating honestly. By speaking out, I also am paying tribute to Brooks’ life, as well as shedding light on countless others who continue to struggle in silence.

Jeff Winton is the CEO and co-founder of Jeff Winton Associates

Ragan and PR Daily have partnered with The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations to develop the Lessons in Leadership column. This column will rotate among Plank Center Board of Advisor members, their emerging leaders network and board alumni, concentrating on moments of personal leadership and the lessons they impart.

Photo by Jake Gard on Unsplash

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