Over the last several weeks you have read my experiences, revelations, and internal struggles around life’s major tradeoffs, finding our identity, and facing our fears. This week I want to go a bit deeper and share with you how a single event can change a person’s perception of themselves in a split second. What is so important about this topic in terms of leadership and culture? The answer is that influential leaders harness the power of their personal experiences to impact the lives of those they are called to lead. The other night I was watching an episode of NY Med.
This is a rarity for me; I’m the odd guy who watches only about 3-5 hours of TV a week (with the exception of the College Football season). I am not advocating the show, but in this particular episode one of the ED physicians said something profound. She said “I think the best doctors are the ones who have experienced tragedies in life. These experiences allow us to connect with what our patients are going through and to have more compassion.” During this episode a patient had come into the ED as a result of a miscarriage. The doctor shared with her patient how she too had a miscarriage two weeks prior; they both cried. As leaders this same belief holds true; leaders who have walked through tragedies in their life can leverage those experiences to be better leaders. I have found that it is much easier to lead people when I can relate to them on a human level, when I am willing to create an environment of openness and trust.
In September of 1989 I was sleeping when a loud bang at my door jarred me awake. It was my parents, the time was about 11pm and they had driven from the other side of town to let me know that my little brother had died in a car accident. I will never forget what it felt like to hear those words come out of my father’s mouth. I was 21 at the time and I had only seen on TV shows people physically collapsing from the shock of bad news. At the moment it became real to me. My knees buckled and I would have fallen to floor had my mother and father not been holding on to me. Time literally stood still. The next week was surreal and for many months after that I expected to wake up from this terrible dream and see my brother walk through the door. That was almost 25 years ago. He has been gone now longer then he walked this earth. In that moment my entire life changed. There was nothing I could do to go back to the “way it was”. The tradeoff in this case was not mine to make, my identity as the older brother was no longer relative, and my fears were unmanageable.
As a leader how I choose to leverage that experience really does matter. The influential leader has the ability to harness these experiences and become a more compassionate and understanding leader. If you lead people you will inevitably be responsible for people who have similar life changing experiences. Over my years of leading people from all different walks of life I have heard similar stories of tragedy. I have had the honor as a leader of attending funerals of employees who have passed away, family members of employees who have been diagnosed with a life threatening illness, and holding the hand of colleagues whose children tittered on the brink of death in the pediatric intensive care unit. During these times as their leader what mattered most was not what I said, but what I did. Influential leaders act. We make tradeoffs, do we attend that important meeting or do we take time to be present for our employee. We validate our identity, am I who I say I am? Am I a caring compassionate leader willing to support others in their time of need? Finally, we face our fears. These fears are different for all. For some leaders it will be a fear of being in an uncomfortable situation or fear of opening old wounds for ourselves. For others it will be a fear of missing deadlines and having to explain to others why you did not deliver. At the end of the day our willingness to merge our personal experiences with our professional experiences in a positive way will set us apart as leaders. If you really want to be an influential leader the recipe is simple, authenticity + vulnerability + trust + quality time = influence. No one escapes this life without experiencing tragedies. Be willing as a leader to share your life with those you lead and in turn what you will find is that others will share their life with you – the results will be remarkable.