The last four months have been joy filled--no doctor appointments, no shots, blood work only once ... which looked fine. Eight of my sorority sisters drove out from Pittsburgh for a weekend and to attend the Danny Gokey concert. Pure joy and laughter. Prior to encountering cancer, I had no appreciation for the freedom I had in my own life. Part of my life's work now I believe is to help others trust that all we take for granted could be gone tomorrow. I thought I always knew this, lived it. A life threatening illness brings the reality of that message home.
There has been really great progression forward. I remember writing about longing for the mundane. I have a brand new appreciation for the mundane. I can drive my car. I can walk unaided; albeit not long distances. Fatigue lingers. I'm able to work. In fact, with the help of Wonder Woman, Nicole Nelson in my office, last week, I participated in our first Forum in eight months. I felt scared. Could I do it? Could I stand in front of others without breaking down? Would they sense that my confidence has been shaken to the core, that I was mustering together every ounce of courage I had to stand before them? I also wondered if I had the strength to speak my new truth. Would I be willing to share? Could I show vulnerability and still be a great leader?
The Forum, hosted by Schneider Electric, was held in a beautiful space--the Gaylord Golf Resort in Nashville. Breathtakingly beautiful! Fog caressed the ground and was slowly rising as we made the winding ride to the clubhouse. I believe the fog was the universe whispering my first message for the day. "Fog will rise. Keep moving forward."
Next, we saw a large, beautiful tree in all of its glorious fall color, growing out of a solid rock -limestone. Another message. "You are strong. You are rooted well. Continue to reach for the sky even when circumstances seem unlikely. You can and will grow."
Imagine then the space--glass surrounding--opening our ability to see outward, to appreciate beauty, to see beyond. Honestly, such extraordinary gifts. The universe (well, and probably the Gaylord), provided a little guy painting right outside the window where we were presenting the Forum. I loved it! I told the attendees that if all went to hell, we could watch the paint dry. I have such new value for the mundane.
The Forum went in a direction that I was not expecting. One of the first requests that arose when I asked what people were looking to gain from the Forum was a conversation about vulnerability. Is there a place for vulnerability in leadership?
This message of vulnerability was one that kept reoccurring. The week before attending the Forum, we delivered a webinar on "Engaging Men in the Conversation." Patrick Burke and Lynn Hoffman, both leaders of Aon, talked about vulnerability. If you didn’t get a chance to hear this, and you’re a GWLF Corporate Member, download it from the Corporate Member Portal of our website. Patrick and Lynn lead with transparency, honesty, integrity. Look at this, here’s how Patrick describes himself on LinkedIn, in addition to the part about being a VP: “Average guy finding fun ways to encourage, inspire and support people in my community to get active and stay active...for the rest of their lives.”
Yeah Patrick, that’s not so average. So not only did Patrick have an idea, he put it to form by founding YourOwnHow--described this way: Outside of work hobby...a mission, a cause. - speak to local groups (YMCA, health clubs, triathlon clubs, small businesses)
- work with teams in training (Breast Cancer walks, 5K, 10K, 1/2 and full marathons)
- collaborate with running stores on events.
Lynn Hoffman is a Senior Director at Aon. Lynn’s cares about Animal Welfare, Children, Economic Empowerment, Health, Politics. And I know she cares about advancing women in leadership…she’s part of our Advisory Board! The discussion with these two leaders began an internal dialogue for me about whether or not we truly have space for vulnerability in leadership. I’m realizing also through this work that we tell ourselves the story that men don’t feel vulnerability, they don’t question whether or not they “fit in.” Here’s a learning…not so.
After this webinar and on the Saturday before we left for the Forum, I decided to have my hair colored. I don't have the confidence yet to go without my wig. My hair, coming in completely white, now exposed white sideburns beneath my blonde wig. I look to Lizzy (my daughter) for the truth about personal maintenance. She told me she thought I probably should consider color.
I've not been to the salon in ten months. The woman who previously took care of my hair is out on maternity leave. I talked with the salon owner, who agreed, with hesitance to put color on. Since I've had chemo, there's some question about hair color.
The salon owner did not have time to wash out the color, so he directed me to another young man who would finish my process. The young man was Sean, and I have to admit, I was battling some of my own unconscious bias when I saw him. Sean is a very petite man with coal black hair. The left side of his head is completely shaved. He has a highly puffed up comb-over, pure white and angled in four separate spikes toward his eyes. Black eyeliner lined his upper and lower lid. As he approached the chair I was sitting in, I could feel the pace of my breath increasing. I love artists. I love funky. I love funky artists. I think, however, that I don't so much love funky artists working on what little hair I have on my head. Absolutely would support them working on others.
As Sean and I exchanged niceties, I realized he was a very kind soul. I asked him how long he thought it would be before I could go without my wig altogether. I told him I spoke professionally as part of my work, and that I did not want people gazing back at me thinking, "Oh that poor soul, she has cancer."
Sean asked me what I spoke about. I told him that I spoke on leadership. Then, the most extraordinary thing came out of this funky, incredibly wise, artist. He said, "Well, isn't true leadership about courage, confidence, authenticity? My favorite speakers and leaders have been those who have been willing to share their personal stories, who are vulnerable, those who don't try to be anyone beyond who they really are!"
Oh Jeez. Seriously? In the middle of getting my hair colored, I have to have a life lesson? The answer is yes. In the middle of whatever, there is opportunity for a significant life lesson. Sean had no idea about the wisdom he had just offered. He spoke to me at both head and heart level. Here's a kid truly living his own message. I knew what I needed to do.
The Forum was superbly well launched by Kathy Mazzarella, President and CEO of Graybar. An opening Keynote can make or break the day. It sets the tone. Kathy was so forthcoming. She was honest about the choices, not sacrifices, she made for her career. She was so transparent about all of the events that she missed for her two daughters. And you know what? They turned out just fine! Both are highly valued in their careers, speak multiple languages, and are just good people! (Five languages??? My four kids are slugs. I have one who is fluent in Spanish. The other three claim English as their first language but the jury is still out! AND I attended every event they had going…almost! There was that one time… I was speaking in Panama and it was my son Sean’s golden birthday—March 17, St. Patrick’s Day. He has NEVER let me forget it. I have enough Catholic guilt without the reminder!) Point is, there is no prescription for how to do this. You sort of have to make it up as you go along. And you’re not making sacrifices, you’re making choices. When Kathy talked about her husband, a PhD researching new possibilities for Stage IV cancers, I burst into tears.
Just before closing, I had a 30 minute slot for a presentation. Because Nashville is Music City, the theme was, "Conducting Beyond Limits--Leadership Lessons for Leveraging Inclusion." My piece was called "Orchestrating Your Plan." It was a focus on personal and professional takeaways from the day.
In researching what goes into producing music, I found that there are eight steps. I focused on three: writing the song, overdubbing (which is bringing your "sweetness" to the music), and mastering. In mastering, I circled back to the initial conversation about vulnerability in leadership. Then, I took my wig off. I told my story. I was terrified. I told them that in February, with no warning or readiness, I was diagnosed with Stage IV Lymphoma. Shock and awe enveloped the room. There I was, standing before all of these people, bald like an eagle, and really letting them in. My point -- you never really know who stands in front of you. All of us are battling something...all of us! And rather than judge each other, what if we all helped each other to just be... what if we actually encouraged the possibility of just being? Is it possible that would be enough?
I cried as I spoke--also really tough, AND I told them that I would not apologize for my tears, that I was not/am not a victim, that this is a condition of my lived experience, and that it was okay, that I am okay.
On November 18, I have my next scans. As you can imagine, I'm scared and anxious to get my next "ticket" to pass go, to live on, to be vulnerable…and lead. I have appreciated and valued each and every one of you on this journey, and I'm asking again for you to storm heaven with prayers for a clean scan, for continued healing and wholeness, and for an increased knowingness that just as I am, I am enough.
Celebrating you and your own vulnerabilities!