3 Leadership Lessons I Learned in a Difficult Season of Life

I was in college and six months pregnant with my first son when my younger brother passed away from cancer. He was 18 years old and barely out of high school, and losing him left us immersed in the grief cycle. This wasn’t the first time I had to deal with a catastrophic life event, but this was the first time I had so much personal responsibility and my health to look after.

My professors understood and gave me time to grieve, but, after some time, the work needed to be completed. I was taught a lot about grace and not taking advantage of the compassion given to me, as well as the need to focus on the people who surrounded me. Still, this moment wouldn’t be my only catalyst for deeper introspection.

By 2012, at 28 years old and recovering from back surgery, I was severely overweight. I realized I would continue to suffer major consequences from my unhealthy lifestyle, so I made a resolution: I would put myself first. I began working out with my husband, crushing my goals at the gym by keeping consistent and taking risks, and losing over 50 pounds in the process. As a result, I became more focused, calm and confident.

Those two transformative experiences had a major impact on how I perform as president of my company. Somehow, through the catastrophic life event of losing a much-loved sibling and forcing myself out of a cycle of unhealthy eating, I came out stronger at the other end. While I can’t say that I will ever achieve the grace or compassion I strive to exhibit, I have used those intensely personal and powerful events to construct a fresh method of engaging others in the workplace.

Turning lemons into lemonade, one seed at a time.

When life forces intense moments on you, you have a choice. You can crawl into a shell, or you can stick your head out and take risks. For me, the mantra “Nothing changes if nothing changes” became a guiding philosophy. If I’m not open to stepping outside my comfort zone, I can’t live up to my full potential. From running 5Ks to addressing large crowds, my abilities are only as limited as my mindset.

I knew this when I had the chance to take a career leap of faith and join a startup as a young professional a few years after my first son was born. Armed only with a background in baking and customer service, I dived into what could have been an uncomfortable chapter of my life. In the back of my mind, I remembered my brother, who would never have my opportunities. Who was I then to hold back when paths—even tenuous ones—presented themselves?

As it turned out, becoming a leader in a startup was one of the smartest decisions I’ve ever made. But without a background fraught with emotional and physical hurdles, I would never have had the confidence and motivation to explore this new workplace and industry.

Regardless of whether you’ve had similar struggles in life, you, too, can benefit from making choices based on bettering yourself as a professional. Here are three steps that stand out for anyone wishing to take control of her future.

1. Ask for peer feedback—and accept it graciously.

Your peers are watching you and evaluating your performance, but you’ll never know what’s in their hearts or minds if you don’t inquire. This isn’t about getting them to tell you dark secrets or putting them in uncomfortable positions. Rather, it’s about gathering insights into how others perceive you. You can then analyze this feedback and set goals accordingly, enabling others to support you as you map out a plan for progress.

As far as what questions to ask to ensure you get honest responses, choose your words carefully and meaningfully, but be straightforward and unambiguous. Some of my favorite questions include:

  • What can I do to better support our team’s mission?
  • Whom should I be working with more closely?
  • Which parts of my leadership or professional style concern you most?
  • If you were in my position for a day, what would you change?

Be certain you solicit feedback often, but keep it on a predictable schedule. For example, I conduct direct one-to-ones monthly and document everything discussed in GoCo for both parties’ reference.

2. Pay attention to what’s happening around you.

So many times, we forget that what happens around us offers tremendous clues about what tomorrow will bring. For instance, if you’re a leader, what occurs in your office when you’re not around? Do people push forward with assignments or hold back until you return? If you’re an employee, do your team members understand how to navigate your role? Could they solve a problem particular to your job if it came up when you were gone? Being an observer and good listener helps you process what’s occurring without your influence so that you can analyze that information from a new perspective to make better decisions.

Keeping assumptions at bay, seek out the facts when talking and listening to others, and open yourself up to alternative ideas and ways to solve problems. These are opportunities for both personal and professional growth, so long as you understand how to pause. While there’s no single rule on how long your pauses should be—they could be milliseconds or several seconds—base your determination on the variation of speaking styles, the nature of your messaging, whom you’re speaking with and your own personality. By focusing more on cues from your surroundings, you’ll know whether you absorbed the message you were delivered and whether others are waiting for your response.

Remember, too, that leaders aren’t the only ones with great ideas. Everyone in a company has a lot to say, but they often don’t bring up their views without prompting. I, for instance, like to conduct exit interviews and follow-ups with past employees to foster a culture of honesty, and I encourage my employees to offer up their ideas even if I don’t instigate them. Because without knowledge of our own blind spots, how can anyone be a true asset?

3. Take time to care for yourself.

Every day, I take time for myself to promote a good life balance. I have a 90-minute window in the morning before my co-workers arrive when I reflect on what I accomplished during the previous day. From there, I think about what needs to be done that day to make an impact. In addition to this 90-minute reflection in the office, I work out three times each week before everyone else in my house rises. That way, I get the chance to concentrate on positivity, not the negativity that inevitably seems to creep into the workplace.

My hope is that, as a leader, I’m encouraging everyone in my sphere of influence to take time for themselves to take care of themselves. If you don’t regularly reflect, focus and engage in anything, then you’ll never have the mental capacity to reflect on the important issues or happiness required for solid productivity. So find what you need and chase after it hard. Whether it’s uplifting podcasts (which I love), exercising, spending time with family and friends, or finding inspiration while sitting quietly and meditating for 15 minutes before bedtime, you owe it to yourself and those you work with to make yourself the best self.

Getting closer to your professional objectives by developing a full quiver.

What arrows are in your quiver? As professionals, we have to maximize our productivity while bringing value to our teams and building our value to the company. As leaders, we must ensure that we amass a bevy of tools to combat lowered confidence, bolster our teams’ attitudes and foster motivation. For these goals, Peak App is a great resource. I use it to refine my brain while tackling the daily cognitive challenges it offers. Both fun and stimulating, these games also increase my creativity and curiosity.

The bottom line is that we’re each a composite of experiences—both amazing and tragic. But it’s not enough for you to acknowledge the past; you also deserve to grow out of it and float a little higher tomorrow.

Related: 5 Practices of Exemplary Leadership

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Michael Manning

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