How a Stroke Taught Lessons in Leadership

22 Mar

On May 8, 2016, I had a stroke. I was 40 years old, recently married, and working in a very good job. It was Mother’s Day, and needless to say, spending Sunday and a good part of the next week in the ICU was not exactly what I had in mind. That day, I became one of the more than seven million stroke survivors in the U.S. However, in the course of my medical emergency and continuing recovery, I’ve been reminded of several leadership lessons as this experience changed my life and perspective.

Friday the 13th was just the beginning

Around 6:30 p.m. on that Sunday, I experienced a spontaneous carotid artery dissection that led to an ischemic cerebrovascular accident, commonly called a stroke. At the time my stroke took place, I was unaware of the diagnosis and severity. My wife had called 911 as she recognized the signs, and I was taken to the hospital where surgery was performed to restore blood flow to my brain.

While I spent the next 72 hours in the ICU following this emergency surgery that saved my life, I was discharged from the hospital later in the week on Friday the 13th. Little did I realize that leaving the hospital was just the beginning of my recovery. I immediately entered intensive, outpatient rehabilitation including physical, occupational, speech, and cognitive therapy. Each day, I had to work to strengthen and regain skills that were impacted by the stroke. For me, this included overcoming paralysis in my upper left arm and hand; improving attention and memory; working on balance, motor control, and endurance; and preparing to return to work. I completed outpatient rehabilitation over the course of six months and returned to full-time work within nine months.

During my rehabilitation and ongoing recovery, I have played an increasingly more active role in leading for myself. Not only have I focused on the physical exercise, but I have increased my knowledge of the latest practices and advancements in stroke recovery through self-education online and reading. I have also become active in advocating for increased funding for stroke prevention and recovery as well as an advocate to help educate others about the warning signs, causes, and treatment of strokes.

Your network is your net worth

Many times, the expression, “Your network is your net worth” is used to describe how social capital can be used to build connections to enhance professional success and acquire wealth. In the course of my experience with my stroke, I came to realize how truly valuable one’s network could be.

I have been extremely fortunate to have had a network of supporters during my recovery. Certainly, the support from my family could be expected, but I was amazed to experience the amazing level of support provided by others whom I had developed truly authentic relationships with through the years. With today’s technology (emails, Facebook, alumni networks, etc.), the news of my stroke was shared very quickly and equally as fast, we received offers of support. Not only were local neighbors and friends able to provide prepared meals, but friends from hundreds of miles away were able to coordinate food deliveries. The overwhelming generosity of co-workers, former colleagues, business clients, community leaders, college and MBA classmates, fellow O∆K members, and SAE fraternity brothers was incredible. Aside from meals, support was given to help transport me to doctor and therapy appointments, provide my wife time to focus on herself (i.e., exercise, retail therapy), and just allowing me time to reconnect with friends and rest.

Our extended network has also helped provide us specialized guidance on medical care and understanding medical jargon as well as referrals to top therapeutic specialists. In particular, we were fortunate to have two trusted emergency physician resources to counsel us – one being the husband of a local nonprofit executive I knew professionally and the other being the best man in our wedding.

Another instance that we were fortunate to benefit from via my network was in locating top occupational and cognitive therapists. The spouse of one of my wife’s colleagues happened to be a pediatric speech-language pathologist, and she connected us with a former professor for suggestions. Somewhat surprisingly, we learned that her professor had started the nonprofit Stroke Comeback Center (just 10 minutes from our home!), and she introduced me to several of the leading therapists in the area. Without question, the introduction to those therapists has been directly responsible for a significant part of my stroke recovery.

My net worth continues to be revealed through this experience, and I am thankful.

Empathetic, resilient, servant leadership

Throughout my leadership journey, I have tried to embrace the John Wesley quote: “Do all the good you can, By all the means you can, In all the ways you can, In all the places you can, At all the times you can, To all the people you can, As long as ever you can.” In experiencing my stroke and subsequent recovery, I have been fortunate that all of my efforts to make a positive difference provided me with an authentic community of supporters. As a leader, I always recognized that to accomplish your goals, you need to assemble the best team possible with the right skills and expertise. This health experience has only reinforced that a great leader doesn’t always have to have all of the answers as long as that person is open to ideas and perspectives of those on the broader team.

And while I have generally subscribed to the idea of servant leadership throughout my education and career, my experience as a patient has also reinforced this notion of leadership as well as a deeper appreciation that leaders need to acknowledge their own vulnerability. Often, most people classify leadership based on a traditional viewpoint of increasingly more authoritative titles or position of responsibility; however, I think the concept of a patient as a servant leader reinforces the need for great leaders to exemplify empathy, listening, gratitude, awareness of priorities, and building community. My experience as a patient has also reminded me that leadership of one’s self and situational leadership are equally important aspects of leadership that we often fail to reflect on.

This experience has undoubtedly changed me and reinforced my perspectives on leadership – notably in two ways. First, I am more empathetic. I have a deeper understanding and appreciation that every individual has his or her own challenges to face on a daily basis. Some of these tribulations may be physical, some are mental, and some are emotional – and these issues may be directly impacting the person, a family member, or a close friend. As a leader, we should always practice empathy for our fellow man and remind ourselves of our obligation to serve others. Second, I have become much more resilient as a leader through this experience. I have come to acknowledge that I won’t always have control of a situation and that my biggest growth will come through times of hardship. A resilient leader who can learn from his or her past experiences will be better prepared and a more effective in future situations. It’s often easier to give up or do what has been done before you, but the resilient leader will be able to accept his or her vulnerabilities and be motivated to move forward time and time again.

Act FAST and show compassion

Recently, I was asked, “What do you want your peers to know about helping a friend or colleague with a serious illness?” The biggest help that I believe someone can offer is to listen without judgment. We often struggle for the right words to say to comfort someone who has had a serious illness, but comfort and compassion can be easily shown by being present, attentive, and listening. Also, I encourage everyone to recognize the warning signs of a stroke and remember the acronym FAST by paying attention to a person’s face, arms, and speech, and remembering to act quickly and in time to prevent further damage. Lastly, find what fills you with purpose and happiness, and enjoy every day to its fullest as tomorrow is not always guaranteed.

Cliff Yee is a 1995 initiate of the Epsilon Circle at the University of Richmond where he was president of the circle. He is currently the Managing Director for Corporate Social Responsibility Consulting with Raffa in Washington, D.C. Cliff served as Omicron Delta Kappa’s National Treasurer from 2010-12.

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