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Leading at Work When You Are Dealing With Personal Hardships

January 31, 2015

When I was in my mid-twenties, I worked for a manager who put a fine line between his work and personal lives. His staff knew what kind of mood he was in for the day as we watched him cross the parking lot in the morning. We knew if he had been fighting with his girlfriend. He was dressed in black and seemed to carry dark energy with him as he moved. All day, he would be sharp with us. We learned on those days that staying out of his way until he resolved his personal issues was the best survival strategy for all of us.

I swore after that experience I would keep my personal and work lives separate. For many years, I stayed true to this notion. In fact, my colleagues didn’t even know I was in a relationship until I brought my now-husband, Jeff, to a senior executive Christmas party just days before we got engaged!

About seven years ago, things in my life started to happen that felt like an elephant in the room if they weren’t mentioned. For instance, my pregnancy with my first child. Pretty hard not to talk about those extra 60 pounds! And then once I started my own leadership development business, Potential Unlimited, the brain injury happened to me during a routine X-ray at a medical lab. Even though afterwards, I sounded the same and looked the same, I wasn’t. The road to recovery for many brain injuries is a long one.

At first, I didn’t talk much about it as I didn’t want to come across as damaged goods. I soon realized this brain injury wasn’t a passing phase, it had become part of me – both the bad and the good. And I began to see ways of expressing the realness of my situation along with the gifts of a brain injury. Every bad situation has gifts. For instance, I now know more about how the brain works and stress management techniques than anyone else I know. These lessons didn’t come easy. I became my own genuine pig around being a Mom and a career woman and managing my stress or else knowing for me that the consequences now could be dire. This is information I can share with others and helps them smooth the waters of their own busy lives as leaders.

And then when I think I am starting to find normal moments again, my Dad is diagnosed with an incurable form of lung cancer. To be in a position of supporting and not being able to fix, no matter how much I want to, has been a frustrating and strangely freeing experience. I can love. I can be. There is nothing more I can do.

As I sit with my Dad in any spare moments I can at the hospital in isolation, I don’t bring a book with me or my smart phone. I don’t take print offs of work. I sit and I be. I watch him breathe. I focus on my own breath. I feel my love for him. At times, I catch myself going down memory lane in my mind. I think of early memories with him. Going for bike rides on the back of his bike. Gardening with Dad. My Father pushing me on the swings. This is the man who came to pick me up at the University of Waterloo to take me for job interviews in Toronto because I didn’t have a car. I think of the moment he walked me down the aisle to meet my husband at our wedding. And, the beautiful experience of seeing him hold his first grandchild, my daughter. But, I remind myself our time together is not done. Stay in the present moment. That is all we ever have anyway.

So, when I think about mixing my personal life and work life now, I have a different view-point. I think we need to acknowledge the elephant in the room with our colleagues and clients. If you are going through a divorce, dealing with aging parents, a health issue to yourself or someone else you know, this is real. I don’t think we need to turn our life experiences into a vent fest at work and create negative energy. But, I think there is real strength in admitting to others that you have stuff going on in your life and also sharing with them the gifts of these experiences and how they can lend to making you stronger at work.

Every experience you have is making you stronger, especially the tough ones. But, your challenge is to meet those tough challenges head on. Don’t struggle, but flow and accept. Trust your path will lead you in the right direction and trust yourself enough to know when it is time to shift your sails.

One thing I have learned in life is nothing stays the same for long. Enjoy the good times and give yourself permission to feel safe and flow through the tough moments. Trust these are the times that will take you where you need to go to continue to bring your greatness into this world.

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