An Executive Lesson on Courage... from a Kid

It’s 9:02am, Monday, January 11, 2016. I’m focused on the new emails in my inbox when my cell phone beeps. It was a two-word text from my little brother in Chicago.

It's cancer.

My just-turned-12-year-old-niece -- who at the adorable age of 3 decided I should call her Munchkin 1 and her elder sister Munchkin 2 -- my little Munchkin 1 had been diagnosed with rare, advanced stage synovial sarcoma. Life for all of us changed immediately.


This Sunday, June 23, 2019 we’ll remember her last day of intravenous chemo, celebrated in this photo of a beautiful, bald, beaming Warrior Munchkin and the posters she created the night before to mark the milestone.

It was Tough But I was Tougher

“It was tough. But I was tougher.” The wisdom of a 12-year-old.

Ally’s first cancer-free scan was the day after the Cubbies won the 2016 World Series - Holy Cow! And today she is thriving as a high school student. 

So What Does This Have to Do with Executive Courage

So what does this have to do with courage? Ally was a really smart 12 year old.  Immediately after being diagnosed she began research on her iPhone. Quickly, she knew the odds. The color of the pathology stains and what they meant. She thought about death.  Yet I saw her cry only once.   During the middle of the night lying in her hospital bed before the first administration of chemo, as we watched as the red fluid they called the “Red Devil” slowly. . .slowly. . .s-l-o-w-l-y trickle from the IV bag into the port into the veins near her heart.

I have zero recollection of Ally complaining. What I remember instead is her infectious smile - even on the days when she said she was 90% "chemo blob" and only 10% Ally.

The Lesson: A couple of months later, as her hair and eyebrows and eyelashes were starting to grow back, I told Warrior Munchkin how much I'd learned from her courage. Not missing a beat she replied, "Aunt Nynee, it wasn't courage. I didn't have a choice." Ally was too young to comprehend all of the choices she actually could have made in how she responded during her battle against Stage 3 pediatric cancer.

Change-Hardy Resilience

For over a decade I've shared Diane Coutu's definition of resilience.  

"More than education, more than experience, more than training, a person’s level of resilience will determine who succeeds and who fails.

That’s true in the cancer ward, it’s true in the Olympics, and it’s true in the boardroom.

Resilience is neither ethically good nor bad. It is merely the skill and the capacity to be robust under conditions of enormous stress and change."

After 2016, I had a flesh-and-bones example of this, and I decided if a 12-year-old can negotiate the confusion, the pain, the frustration and fear of looking cancer in the face, certainly adults can do the same as they negotiate leadership challenges.

Lesson learned - from a 12-year-old.

Courage requires the presence of fear.

Early into my 50s I figured out courage is dependent on the presence of fear, and I felt empowered.  If I could increase my self-awareness and identify when I was feeling fear, I could choose a courageous response.  Later I learned my husband could sometimes sense when I was feeling fear before I could, and our ability to talk about this delicate subject has helped us each make better choices. 

Scientists tell us fear is an involuntary response which is naturally embedded in our body for engaging our primal instinct of survival. It serves to trigger defense mechanisms like running, retrieving, and holding ourselves back from doing something which leaves us exposed. You know this as the adrenaline-fueled Fight-Or-Flight response.

Here is the valuable lesson: people who accomplish courageous feats tend to do so by voluntarily acting in opposition to what fear tells them. They take action.

What happens when we experience fear?

The most concrete thing neuroscience tells us is that when the fear center of the brain is active, innovation is turned off. Exploratory activity and risk-taking are turned off. Fear is an opportunity “what-if” killer.

The first order of business, then, is to neutralize the fear system. Here are three easy to implement neutralizers:

1. Avoiding fearmongering – something very hard to do in today’s climate.

2.  Be intentional about who you invest your time with and focus on.  Limit, or eliminate, time with those whose focus is fear-based.  Victims existence is based on the presence of villains and the victim-villain mindset fuels a climate of blame. 

3. Where is your attention? What are you watching - especially in the media?

After learning this, my husband and I decided to try a 40-day TV/News fast. For 40 days we chose to watch two news programs a week and other than that, only documentaries. (Oh, and Blue Bloods on Friday nights.)   We started during Black History Month, and one of the most powerful documentaries we watched was Ava Duverney’s controversial 13th.

The TV/News Fast was easy for my husband, but I’m a news junkie and I really struggled with not going to the News app on my iPhone. My thumb didn't know what to do with all of the new spare time!  But two months post-TV/News Fast, our lives have qualitatively changed for the better.  My impusle to watch tv in general has lessend, plus I watch and read SIGNIFICANTLY less news throughout the day.  Turns out I’m just fine and still well-informed.  And more importantly, I have a much greater sense of peace now that I've chosen to get off the breaking news roller coaster. 

How can we stimulate courageous behavior?

Action. It turns out, taking action is the key tool to neutralize fear. According to Earl Miller, MIT Neuroscientist, our brains are able to focus on only one thing at a time. If we make a choice to act forward, our brain will focus forward. If that focus is fear, we will continue the fear paralysis. If we focus on steps we can take, our brain does not have the capacity to simultaneously focus on fear.

A final note:  In addition to demonstrating courage, executives have the ability to en-courage.  A few months ago, while participating in a master-mind group, we played with the idea of lifting up others' capacity for courage by en-couraging.  Here are some of the examples we discussed: 

En-couraged a business owner to demonstrate courage by taking the first step and consider forgiving a business partner for behavior that violated his values. He started by asking to be forgiven. That’s courage.

En-couraged an executive to choose courage and schedule a long-avoided difficult conversation with a direct report about performance and company guidelines so she was demonstrating fairness as a leader.

En-couraged a gifted detail-oriented leader to choose to go against the grain of her natural problem-spotting strength and instead use her influence to help the organization choose not to nit-pick and instead see possibilities.

En-couraged my husband to ask “what’s next” when he missed an important putt in a golf tournament. . . and he went on to bring home a trophy!

One of my favorites: encouraged a young woman supervisor at our grocery store checkout area who has been going to school for an associate degree, but is exhausted from work and school. “You’re almost done and there is nothing like a degree in the rear-view mirror. You will change lives as a social worker. I am confident in you.” She tried to hold back her smile, but I saw it cracking through!

We all have the responsibility – and the capacity - to be courageous. And today, if a 12-year-old who knows her odds are 30% life -70% death, if that child can push through her fear, then certainly we as leaders can push through the fear that causes us to settle for comfort in the status quo and pursue something better.

If you’d like to support kids like Ally who are fighting cancer, here are a few teams that provided the support she’d like for me to share:

Compass To Care - They help kids with cancer cover the cost of travel from home to treatment.

The Truth 365 - The Truth 365 is the Emmy Award-Winning grass-roots documentary film and social media campaign that gives a voice to all children fighting all forms of cancer. Here’s Ally in a Truth 365 feature where she talks about how pediatric cancer shaped her activism.

Ally’s Allies - This is Ally’s facebook page where you can learn more and keep up with her story.

If you are stuck and not taking the next step to address confusion, change or conflict, consider seeking the services of Your Executive Coach. Our methods are time proven and incorporate scientific techniques for helping you focus on results.

Here’s a photo with Ally and her family at her freshman dance performance. Three years after having one of her quad muscles detached and rolled up to fill the space formerly taken by the tumor in her hip, Ally is leaping and dancing to Fosse. Remarkable! Please get started here...


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