What My Cancer Diagnosis Taught Me About Leadership

There’s no manual for how to have cancer and run a business – much less any significant health or life issue. I’ve had my fair share of them. Prior to my cancer diagnosis, I was running at lightening speed in 18 different directions. I was leading a business I had recently acquired, running a side business speaking to college students, while also building a third business in my extremely limited free time. I was doing too much and delegating too little. My to-do list was never ending and I was a bottleneck for a number of things my staff and business partners were trying to do. I wasn’t asking for help. I wasn’t being transparent about how overwhelmed I felt. The levee was about to break.

And then I got cancer.

But instead of the levee breaking, the rain stopped and the flood waters receded.

Here’s what I mean. When I was diagnosed with cancer, I was honest about it. My staff, my team, and my business partners were some of the first people to know about it. I was honest about the road ahead. I put every doctor appointment (and what it was) on my calendar. I was honest about how I was feeling. I communicated with them when I needed their help when I had to crawl back in bed because the exhaustion (and nausea) was too much. I shared openly in meetings about my treatments, my reactions to it, and how I was feeling. I know they’re grateful for how open I’ve been.

I’ve always valued transparency and honesty as a leader. That’s not a new trait for me. They have been among the core tenants of how I lead, for much of my career. I believe that honesty, vulnerability, and transparency fosters trust and limits the false narratives that are sometimes created in the absence of information. It allows people to trust you as a leader, trust that their experience working for you is real, and believe they know where they stand at every moment. It took my cancer diagnosis to remind me how important these things are in leadership and to the people I was leading.

Being vulnerable, sharing personal stuff (and frankly business stuff) openly and honestly with people often seems counter to how we should lead. However, I know it’s one of the most important things we can do to create an environment of trust among the people who work for us and with us.

But here was my unexpected lesson: It taught me to trust, too.

What happened in response to my honesty about my cancer, was that my staff and my partners showed up for me. I didn’t have a choice to let go of some of the work I was holding on to. I didn’t have the physical capacity to work at the pace I was. It taught me that I can delegate, I don’t have to do everything myself, and that I have a lot of really talented, really capable people surrounding me. It allowed me to let go of all the work I was holding onto “in the weeds” and focus on the big picture stuff that really mattered.

Suddenly, my to-do list was shorter and the things that I hadn’t finished, were suddenly getting done. We were moving forward faster, yet I was moving slower. It was like a slap on the back of my head; Why hadn’t I done this sooner?

I know this is often the case for small business owners, entrepreneurs, and even lots of leaders. The transition out of the “doing” and into the “leading” is a hard one. Trusting people to get the work done can be difficult – and sometimes it feels easier, better, and quicker to just do it yourself. We become micromanagers, our staff gets frustrated because we “won’t let them do anything themselves” or we become the bottleneck slowing performance, productivity, and outcomes down.

The lesson I learned was to trust the talents of the people I had put on my team – that’s why I hired them (or work with them) isn’t it? To let go of the need to control and I know they have my back. Turns out I needed to get cancer to learn that lesson.

Regardless of my cancer diagnosis, these lessons were important for me to be reminded of and learn. I’m grateful for that. I recognize that being honest and transparent is hard – and trusting others is even harder. I know attempting to lead with trust and transparency will look different for every leader. I also know, how important and powerful it can be. I’ve seen the results across my leadership experiences time and time again. I encourage you to give it a try.

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