Expert in the advancement of women leaders, Susan Mackenty Brady reveals her personal story of learning that great leaders propagate the feeling of hope.
Recently, I had the real honor (and humbling assignment) to keynote as the commencement speaker at the close of an esteemed leadership development experience for select leaders at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. The topic I was invited to speak about? “Leading with Compassion”—which felt like a set-up. St. Jude, as you may know, is the Patron Saint of Lost and Hopeless Causes. The mission of this institution is to end childhood cancer. They are dedicated to eradicating catastrophic disease in children. They are the very essence of compassion. When I arrived, a video was playing that captured moments of the leadership program. The words “palpable hope” were on the screen and I was told this came from a vision exercise during one of the program’s activities about the future of St. Jude.
On the tour I took prior to my talk, I learned about the vision of Danny Thomas and the work his children and many others have done to procure massive sponsorship and donor funds to ensure the vision manifests. I saw life. I saw wellness. I saw art and joy, color and pain, beauty and community. While the tour didn’t include the major areas of treatment, the cafeteria was a showcase of diversity and reality. And the overwhelming sense was that of hope. Palpable hope – I had a felt experience of hope. I wanted to cry on several occasions—for the children who won’t beat their disease and those that live through the tortuous fight and do. For the mothers and fathers who have had to reconcile the diagnoses of their beloved babies.
During my visit, I asked a nurse leader how she manages without crying. Her reply: “I cry all the time with parents. We all do. For kids who won’t survive their diagnosis, our aim is to give one more amazing day.” I sank into a feeling of pure awe, and thought to myself, How does she do it? Then, I don’t know if I could… This same nurse leader admitted later, during the session I was leading, that she had spent the morning berating herself because her son marched off to school that morning with “high water” pants that he clearly outgrew. That’s when I knew I was here for a reason. Oh girl, I’d put money on the fact that you are an amazing mommy. You are human. And your son gets to see it. He will be okay. Give yourself a whopping break. Yep, the Inner Citric (which I recently wrote a second book about – link here) spares no one. Not even these special people who go to work every day to eradicate cancer in children.
The two topics I have been reflecting on since my visit to St. Jude are the extreme expectations (and critical bashing) even the most accomplished and purpose-driven leaders have of themselves and others, and the fact that inspiration and hope—while critically important—is only part of the equation.
Human beings need to feel hope. We need something to believe in. A vision. A change for good. Something that has a little bit of pixie dust and magic. Is that too much to ask of our leaders? Leaders who propagate HOPE seem to always ignite the hearts and minds (and discretionary efforts) of others. Even the great leadership author and expert Warren Bennis said “leaders are great purveyors of hope” in his seminal work On Becoming a Leader. But hope is not enough to foster engagement and equity. Before we see equity and consistent and scalable inclusion in leadership, we need to be kinder and gentler with ourselves and with others. We need to allow ourselves to be human and thus, imperfect at life. Humans get impatient and irritated. We may not see that our children are growing so fast that they are outgrowing their clothing until…they outgrow their clothing.
What I learned about the staff, doctors and nurses of St. Jude is this: While they are called to do meaningful work, they are all human. Being human is hard. It means we aren’t always in compassion with one another—and often, with our self. While they are in the business of producing “palpable hope”, I could see that they needed to be reminded of their humanity. They needed to be reminded that they are perfectly imperfect. They needed to be reminded that the voice of the inner critic is a common epidemic—especially among driven, passionate, purpose-driven leaders. They needed to hear that losing patience and compassion —especially with ourselves and those who love us the most (at home) HAPPENS. They needed to be reminded that their kid will turn out okay even if he marched off to school in pants he outgrew.
To read more from Susan, check out her book Mastering Your Inner Critic.