Bridging Leadership Lessons from the Workplace and Those Experiences Shaping Today's Youth and Tomorrow's Leaders
When things are hectic, it can be very difficult to keep things in perspective. The pressures of a challenging economic climate, complication of a changing workforce while navigating the hidden landmines associated with remote & hybrid work. Throw on top of this the polarizing impact of social media that attempts to unite by dividing and no wonder it is easy to get caught up in life’s struggles.
On a recent business trip, there was a young couple with 2 preschool aged kids sitting a couple of rows in front of me. Throughout the flight, you could hear the older brother talking about everything and anything. No nap. No relaxing. He was engaging anyone and everyone who would listen. While I could never quite make out what he was saying due to the pressure in my ears and the ambient sounds, his voice seemed to be the only other constant besides the humming of the engines.
Right before we landed, I could finally hear the actual conversation. In the sincerest manner, I heard his little voice ask, “are you having the best day?” I’m not sure if the question was directed to his mom or his little sister, but regardless, I couldn’t help but smile.
I wondered if his parents understood the power of such a simple question or were they worn out from the long day of travel with an energetic young boy? Did they take a moment to appreciate the purity and honesty of the question or was their focus on getting out of the confinement of the plane and getting a break?
On my return flight, as I was waiting to board the plane, I was able to enjoy another young family where the parents were trying to occupy their kids by staring out the gate window at the planes pulled up to the jetways. “Dad, there’s our plane. That one right there.” I lost count, but to the best of my recollection, he pointed that out 18 more times in the next 10 minutes to be sure his dad didn’t forget. He also pointed out to his little sister that their luggage was being loaded. Whether or not they traveled with 46 bags is still not verified, but according to the little boy, it was their luggage.
The parents smiled and encouraged the interaction in hopes of distracting them from the wait for their group number to be called. But gradually, that gave way to the firm, close talking of the parents explaining to their kids to not be so loud and to calm their behavior. I took the opportunity to encourage the parents to find ways to enjoy these moments. To see these as future memories instead of stressful struggles. I shared my own experiences with our kids, and they could tell, by my enthusiasm in telling the stories, that they were cherished memories.
As I boarded the plane and settled into my seat, I reflected on those two families and how they seemed to overlook those incredible moments that brought such warmth and joy to my heart. But as I was enjoying the beverage service, I realized that my perspective today was different. How I view my memories of those experiences is different than how I felt when I was living through them as a young parent. When it was happening, I was caught up with the frustration and challenges of four young kids who didn’t seem to listen. When it was happening, I failed to recognize the powerful growth and bonding time of those situations. Something, as someone who now has 3 of the 4 kids in adulthood, I can now appreciate and cherish as I miss the innocence of their youth.
What a great reminder to find those moments of challenge that will be your future treasured memories. Those tales of woe that will become your stories told with laughter and pride. As part of a recent training class, I listened to a TEDx Talk by Dominic Colenso. He said, “the traces of our past shape the narrative of our future and will continue to influence the stories that we tell.” We must learn to embrace today's challenges, today’s stories, because it is our memories of these stories that will live Beyond Today.
Where I work, we have developed a Competency Framework to aid in the growth of our employees in their work, but more importantly in their life. They identified four main competency areas:
I was asked to give a talk at work on one part of the Mindset competency, specifically on the topic of Trust & Integrity. As I was preparing for the talk, I looked back at some of my previous posts to see if there was anything in there that I could reference. My post titled Trust in Vulnerability was an obvious starting point for me. Being vulnerable and open has been an approach I have used to build connections with people over the years. I felt by opening up about my own failures and fears, that I could build a reasonable amount of Trust with others and provide a safe environment for them to share as well.
As I was thinking about specific examples from my past that I could share with others, one jumped out to me associated with one of the executives who was impactful to me during my early years in management. One day he pulled me aside after a management team meeting and offered up some advice. “Tom, I appreciate how open you are with the team and show vulnerability in our meetings. But you need to be aware that not everyone sees the value. There are people who will see that as a sign of weakness and will exploit that weakness.” I considered what he said. It wasn’t just a warning about a potential issue in the future, but I believe he was making me aware, indirectly, that he had already been approached by others who were looking to pile on and point out my flaws for their own gain.
As a young manager, this was a big deal to have your executive open up to you and share his wisdom and experience while also pointing out that I am facing some challenges. I replied, “I understand. But that is where you come in as the leader. I trust that you have my back.”
I share this because it is a great example of how Trust & Integrity can have an impact on those around you. I was willing to put myself out there because I trusted my leader. I felt he would show integrity when the time came to provide support to me. It also served as a reminder to him that I, as a member of his team, need him to be a leader. To be a person of Trust & Integrity. I again showed vulnerability by understanding that not everyone would appreciate my approach, but I was still willing to do what I felt was right.
I like to think of that moment as a pivotal moment in both of our lives. I was a newer mid-level manager around 30 years of age. He was in his later years and had been in leadership positions almost as long as I had been alive. He empowered me to be a manager and a leader of Impact. I empowered him to be the leader I needed. I expected excellence from myself but was still willing to be vulnerable and share when I didn’t meet my own expectations. I also expected excellence from him as well, a person old enough to be my Dad.
Leading and living with Trust & Integrity isn’t easy. I have stumbled and fallen more than I like to admit. Throughout my life it has been a two steps forward, one step back process as Trust & Integrity is something you build not something that simply exists. There are always situations you regret and wish you could take back. There are times you react before taking the time to understand. But Trust isn’t a solo act, it’s built in relationships and through practice. Integrity, as an individual is highly important, but it’s the integrity you build within your team, founded on Trust that creates a strong and enduring structure that will last Beyond Today.
It was raining on May 23, 2011. I remember this because it drove me inside for my run/walk using the Couch to 5k program. It was also the day I died on the gym floor. Watch out for Day 3, Week 3 because it’s a killer.
Like a lot of men at the age of 41, I was struggling with weight gain and was actively working to get the weight off. I played pick-up basketball several times a week and while I had an office job, I was active outside of work which I always hoped would have done more to keep my weight in control. But unfortunately, my dietary habits outweighed my energy levels!
I began using a dietary weight loss program and paired that up with using a Couch to 5k app that would help me improve my cardio beyond the start and stop of Noon League basketball. I enjoyed the app as it balanced walking with jogging and helped build up your ability to run by gradually introducing more jogging in a controlled manner. The app would interrupt the music and tell you when to walk, jog and cool down. Perfect for someone like me who struggled with the concept of running.
I would try and perform my Couch to 5k workout during my lunch break. I also played in “Noon League” which was a long-standing unofficial pick-up basketball game at the local university that would be played by community members, college kids and professors. We typically played on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and the games could get competitive but were always friendly and respectable.
On days when I knew I would play basketball after my run, I would run near the University and the hospital on the quiet side-streets of an older, sleepy neighborhood. Rarely any traffic or students on the streets to disrupt my run or if I’m honest with myself, to stare at the older, out of shape guy trying to get in shape!
Because of the rain, I moved inside the gymnasium and ran on the track. This was the first time I had run inside the gym. As I was running, people began to file in, warm-up and shoot for teams on the court below me. As I neared the completion of my run, I hollered down to the people below and said, “save me a spot on the next team, I’m almost done.” Of course, that led to trash talking from a couple of the players stating they didn’t want me if I wasn’t going to have any legs. Little did they know that it wasn’t my legs that would be keeping me from playing.
I completed my workout, headed to the court during my cool down session. I had a seat on the portable bleachers on the side of the court and began to take off my running shoes. I bent down to pull my basketball shoes out of my bag and collapsed, face down on the gym floor as my heart stopped beating.
Joey Goodson, then the Asst Coach of Missouri S&T basketball team, was getting ready to say something to me when he saw me tumble, headfirst off the bleacher. He then sprinted to me while instructing others to go get the trainers. When Joey got to me, he rolled me over onto my back and tried to wake me up. Some of the assistant football coaches raced out the side doors scrambling to locate the trainers.
Luckily, the trainers had gone to an early lunch and were already back at the gym. While one of the trainers, Liz Sisemore, performed CPR, another went to grab the AED, which was a recent addition to the facility. One 3000-volt charge and just like that, May 23, 2011, was My Day of Impact.
My first moment of consciousness showed a group of faces gathered around me as I laid on my back. I first noticed Coach Goodson and I remember saying, “Hey Joey, what’s up?” Then I looked around and realized something wasn’t right. I gave an embarrassing chuckle and said “oh no” as I realized I was on the ground with people gathered around me so I must have fainted.
My next moment of alertness came as I was being placed on a stretcher by EMT personnel. She began asking me questions with the only one I could answer with confidence was my name. I remember using my formal name, including my middle name, but I’m not sure why. Maybe I was thinking if I was going to Heaven, I needed to be official. I couldn’t tell them how old I was as I responded that I was either 40 or 41 because I just had a birthday. I couldn’t tell them what day it was, but I knew it was a Monday, Wednesday, or Friday because I was at the gym.
The confusion continued for some time as we made our way into the ER and what seemed to be a massive room that had tons of friends hanging out with me as my wife Jenny came into the room. I know now that the room wasn’t that big and that there were not really 20 people back there with me, but that is how my mind has stitched together that time. I remember Jenny trying to tell me that I had a heart attack and I kept discounting that telling her that I just fainted. I do remember a lot of people staring at me with various looks of fear, sympathy, and humor as I tried to make sense of what was happening.
People were coming in and out of the room to show support. People who were at the gym with me, people from work, people from the community were all coming and having a quick chat, showing support, and checking to see if Jenny or I needed anything. I remember my good friend Bill Marshall coming up to me and squeezing my hand. Bill’s wife, Lynda, was an avid exerciser and she would give Bill and I grief about needing to do more to get in shape. I pulled Bill in close as if I was going to impart some deathbed wisdom on him and I said, “tell Lynda to get off your ass because that exercise will kill ya!”
As the reality sank in that I had a heart attack and that more might need to be done, I elected to move the 100 miles up the interstate to Barnes Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, one of the leaders in Cardiac care. As I prepared to make the journey via ambulance to St. Louis, my wife ran home to grab items for my planned stay in St. Louis. The Miners Head Coach at the time, Jim Glash, left the conference meeting upon hearing of the incident and showed up to the ER to visit before my departure. As we were talking, the Heart Doctor poked his head in with the printout that he was able to download from the portable AED. He raised it above his head and stated, “just as I thought, sudden cardiac death” as he abruptly left the room. The room became quiet, and I looked up at Coach Glash and asked, “well, do you think I should call it a near-death experience or a death experience?” Coach Glash, responded solemnly, “Tommy, I think that qualifies as a death experience.”
During the ambulance ride, the EMT told me that she had never had a conversation with someone that was paddled before until long afterwards. I called my brother during the ride and asked that he let our mom know what happened to me. Because we are a family of jokesters, my brother didn’t believe me, even after having him talk with the EMT. Only after she had the driver flip on the siren did he take me seriously.
The care I received at Barnes was excellent. Through the next couple of days, I noticed that my room seemed to be a hotbed of activity as employees would gather around outside to catch a glimpse of the 41-year-old who seemed to be perfectly normal. The survival rate of a widow-maker has climbed to above 10% in recent years. When I was wheeled into my room, I was fully alert, talkative and did not look like someone who had just been through a cardiac event.
The initial tests showed only a slight blockage of 60%. Since I didn’t really have symptoms that I recognized, they felt it would be prudent to implant a defibrillator as an insurance policy. As they performed the catheterization in preparation for adding a stent, the results showed that I had a 90% blockage of the widow-maker and two other blockages over 70%.
With my wife and 4 young kids gathered around me, I did my best to demonstrate that everything was okay with me and calm the fears in their little eyes. I shared stories to them and the hospital staff about my experience of seeing the “white light” upon which I told them to “get that damn light out of my eyes!” Which resulted in a few uncomfortable laughs. I followed that up with a very serious, but melodramatic rendition of staring death in the eyes. “As I stared down Death, he slowly stretched out his boney arms towards me, I grabbed his cold wrist and said, ‘Not today Death… not today.” Of course, I acted this out and left my hand gripped in front of me and looked everyone in the eyes with a menacing and fearless stare. My 8-year-old middle son Trey, burst into laughs and kept repeating my line. This caused the other kids to join in on the laughter and left my wife to wonder how long I had gone without oxygen to the brain.
That evening, I laid in the bed and began to wrap up various work activities and send out different communications in preparation for my time away from work. I decided to send a note to Liz, my Angel, that had made sure I would be able to entertain my kids with my colorful story of the day's events. That is when everything hit me like an emotional tsunami. The tears made it tough to see the screen of my laptop as I poured out words of appreciation.
I shouldn’t have been there to send that message. There were so many things that had to happen to allow me to share this story 12 years later. It was raining and it was the first time I had run inside instead of a side street where it could have been hours before I was found. The athletic trainers had gone to an early lunch and so were both present and nearby. The AEDs had recently been installed in the facility. Joey just happened to be looking right at me because he was getting ready to say something to me which allowed him to respond immediately.
When you throw this on top of two other near-death experiences growing up, there was no doubt in my mind that God had a bigger plan for me. I am not egotistical enough to think that he had great things in store for me personally. I knew it wasn’t me who was destined for greatness. But it was someone that I would Impact. Maybe it would be my kids or my future grandkids. Maybe it would be one of the kids I coached, a coworker or even a stranger reading one of my blog posts. But at that moment, I knew that my purpose was to have an Impact on others and have since worked on finding ways to do that to the best of my ability.
When my mentor, Steve Moles, and I first met we talked about my personal goals. He came into my life shortly after that event 12 years ago and has been a driving force encouraging and challenging me to find ways to increase my Impact on others. The stars aligned on that day which allowed My Day of Impact to impact others Beyond Today.
Tom Brown - a husband and a father who is simply trying to make a difference. Using my experience as a Manufacturing Executive to connect leadership from the boardroom to the hardwood to help teams grow and develop to make a difference in the lives of others.