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Three Lessons I Learned From My Boys About Managing Through Cancer

“I learned a lot about myself from my kids!” Most of the time, when a parent says that I find they mean they have learned how to be more patient or how to relax and have fun. I think we learn a lot more than that! I learned leadership skills from my kids!

Last week my youngest son turned 20 and the week before my oldest son turned 25. And after observing them after my husband was diagnosed with cancer and after he died. And as this birthday season, I realized I learned how to be a better manager (and human) from my boys.

Here are three lessons that I have absorbed.

  1. Speak Your Truth (State the Obvious) – From My Son Ezra

Ezra is the truth-teller of the family. He just says it like it is. It’s rarely personal, just factual. At the age of six, he hated, hated writing. His teachers struggled with getting him to write.

Then, a month after Art, my late husband, was diagnosed with cancer the second time, we hired a nanny. Ezra has always been a hard customer with any nanny and this one was no exception. One day he was so frustrated with her, he sat down and wrote a note that said, “Do you even no what you are doing?” (Misspellings are his.) The nanny showed me the note. I still have it.

He was so inspired to speak his truth, he wrote!

I have no doubt the nanny could have avoided this not by just saying, “I don’t know what to do with you, Ezra. Can you help me?” Together they could have worked something out, even at the age of six.

Ezra calls out the elephant in the room. And it can make people uncomfortable initially but when they finally admit there is an elephant, that is when the genuine conversations happen.

Why this skill is important in managing an employee with cancer.

You, as a manager, probably don't know what you're doing when it comes to managing an employee with cancer. (It’s Ok most managers don’t!) You’re uncomfortable, you have empathy (hopefully) and you have work that needs to get done, you have a team that needs to be managed and you have goals to meet that will help the organization reach theirs.

You don’t want to do or say anything you will regret but their cancer has put you in an uncomfortable position!

The elephant in the room is that your employee with cancer and your team know you don't have all the answers. And pretending like you do is not speaking your truth.

Stating the obvious however completely changes the dynamic. It becomes a “we problem” and not a “me problem.”

A great example of this is a manager who is afraid to talk to their employee with cancer about work that is not getting done. Saying, “I’m disappointed with the lack of communication. Let’s have a meeting tomorrow to discuss,” is stating the obvious.

But instead, managers who haven’t been properly coached to put together a clear work plan often find themselves with resentment towards the employee which causes anger and guilt. Not great emotions when you’re managing any employee!

Stating the obvious is actually a gift. Everyone can stop holding their breath. Chances are your employee affected by cancer knows they are not doing well, but is afraid to talk about it. (Your team knows too!) If it is your job, as the manager to get the best work you can out of your employee and that means having the courage to state the obvious. It is only then that you can have an honest dialogue about how to work on the issue. (If you did a work plan at the beginning of diagnosis, this conversation will be much easier!)

Speaking your truth.

2. Resilience is Learned From Failure - From Langston

“I didn’t get in.” I was on the phone with my oldest son. He was crying. He didn’t get into the nursing program he had worked so hard to get into. It was heart-breaking to hear him so upset. And harder to be 3,000 miles away. I listened to his heartbreak (which was really hard!) and sat in the sadness with him.. “Oh shoot!” I said. “I’m so sorry sweetheart! I know that is so disappointing.” And then I held my tongue. I didn’t say, “It will be ok.” Or encourage him to apply again next year. This was not the place for that conversation.

I knew that he would be ok but that it would take time. I also knew he was learning to be resilient … again. Resilience is learned from failure and it’s uncomfortable because learning to be resilient means you have to believe that the failure again means you have to believe that you won’t be ok.

However, the more failures you have, the more resilient you become!

Why being resilient is important in managing an employee with cancer.

You are not going to manage your team affected by cancer perfectly. I know you know this but I’m going to repeat it so you hear it.

You are not going to get it right all the time.

You’re gonna mess up. You’re gonna say the wrong thing, or take an action that will make your employees dislike you (for the moment) or confuse or hurt them.

But that is how resilience is built. Feeling the disappointment and then knowing you can do and will do better. Resilience happens through tears, days of doubt, and fear.

So when you fail your team or your employee affected by cancer, remember that as long as you are breathing you can have a do-over, or as I like to say a do better!

And then making that timid step forward.

3. Lead with Kindness and Respect - From Them Both

I was on the phone with my oldest. It was his first car accident and he didn’t know what to do so he called me. In the background I hear a woman yelling, “Your son is amazing! I hope you are proud of him.” The woman was the person he had just hit!

We were visiting my mother and my stepdad. My stepdad was confined to a wheelchair. My youngest decided it was his job to take his grand-stepdad wherever he needed to go. He did it out of respect for a man he had known since he was 9.

Being kind is hard when you are feeling under pressure when you are scared when you are worried about the team getting the work done they need to get done. But it is precisely then when kindness matters the most.

Stop for a moment and check in with the employee with cancer or the person who has taken on their work. Check-in. Ask, “How are you, today?” and then listen.

And take a moment to check out your team. It’s so easy to see when someone is not doing something right, but make a list of what they are doing right. Remember that your employee with cancer is doing the best they can under horrendous circumstances. Show them a little respect.

Why being kind and respectful is important when you have an employee with cancer.

Being kind and respectful is at the heart of everything. Many managers think being kind means you can’t be firm. Being firm IS also being kind.

Being kind and showing respect is one the simplest and easiest ways to increase trust, build engagement which increases output. It is an easy way for your employees to remember that you are all in this crisis together because you are.

I knew a manager who used to schedule times to talk to his employees. Tuesday’s at 2 pm and Friday’s at 9 was when he would find an employee to connect with. His team never knew he calendared this. When crisis struck the team, there was a coming together that was beautiful to witness. They reminisce about that time fondly.

Cancer (or any health crisis) is an entanglement. It doesn’t just entangle the person with cancer, it entangles coworkers, bosses, and sometimes whole organizations. And there are varying degrees of entanglement.

Your employee’s cancer is an opportunity for you to build your leadership skills. As Martin Luther King, Jr said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

Cancer on your team is one of those challenging times. How will you show up?

My kids for sure have made me more patient and as they get older, I am awed by their ability to learn and synthesize information so easily.

But the deeper lessons, like the ones above, are the lessons that change how I show up in the world.

What lessons deep lessons have you learned from your kids or a young adult in your life?

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