What Cancer Patients Can Teach Us About Leadership


Almost everyone is familiar with Lance Armstrong’s journey from cancer survivor to seven time Tour de France champion.  In his autobiography, It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life, he credits much of his success to the mental transformation he went through while enduring a gruelling treatment regimen and narrowly escaping death.  Throughout this phase in his life, Armstrong maintained his commitment to return to professional cycling, something he cared deeply and passionately about, and which gave him hope.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal talks about a new program that offers hope to cancer patients facing long odds for survival and suffering from depression.   The program is based on the work of Vicktor Frankl, the Austrian doctor who describes his horrifying experience of survival at a Nazi concentration camp in his memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning.  In that book, Dr. Frankl talks about how, no matter how much is taken away from you, or how much suffering you endure, the individual can still choose their attitude toward situations and the meaning they draw from their experience.  Is is through the understanding that one’s life has meaning that many of the cancer patients in this program are able to continue to grow and have rich experiences even while facing their own death.  The article goes on to state:

We help cancer patients understand that they are not dead yet,” says Dr. Breitbart. “The months or years of life that remain can be times of extraordinary growth.”

In fact, anyone can benefit from reflecting on what’s most meaningful in life, he says. “Every human being wrestles with the question: How can you live knowing that you’re going to die? “Most of us are too distracted to think about it. But ask yourself, ‘What accomplishments are you most proud of? What do you want your legacy to be?’ It’s never too late,” he says.


I think the lesson here for leaders is two-fold:

  1. As a leader, understand how you derive meaning in your life.  Sum up your leadership in six words.   Determine what is most important in your life – love, family, relationships – and how you’re going to make a difference.  I once consulted with a Fortune 500 company and they asked me to attend their leadership development course to see how it could be improved.  The course was called “Legacy” and it challenged participants to think deeply about the legacy they were going to leave, both in their personal and their work life, at the end of their career.  The participants in the room were deeply committed managers, many of whom had burned through marriages and spent years working 60 – 70 hours per week.   It was one of the most impactful programs I have ever had the privilege to attend.  Why?  Because it tapped into something extremely personal and powerful, our own search for meaning in life and the legacy we leave behind.  By understanding our own personal mission, we become much better leaders and are able to face difficult situations.
  2. Help others find meaning in their life.  A good business leader understand that there is more to life than business.  Jack Welch recently said, “There is no such thing as work-life balance.”  That may work for him, but it doesn’t make me want to work for him.  Part of your job as a leader, and one of the key sources of meaning in your life, is to answer the call to service and help others achieve their personal mission and find meaning in their life. Robert Greenleaf’s classic, “The Servant Leader” describes how great leaders achieve results through service.

Taking the time to answer these big questions now, in the present, can pay-off for leaders in the future when disaster strikes and they face real adversity.  As the article says:

Many patients who have gone through the program say it gave them new strength to face whatever the future brings.

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