Lessons from cancer, Disney…

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Who would anticipate leadership lessons from an animated Disney movie and a take-out order at Houlihan’s in Geneva, Ill.?

Or from cancer? Maybe.

We have all been touched by the devastating disease and we have witnessed our brothers, sisters, parents and friends standing with courage and faith as they faced the challenges in the impossible world of doctors, chemotherapy and radiation; uncertainty and terror. We have been inspired by their response to the impossible: Courageous. Determined. Focused.

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Several weeks ago, my sister, Maureen, was diagnosed with cancer after having an MRI for what was thought to be a torn rotator cuff. How does that happen? You are healthy one day, full of energy and fire, and the next…your world is turned upside down.

Maureen is a creative, witty, talented, compassionate woman. She is an entrepreneur with a soul. She has made a difference in the lives of hundreds of men and women, even as she has followed her dreams, believing in possibilities when others doubted.

As chief executive officer and owner of Global Women’s Leadership Forum, Maureen leads her organization in supporting Women’s Business Resource Groups for the advancement of all women in the workplace. She is the 2015 recipient of the Innovation Award in Entrepreneurial Excellence from the Chicago Business Ledger and the recipient of the Dr. MLK Jr. Award for Accelerating Women in Leadership from the Illinois Commission on Diversity and Human Relations.

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MOF are the initials following Maureen’s signature. She’s not much impressed with titles, yet this one matters most to her! It represents her greatest work: Mother of Four. Her children are grown now. Yet while raising them, Maureen founded two other businesses before Global with the support of her husband, Dan, who was also working full time.

She was enjoying her adult children and her beautiful granddaughter; her business; traveling across the country; and influencing senior leaders in Fortune 500 companies.

In early February, without warning, Maureen learned that she has fast-growing, aggressive Lymphoma. The doctor’s recommendation: fast and aggressive treatment.

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I was with Maureen and Dan when they received the news. Once the initial shock subsided, Maureen said, “Let’s get this done.” Courageous. Determined. Focused. Every step of the way. The treatment protocol is five days in the hospital with chemotherapy 24 hours a day, one week at home, and back in the hospital to repeat this cycle a number of times. Even with setbacks, Maureen’s mantra continues: “Let’s get this done.”

Courageous. Determined. Focused.

Houlihan’s: A leader with compassion and empathy

One evening last week, while staying with Maureen in the hospital, I went to Houlihan’s to pick up dinner for us.

I asked the bartender for a recommendation for one of two dinners that Maureen thought she might enjoy. I let her know that Maureen was in the hospital undergoing tough chemotherapy.

While waiting for our take-out order, a man approached me, shook my hand and said: “I am so sorry about your sister. My name is Gary Smith. I am the manager here. What kind of cancer?” he asked. When I answered, he said, “Me too.” In that moment, he was a vision of hope for me: healthy, happy, whole. He asked for my name and Maureen’s, promising to pray for both of us and our families. And then he said, “Dinner is on us. Let us know what else we might do in the future.”

Gary has no idea the impact he had on me and on Maureen. I was struck by what it must be like to work with a leader who manifests an ability to meet people where they are. A simple, and yet not so simple, act of kindness demonstrating extraordinary customer care. Courageous. Determined. Focused.

I have shared this story with staff at the hospital and with family and friends. We have all agreed that Houlihan’s at the Commons in Geneva, Ill., will be our preferred restaurant for nourishment…body and soul!

‘Zootopia,’ an animated Disney movie with leadership lessons

After my time in Illinois with Maureen, I looked to find an entertaining movie to enjoy with my husband. We decided on “Zootopia” at the recommendation of a friend and colleague.

The film was enjoyable and engaging and we were struck by the number of “leadership lessons” throughout. Judy Hopps, an energetic, optimistic bunny, is the protagonist in the movie. Against all odds, this rabbit fulfills a lifelong dream and becomes a cop in Zootopia. She struggles to be taken seriously by her boss and peers. Judy is Courageous. Determined. Focused.

The movie ends with Judy offering a message to her colleagues that I am certain Maureen and Gary would celebrate. And perhaps it holds an invitation for all of us:

“Real life is messy. We all have limitations. We all make mistakes. Which means, hey, glass half full! We all have a lot in common. And the more we try to understand one another, the more exceptional each of us will be. But we have to try. So no matter what kind of person you are, I implore you: Try. Try to make the world a better place. Look inside yourself and recognize that change starts with you. It starts with me. It starts with all of us.”

To Maureen and Gary: thank you. You inspire us with your Courage, Determination and Focus.

To Maureen:

I love you. Let’s get this done.

-Karen Vernal is the president of Vernal Management Consultants LLC, a Milwaukee-based leadership and organizational firm dedicated to “igniting the spirits and skills of leaders.” The company is one of two firms in the nation to be certified in Emotional Intelligence through the Institute for Health and Human Potential. For more information, visit www.vernalmgmt.com.

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