Eleanor Roosevelt was nicknamed “The First Lady of the World” thanks to her long-standing tenure in the White House fighting for human rights. Yet her legacy could have been much different if she succumbed to the tragedies of her childhood: a mother who died when she was just eight and a father, confined to a mental asylum, who died of alcoholism just two years later.
Adversity of every shade is no stranger to leaders – past and present. Richard Branson, who suffers from dyslexia, relied on his personality to develop Virgin Records into a music industry powerhouse. Steve Jobs, who was fired from Apple Computer, committed to making a name for himself at Pixar before coming back to Apple to redefine the tech landscape.
However, in the face of such crucibles – hardships that could easily become excuses for ongoing failure instead of achievements – a question emerges: Why did these experiences make these leaders instead of break them?
Una Ryan – current managing director of Golden Seeds, an angel investing group focused on women-led companies, and former president and CEO of Diagnostics for All, a nonprofit organization that develops inexpensive diagnostics for global health and agriculture – believes it starts with a “fighting spirit.”
A Fighting Spirit
In a recent interview with Deborah Ancona, Ryan shared her startling beginnings: She was born in an air-raid shelter during World War II in Southeast Asia. When she was several months old, she and her mother left Singapore on a large ship and it was torpedoed off the Indian coast. Her father was taken away to a Prisoner of War camp, and Ryan didn’t know if he was dead or alive.
“I realized quite young that it’s very easy to die or be killed,” she said. “But if you didn’t die, you might as well make your life worthwhile.”
At age five, Ryan’s own mission for a better life and world was already taking shape. Her aunt took her to a missionary movie about a little boy whose family had leprosy. He was taken away from his village and friends, and “it was just heartbreaking,” she recalled. It was at that moment Ryan decided she was going to cure all those dreadful diseases when she grew up.
Twenty-five years later, she put her mission to action, rallying others to join her on her path toward more accessible healthcare. “I’ve always associated myself with things that matter,” Ryan said. “So I think very often [my employees] are following the mission, not just me. I’m articulating what that mission is. I’m trying to describe to them what their role in achieving that is. And I think they get caught up in the importance of the goals.”
A Vision for Leadership
One of the four key leadership capabilities (along with sense-making, relating and inventing), visioning allows leaders to provide employees with a sense of meaning about their work like Ryan did for her colleagues. Effective visioning can be achieved through developing a vision about something that excites you, enabling co-workers by encouraging the capabilities needed to realize the vision and embodying the key values contained in the vision itself.
Beyond this clear vision was Ryan’s empathy for stakeholders – including physicians and patients – she sought to help. “I saw how fragile life is but how fascinating it is and also how easy it is to make a difference just by paying attention to people,” she commented.
Visioning and relating capabilities, like empathy, are mirrored in others who have faced and overcome comparable obstacles of hardship. Eleanor Roosevelt stood up for woman’s rights and racial relations to ensure others did not feel the outcast that stung her in her former years. Oprah forged a path to help others following a history of child abuse and pregnancy at age 14. “I know what it feels like to not be wanted … you can use it as a stepping stone to build great empathy for people,” she once said in a lecture series. Tommy Austin, co-founder of Make-a-Wish, created the organization after trying to raise the spirits of a friend’s son who was battling with leukemia. “He was only seven years, 269 days old when he died. But he taught me about being a man. Even though he was only a boy,” he said.
In the wake of adversity, great leaders find inner strength – that “fighting spirit” – to find and sustain their sense of purpose. In Ryan’s case, her inner strength and ability to be in touch with her “child of the past” shaped her values, vision and ability to relate, illuminating the path toward her mission to this very day, and sustaining the fight to its fullest extent.
Ryan’s advice to future leaders: “Never give up if you have a good mission and a good idea. Don’t let others deflect you.”