Overcoming Crisis through Creative Leadership:
Nothing tests creative leadership like a crisis of the unknown
It has been four years, seven months and four days since my mother’s internal organs quit a little after two AM. I have a red satin oval shaped box with a quilted top that sits on my bookshelf next to a one of a kind grayish abstract artistic urn in which her ashes lay. She was a bling, bling women and I thought it was appropriate. In the box are old photographs and her favorite perfume that permeates the air upon opening it. One picture is of her graduation from Empire State College and she was beaming. One thing I will always remember is her instilling in me the importance of education.
Growing up was like living in a war zone at times. My parents divorced when I was four years old and my single mother raised me to the best of her ability. My mother was the verbal abuser in our home. She had a hard time finding the right person and always fell in love with the wrong ones. Her patterns were simple. She always became involved in an abusive relationship which included physical, verbal, and mental cruelty. The screaming, yelling, punching, and the police being called daily was the norm.
I listened to the shouting from underneath my bed that seemed to increase in volume like someone turning a radio on full blast. I feared for life, my mother’s and mine. The bloody beatings my mother endured could be heard bouncing off every wall. I too suffered the repercussions of her failed decisions on many levels. It was with a broken heart that I viewed her. My sympathy ran deep, but it was my anger that ignited my passion for the wrongs I endured during the times when she would turn the other way when sexual abuse occurred in our home. She did nothing to stop a person from touching me.
Living with the enemy was difficult. Living with two made it even more complex. How do you create peace, ethical behavior and morality where there is none? How do you end conflicts and struggles that go beyond comprehension? To me, my voice was loud and clear as a child trying to tell my nightmare story of abuse and the need for it to stop, but it seemed to fall on deaf ears while it appeared to be never ending. I watched a documentary called, “Pray the Devil Back to Hell, and felt a connection with the Liberian women during the civil war and their plight for peace and equality for all human beings. Yet, at the same time I could understand the young boys with their weapons in hand using violence as the only answer to what was they thought was right.
The Liberian women also fought against two enemies, yet portrayed fearlessness in action in order to confront patriarchal commanders who were in total control during a time when it appeared there was no confidence in the future. A major concern was to not cross political lines as they were in between Charles Taylor, a brutal oppressor who was the president of Liberia and merciless Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, an organization of rebel parties trying to gain control of the country. In my case, it was not easy living with two people who wanted total control and forced different forms of abuse to achieve their goals. Helplessness is the only word to describe feelings of this nature.
One visionary leader, Leymah Gbowee told her story of how she used creative leadership and storytelling as a leader to guide hundreds of Liberian woman during the civil war and selected non-verbal demonstrations to get the message out regarding peace. In the beginning it too fell on deaf ears, to those who held the power and control in the palm of their hands. She commented that we lived in fear. You go to bed saying god please what do we do?” It was always like you go to bed and afraid that you have something different the next day. I too had similar thoughts as each new day brought a different nightmare to life in my home.
Under Gbowee’s leadership these group of women used prayer, chanting and non-violent sit-ins to meet with Charles Taylor and obtain a promise from him to attend the much needed peace talks in Ghana. The Liberian women commented how they weredetermined, and nobody going to deter us. We’re going to find a strategic point, where Taylor going to encounter us and give us some attention. And this is how we decided to sit at the fish market every day. It was their emotional turmoil, the watching of rapes and killings of the innocent that unified them and kept the fire of perseverance blazing. How does one deal with death and destruction of their inner and outer world? Either they succumb to it, bow down or fight for what is right. Gbowee led thousands of Christian and Muslim women with the strength and courage to confront their fears of the unknown making a difference and changing lives.
It was their perseverance, self-sacrifice and persuasiveness that touched others in order to become part of the greater good for all. They had the world on their shoulders as they dealt with external struggles of pain, murder, rape, starvation, and torture. Their inner fights consisted of doing what was right despite the consequences. They became unified in bringing social equality to where it was needed. Gbowee used the form of persuasion and inspiration reflecting that the women’s ethics and morality was stronger than the violence being committed. She inspired and led other women to unite against a dictator and to restore the rule of law to their country. For the first time their voices had been heard in fourteen years and they shared tears of joy instead of pain. It was one major step closer to the liberation from oppression and a great victory for all.
In my home it was the lesser of the two evils that I fought against. I remember one chilly winter’s night when I was eight years old in Walnutport PA. My mother’s boyfriend lived with us and he was an alcoholic. A horrific knock down argument took place and he slashed her throat with a fishing knife. This was not the first time I witnessed bloodshed, nor the last. I only knew violence within my home environment and reacted accordingly by attacking him from behind kicking and thrashing while my arms wrapped around his neck. I was flung up against the hard dark wood paneled wall leaving bruises not only on my body, but in my mind. I had no control over my oppressor(s). Looking back I seemed to realize at a young age that violence was not the answer as I was becoming tainted. According to Aung Sang Suu Kyi, a Burmese opposition politician and chairperson of the National League for Democracy, the effort necessary to remain uncorrupted in an environment where fear is an integral part of everyday existence is not immediately apparent to those fortunate enough to live in states governed by the rule of law. I failed this task and the time had come to find a non-hostile strategy in order to bring peace and morality into our home.
I can recall at age thirteen taking a stance on what was right. Voicing my opinion that the abuse must stop. My strategy consisted of not doing my daily household chores or cleaning or cooking. It did not take long before my mother sat me down and gave me the second degree. I spoke openly regarding the abuses that had been occurring throughout the years, my thoughts and fears. Ethics and morality was on the table. It was the first time she actually listened and heard my plea. Simmons remarked, respectfully listening to someone’s story bonds you two (or thirty) together in a feeling of kinship that duplicates very old (and sacred) social rituals (188). For the first time tears of hurt and pain bonded a mother and daughter. The abuse subsided and she became more protective of me. It was a small victory in our unity, yet the pain still lingered with the anger against the enemy, my mother who looked the other way in my time of need. The job of a leader is to care about their followers. Ethical behavior is reported by Burns, Gwen, and Barbara N. Martin, “The necessity for a change in leadership is further warranted based on the need for an “ethic of caring” (Grogan, 2003, p. 25).
As the women of Liberia and I have realized our horrendous wounds may have healed on the outside, but it is our inner injuries that will last a lifetime and hopefully in time will heal too. Gbowee actively participated in the social influence process to attain a goal through trust within the group and succeeded in persuading others into the right social ethical choices to make. It was through my own personal strategy of attaining a goal, the ending of the abuse, the quiet way I tried to initiate contact with my oppressor by a slow down on chores, the introducing of a new structure in our home by opening communication which then opened the door to understanding and peace. It was these tools in creative leadership that I was able to overcome one of many crises connected with my mother.
When I was older, I alienated my mother, moved out, graduated with my Associate’s degree, and had been working towards my bachelor’s when I received a call. It was her friend stating she had been in the hospital for months and she would need home care upon being released. I am an only child. My mother suffered from severe diabetes for the last thirty years of her life. The extremes in her sugar levels appeared to go as low to 50 and shoot up to 500. She dealt with this disease and lived her life with a glucose gun always close by in case of emergency. She had a hysterectomy when she was thirty resulting in the finding of ovarian cancer and treated with experimental radiation treatments which burned all her internal organs.
Why me? I asked myself. I remember the war zone in childhood, the pain and anguish it left behind in my heart. I tried to confront my fears in order to trust again and because I did really did love my mother despite the abuse. I still feared my mother and can recall the abuse as if it were yesterday. How could I overcome the trauma and treat her with kindness? I read a speech called, “Freedom from Fear” by Aung Sang Suu Kyi, a spiritual leader who told stories of violence committed on the innocent. She spoke about how fears must be released in order to move forward, and too not only forgive your oppressor, but help those in need. It is through sacrificing, having compassion, and in trusting one another that her beliefs defined the meaning of finding the courage to take responsibility for others.
I reluctantly took the responsibility of being a primary caretaker for my mother and withdrew from all of my on line courses immediately. I moved from Oklahoma to Florida within two weeks. I was scared of my mother and feared the unknown of not only living with her again, but how to test sugar levels and administer insulin. As a child, I would run out of the room screaming, “I don’t want to see needles.” The day she entered her home after months of being hospitalized I began my researching everything I could on the internet regarding diabetes. Knowledge was power. I had to confront my fears in order to keep my mother alive and perfect new skills. Leadership relies on change. Burns noted that the transformational leader creates significant change in the lives of people and organizations. This type of leader motivates followers and changes their expectations and aspirations.” (Andreescu and Vito, 2010, 576). This journey was about to change both our lives forever.
I performed injections on a sunshine fruit. The sweet liquid oozed out at my first few attempts. The orange was my first patient. I pricked it over and over until my hands stopped shaking. I gained confidence quickly as my fears began to dissipate. Even though I honed the skill of giving shots I still stated, “I’m sorry for hurting you” every time I injected her. Compassion took precedence in this situation and self-sacrifice was a given. I put my life on temporary hold for nine months. Aung Sang Suu Kyi mentioned, at the root of human responsibility is the concept of perfection, the urge to achieve it, the intelligence to find a path towards it, and the will to follow that path if not to the end at least the distance needed to rise above individual limitations and environmental impediments. The bottom line revealed my mother, a woman who could not survive without help and my call to duty in leading the way.
The next greatest challenge was in controlling her sugar levels which had never been done in thirty years. I read Michael Useem’s story, “Eugene Kranz Returns Apollo 13 to Earth” and it discussed a leader’s story about planning and organizing a strategy to a problem that has never been dealt with in the past. I used organizational leadership as Michael Useem mentioned it being the exercising of change and development of other people (91). I needed a plan, had faith and was determined in finding the answers as to why her body was in constant extreme mode, either too high or too low. My quest began with logging everything in my own personal medical journal. I was focused on answering my own questions and finding a solution to make the situation right. The first week of recuperation I watched her eat whatever and whenever she chose. I took on the role of the laissez faire discipline in which leaders avoid involvement (para Malloy and Penprase, 2010, 716). I tested her sugars and logged them three times a day and administered the doses of insulin accordingly. I posted medications and food intake plus her nightly sneaks to the kitchen for a midnight snacks. After a week, the results were in. After reviewing all of my sources I came to the conclusion that her environment, eating junk food and overeating played a major factor. I took control of the solution the only way I could think of, to cook healthy. One week later I was able to tell her what her sugar level would be in the mornings. I explained that, “Her new environment consisted of living with me which meant new ways of controlling her diabetes.” Creating a new structure of how to live healthy promoted communication as we both learned what made her body tick. In turn, my mother told me stories of the circumstances leading up to the need of a glucose gun and what would occur prior to the event. I learned what to look for and to be more observant in her behaviors. Storytelling is significant in relation to leadership and is a social activity in which communication can teach/learn, share knowledge, discuss dilemmas/crises and solve problems as Medina commented, Wenger extends this idea in saying that leadership is essentially a social activity and can best be learnt in “a community of practice”, where engagement in social practice is the fundamental process by which we learn and so become who we are (75).We came together, inspired one another and shared our knowledge to obtain a life goal.
I ventured into the unknown, confronted my fears, made decisions based on research and persevered to make positive changes resulting in keeping my mother alive. As Useem commented, the almost incredible feat of a safe return would have been impossible were it not or the steady nerves, courage and great skill of the astronauts themselves and the NASA network whose teams of experts performed miracles of emergency improvisation (93).
Nine months drifted by of playing the Florence Nightingale role and the time had come for me to leave. I picked up where I left off with my education and immediately applied for the up and coming semester. All was well for three months and then the call came again and again for twelve years. It appeared a never ending cycle. During those years I dropped everything in my life when the call came to be a primary care taker for my mother as she had a quad by-pass, pacemaker, hip replacement, was in a near fatal car accident that shattered both knees and had giant tumors removed. I was there for her, but I never gave up on myself or my educational future in returning to school. After having long bouts of hiatuses I would take two courses only to drop again due to my mother’s illnesses. I never gave up hope and with every ample opportunity I made sure I was in school.
My goal was set from the moment I graduated with my Associate’s degree. I refused to let circumstances beyond my control let me lose sight of the path I chose to be on. I was determined to do the impossible, at least in my eyes. My mother was my inspiration for attending college. When I was younger I watched a single mother going to Empire State College for a bachelor’s degree in social work. There were times she could not find a sitter and so I accompanied her to some of her classes. I enjoyed the experience of knowledge being shared and I wanted to be a part of the collective learning within a college environment.
In my opinion, life challenges you with crisis. How do you handle it? Will your actions speak louder than words? How do you resolve it in a manner that is not filled with fears or anger? For me, I faced my fears, used selfless actions, non-violent communication, organized a plan for problem solving, used compassion and diverse leadership disciplines to succeed in my vision. In May 2009 I received my Bachelors of Science degree in Business Management. My mother passed over before I graduated, yet I felt she was looking down and smiling when I held my degree in my hands.
Andreescu, Viviana, and Gennaro F. Vito. An Exploratory Study On Ideal Leadership Behaviour: The Opinions Of American Police Managers. International Journal Of Police Science & Management. 2010. Web. 16 Sept. 2012.
Burns, Gwen, and Barbara N. Martin. Examination Of The Effectiveness Of Male And Female Educational Leaders Who Made Use Of The Invitational Leadership Style Of Leadership. Journal Of Invitational Theory & Practice. 2010. Web. 29 Sept. 2012.
Malloy, Terry, and Barbara Penprase. Nursing Leadership Style And Psychosocial Work Environment. Journal Of Nursing Management. 2010. Web. 16 Sept. 2012.
Medina, Marc. Leadership And The Process Of Becoming. Existential Analysis: Journal Of The Society For Existential Analysis. 2011. Web. 30 Sept. 2012.
Pray the Devil Back to Hell. Dir. Gini Reticker. Prod. Abigail Disney. Balcony Releasing, 2008. Film. <http://video.pbs.org/video/2155873888>.
Simmons, Annette. The Story Factor: Inspiration, Influence, and Persuasion Through the Art of Storytelling. Cambridge: Perseus Books Group, 2006. Print.
Suu Kyi, Aung Sang. Freedom from Fear speech. 1990. 22 Nov. 2012 <http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Burma/FreedomFromFearSpeech.html>.
Useem, Michael. The Leadership Moment: Nine True Stories of Triumph and Disaster and Their Lessons for Us All. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1998. Print.
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