Guest MINDSETTER™ Deckman: What Stage 4 Cancer Taught Me About Leadership

Tuesday, October 17, 2017


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Jeffrey Deckman

I am a leadership and organizational design consultant. In the summer of 2015, I noticed a lump on the left side of my neck. I thought it was a swollen gland and that it would go away. It didn’t. In fact, it started to grow slowly. Then it grew noticeably. Then…uh-oh.

By February of 2016, I got the official diagnosis of what I already knew to be true. I was told that I had Stage 3 throat cancer. However, that diagnosis proved to be false when a few weeks later I was told that I actually had Stage 4 cancer. When I asked the doctor how he gave me the wrong diagnosis, the doctor simply told me that he “misspoke.” No apology. No concern for how I might handle the unwanted upgrade. Ouch. 

What followed that diagnosis, and continues to this day, is one of the most amazing classes in spirituality and leadership I ever could have imagined. Cancer was, and still is, one of the most powerful and effective teachers I have ever encountered. I am grateful to it for its gifts. 

Lessons Learned

While I certainly do not want it to return I greatly value the lessons I, and those closest to me, learned as a result of the experience. Its impact on my life and on those closest to me has been profound. So as I write this article I am 16 months post treatment and recently received my 3rd “cancer free” scan. I live in gratitude. 

Lately, I have been getting the nudge to share some of the powerful leadership lessons this experience has taught me. While I could fill volumes on the subject (and have via a podcast I made that chronicles my cancer journey: Stewards of the Light) I will limit this article to what I currently consider the top 4 lessons in leadership I learned from my “Cancer Class.” Hopefully, they can help you as they have helped me. 

1. “I am who I am because this one is like that.” 

I always saw this phrase from Rumi as a prayer of self-acceptance, self-respect, and permission to be Authentic. I have since added: “And I will be that with as much grace as I can muster” to help remind me of the importance of humility. In the beginning, I was told this experience would teach me more about self-love and being authentic than I could ever imagine. What I learned is that being authentic is about me respecting who I am at my core and allowing others to see that truth. And any leader who does not care enough about themselves to both be and show themselves will never care about another enough to let them be or show themselves either. Authenticity is essential to leadership. 

2. Be 100% honest 100% of the time, especially when the stakes are highest. 

From the beginning, I told my children and my fiancee that I would be 100% honest with them every step of the way. There is a saying that states: “I can’t trust your ‘yes’ until I can trust your ‘no’.” That speaks to the need to deliver both good and bad news with the exact same level of Integrity so people learn to trust you. I can tell you that I was tempted to not tell anyone of my revised diagnosis from stage 3 to 4 out of concern for them. Then I realized how disrespectful it was to see them as being weak instead of allowing them to experience being strong. I learned that a leader who sees those around them as being strong and powerful becomes a leader of a strong and powerful team. 

3. Always “See the human in the human.” 

If you didn’t know I had cancer you wouldn’t have known I had cancer; at least in the beginning. Everyone is carrying something challenging that they are working through. If not now, then they have in the recent past or will in the not too distant future. If I want to be an effective leader people have to know that I truly Respect them both as people and as equals. The degree to which I respect them is the degree to which they will respect me. I learned that a leader who engages people with respect for their humanity will build bonds of trust and loyalty that will allow everyone to persevere even in the most dire of circumstances. 

4. Leadership is a state of consciousness. 

In order to be of service to something much larger than ourselves- which is the only role of a true leader- I cannot operate with an ego-based consciousness - even when I am under great stress. Once I learned how to detach and “rise up” I was able to always see the bigger picture. (Much like the higher one rises in a hot air balloon the more perspective of their surroundings they gain.) By taking the viewpoint and the consciousness of the “observer” I was able to depersonalize issues. In doing so I was able to assess challenging situations clearly, with less emotion. I could then help others do the same. I learned that as a leader I can never lead a team to a level of consciousness higher than that which I am capable of displaying in the moment.

So, as I look at my future and I think about how I want to serve others with whatever time I have left I have decided that I want to do what I can to create a conversation with others who believe that having more leaders who consciously Lead with A.I.R. (Authenticity, Integrity, and Respect) is worthy of some effort. 


Jeffrey Deckman is the founder of Capability Accelerators. He is a grateful guy, a serial entrepreneur and the creator of the 2017 Leading with AIR conference. He can be reached at [email protected]


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