Maria Evgenia Milonas On The Five Things You Can Do To Become More Resilient During Turbulent Times
Acknowledgement of Emotions — Unless we accept that a setback has impacted our emotions, we cannot progress to becoming resilient. Denial and diversion will only keep us feeling stuck where we are. Here’s what’s important: Emotions are Energy in Motion. If we do not allow them to move through our body, they will remain trapped, like undigested food, until the compound effect causes us to erupt. Sitting with our emotions is what allows for the first true step in activating resilience.
Resilience has been described as the ability to withstand adversity and bounce back from difficult life events. Times are not easy now. How do we develop greater resilience to withstand the challenges that keep being thrown at us? In this interview series, we are talking to mental health experts, authors, resilience experts, coaches, and business leaders who can talk about how we can develop greater resilience to improve our lives.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Maria Evgenia Milonas.
Maria is a psychology-specialized, internationally accredited Holistic Wellbeing Coach and MindBody Practitioner. She is an entrepreneur and author with two published books, and another on the way, who has personally overcome major challenges ranging from life-threatening injuries, to reinventing her life after divorce and corporate status loss. She lives to be in service of others through her company, Inner Coach University — facilitating brain learning to activate holistic health, positive culture, joy, and synergy for individuals and their relationships with their, families, teams, corporations, and the world. http://www.innercoachuniversity.com
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?
I am a first generation Greek Canadian with immigrant parents who made a life here from almost nothing. At not even twenty years old, my father came to this country with 70 dollars in his pocket, a fork and knife, and not a word of English. My mother had come with only the clothes on her back a few months earlier to join her older sisters, at only sixteen years old. They were from tiny mountain villages where they grew up without running water or electricity and started from scratch here to build us an entire, healthy, beautiful life for our family of six, and to send money back home to support their families.
As needed, I worked to help the family and family business survive and grow from a very young age. Being the oldest of four, I was asked from the time I began preschool to learn everything possible about this new world we were in and to teach my parents about it, which included first learning and then teaching them English. I went to school not knowing a word of English myself, as we were in an apartment complex with all other Greek immigrant families, but gratefully went on to graduate high school at only 17 with awards. I am a now a blessed single mother of three incredible teenagers, an author, and an entrepreneur intent on serving this important world to the best of my ability. I have utilized my life studying positive psychology, neuroscience, epigenetics, and the sciences of success and happiness, and have a belief that Each of us matters to All of us. I have overcome injuries that I wasn’t supposed to survive, miscarriage, separation that came with extreme cultural shame, the loss of a high-profile career, and, like the entire world, the emotional defeat of a pandemic. It is my honour to have the opportunity to share my life’s knowledge, experience, and purpose in a way that may inspire healing and growth for another — to awaken their Inner Coach, their divine self, and to activate lives lived in the present moment, with joy, gratitude, and abundance.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I was injured at work as a District Manager in 2019 and spent 10 months recovering from chronic radiating back pain. I was completely unable to work, being limited to about an hour of light activity at a time, with a minimum of two hours recovery. It was a personally depressing and challenging time of feeling alone, irrelevant, useless.
As my return-to-work plan came to order and the call with HR to arrange the upcoming dates and times approached, I was instead met with a severance package and dismissal from the Fortune 100 company. During the first half of my recovery, I felt sheer shame, helplessness, and despair. Having recently separated from a marriage of almost 20 years, I had just bought my very first home in my 40s, and I was living on my own 30–40% of the time for the first time in my life (custody being shared). The second half of my recovery time was spent in a deep dive of my internal state. This is where I uncovered my limiting beliefs, the cycle of fear and its deceptiveness, and where I began to apply my life’s education to my own physical, emotional, and spiritual self. By the time the unexpected call of releasing me from my role came, I was more capable of handling my emotional state and returning to calm than I ever had been in my entire life. Reframing situations, thoughts, and happenings has become a lifestyle choice. A conscious decision to look for evidence of how the universe must be working FOR me, not against me.
I believe we all have examples of this in our lives: how something we could not believe was happening “to” us, ended up being the best thing that could have ever happened “for” us. Unanswered prayers. Plans diverted. Countless examples there, if only we are willing to see them with open, fresh, trusting eyes. This was my biggest lesson: I was injured on purpose. I couldn’t have needed it more; being on the verge of burnout and in pure survival mode, working 60–70 hours a week, I was missing my life. My children had only a fraction of me. My soul was aching. This was the best thing that could have happened because it not only forced me to slow down, but it also gave me the time to remember who I was and what was truly important; time I would have never given myself. I met a mentor; I started my company; I took ownership of my present and became engaged with the process of creating my future, instead of being a slave to it. What a gift :’).
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Inner Coach University is a company intent on ensuring you gain access to knowledge that allows you to activate joy and your incredible innate ability to heal yourself and inspire your life. We offer a truly holistic approach which takes into account all that we are as humans — mind, body, spirit, emotions — teaching the optimization of brain health for exponential impact to individuals, families, teams, and corporations. We specialize in a process that covers maximizing potential from the inside out and begins foundationally with psychological safety. The way we support is by creating a safe space where we facilitate sharing, discovery, exploration, and growth, and our ability to incite synergy within a team is exemplary. Helping to bring everyone to the table with titles left outside the room, we inspire a collective spirit intent with unified clarity and an engaged approach to goals. I also take on limited clients for personalized 1:1 coaching.
My favourite recent story was with a group of professionals from a large medical company that we created and facilitated a workshop titled “Optimizing Team Cohesion for Reignited Engagement” for, to help the support and health team return to work with synergy. Working with the HR director, we anticipated about 25 staff members in attendance (the company made a huge investment and closed the entire clinic for an afternoon). On the afternoon of the virtual offering, 55 team members showed up! The ENTIRE team, including doctors, anesthesiologists, nurses…literally Everyone! The HR director was so pleased as, just by the title of our offer, the entire staff felt it important to attend. We had an incredible session with amazing results in our learning and satisfaction survey, and we cannot wait to deliver more to the world.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
To choose just one person is so difficult as support for my success has come from many sources: my parents, my love, my children. One incredible human outside of my inner circle, however, who arrived in my life as an unexpected gift, was a gentleman by the name of Gary. Gary’s services as a career transition coach were offered as a part of my severance package.
We quickly built a sincere friendship and in our short professional time together, he gently encouraged me to consider one of the most important questions of my life: What were my fears in following my true passion and purpose? I cannot state with enough emphasis how important this question became. I avoided answering it for 5 full days — ha! It is funny what the mind does when it has become accustomed to seeking evidence for “danger” in your life, as mine had throughout the pain of my life that previous decade. Avoidance and diversion from something new, no matter how much potential it possibly holds, is easier than pursuing. Having traversed through the realization that I was in pure survival mode already while moving into my first corporate career after separation from the only adult life I’d ever known, I knew facing the question would bring up fear.
I’d already upleveled myself again in self-improvement, I thought, through the previous half a year while recovering from the injury. I couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to face the question. But as the date of our next and final professional meeting loomed, I knew I could not show up without the answer (people-pleaser over here). Two days before our meeting, I sat down and started writing. It came out as reasonable fears to begin with: fear of judgement, fear of failure, lack of stability, etc. etc. What it revealed as I wrote and cried and reflected and wrote and cried some more, was that my biggest rooted fear was of Despair. The place that feels so dark and deep, that you believe there may not be a way out. I had felt that before and it was the most challenging and difficult time of my life. To fear feeling that again… of course this had a grip over me. A grip preventing me from pursuing my dreams.
I have known my entire life that I was meant to help the world somehow, to encourage, nurture, and positively inspire, and Gary helped me to re-connect to that knowing. He even coined me an “empowerer”. The gratitude I feel for his presence in my life is beyond what I can share in words 😊.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
By my definition, resilience is the ability to overcome setbacks by reassessing adversity in a way that allows us to seek the opportunity within the challenge. It’s a reframe, essentially, and to be a resilient person, you need to have access to your grit, hone your present awareness and critical thinking skills, and remain connected to a bigger purpose (or your “why”, as Simon Sinek puts it). Resilient people know that the only thing within their actual control is the way that they choose to respond to life. They share traits of optimism, emotional intelligence, self-awareness, and agility.
Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience?
The first virtue of the stoics was courage — the virtue on which all other virtues depend. To be courageous is a choice to act with strength and perseverance; putting that action to use supports us in both accessing and building resilience. I believe we all have the capacity to be resilient and that this capacity can be strengthened, just like a muscle. Courage is born of the will to manage your fear and to move forward, to take a step, and tapping into that is a way to support your capacity to be resilient. The two are certainly linked, and we can and should utilize our courage to strengthen our ability to rise again in resiliency. If you think about it, just being born into the world is our first act of resiliency — to emerge from the safety of our mother’s womb into a whole, new, unknown world. Tune into this feat to connect to how you already have this capacity built into you 😉.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
Nelson Mandela, whom I often reference in coaching sessions, is an inspiring example of resilience. As he was imprisoned for almost 30 years, most of those spent under the most brutal conditions, he could have easily been broken in mental spirit and overcome with anger and spite. Instead, however, he remained resilient to his purpose and coerced the drastic improvement of the conditions in his original jail, emerged free from a life sentence after 28 years, helped to officially end apartheid, and was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize! He went on to be elected President of South Africa and even remained a global advocate for peace and social justice until he died.
Nelson Mandela epitomizes what is means to focus only on that which you do have control over: your reaction to what is happening to you. If we can cultivate internal peace and remain connected to the positive emotions that create harmony in our bodies physiologically, we can maintain composure and comeback stronger when life is adverse. The mind-body connection is so powerful, and the brain does not know the difference between an experience and a thought, neurochemically. This means that we have the opportunity to manage our nervous system and internal chemical state by choosing to shine the flashlight on thoughts that support a parasympathetic (rest and digest) response, or even better, a joyful one producing oxytocin (the “love” drug). I can imagine the power of visualization that Mr. Mandela tapped into on a regular basis to maintain resiliency, and I’m reminded of a beautiful quote that I included in my book — “I survived because the fire inside me burned brighter than the fire around me”. May we all recognize our inner ability to fan those flames within to burn brighter every day.
Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?
It’s exciting to me that when I consider anyone telling me that something is impossible, my very first thought now is either “Let’s see” or “Let me show you”! As an eternal optimist, I concur with Simon Sinek who says, “Optimism is not the denial of reality…it is the belief that the future is positive.” I’ve learned to be this way through my parents’ drive to survive in a new country, and I believe this open hope in a future that will be even better multiplied after surviving life-threatening injuries and overcoming my life’s setbacks to date.
My first pregnancy ended up as a missed miscarriage — this is a rare occurrence where the heart of the fetus stops beating, yet the body doesn’t recognize this and continues to act as though the pregnancy is viable, feeding the fetus. I found out on September 11th that I would be losing my pregnancy. It was gut-wrenching in multiple ways and my heart was overburdened with the information, and the world terror. It took an extra 8 weeks of the miscarriage process and continuing to grow a non-viable pregnancy, until my doctor said we needed to take matters into our own hands and force a miscarriage chemically. After an at-home attempt to induce cervical dilation to allow the mass to leave the body, I went into excruciating pain and had to call an ambulance. It turned out that the dose had accidentally been quadrupled. After multiple hours at the hospital, there was no progress and the doctor had to decide to order a D&C as I was close to becoming septic.
I did NOT want a D&C. My entire life I dreamt of becoming a mom and the D&C terrified me immensely, as I worried it might alter my ability to maintain a pregnancy after already surviving life-threatening internal injuries at 8 years old. I pleaded with the stern nurse and kind doctor to please allow me to do it naturally, and they told me it was impossible. This was the only option.
I reluctantly signed the papers, asked everyone to leave me alone for a few minutes while I went within to pray. With sheer determination, I pushed the mass out of my body in a few minutes. The screams brought in the medical team, and they could not believe what had transpired. “This is impossible”, they kept repeating, and my relief created a huge wave of gratitude to my body and my spirit for allowing me to do things in a way that felt safe to me. Overcoming this impossibility grew my self-trust and my faith in myself, and in the support of Source, God, the Universe.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
Several setbacks have defined my life and each one, after intentional reflection and application of findings, has sloughed off a layer of my programming in a way that allowed me to, in essence, upgrade my life. The greatest of those most recently would be the end of my marriage.
I was raised traditionally: reminded continuously what it meant to be a good girl, good daughter, good worker, good student, good wife, and amazing mother. Giving of myself to benefit others is all I’d ever known. The Greek culture is one where women exude strength and serve their family. Showing “negative” emotions is highly discouraged, and even reprimanded. As the oldest, I was needed to be courageous, positive, supportive, and agile to the needs of the family in all ways, and always. A perpetual people pleaser, I went into my marriage at the age of 22 with the only real boyfriend I’d ever had. A fellow Greek, when we met my family jumped with encouragement for us to be together and I complied, believing that this must have been fated. We were the first two university graduates in both families, and we represented the fulfillment of our parents’ dreams.
We shared a very friendly marriage but were intimately incompatible. We were physically and emotionally separated for quite some time unfortunately, and that led to a very detrimental self-image for me. I lost weight and withdrew from family and friends, battling crippling anxiety as our communication ceased and we’d become merely roommates. Based on my conditioning, I did my best to ensure the outside world did not see or feel my pain, and I suffered in silence. It felt paralyzing, as though the light of my being was almost completely extinguished.
When we officially separated, it was the most challenging time of my life. I felt extricated, judged, and shamed. People seemed to keep their assumptions and very few asked or checked in on the true why and how. It was the feeling of being culturally shamed that was the worst to deal with. I maintained my optimistic outlook for my children, coworkers, customers, and friends, but within I felt alone and defeated at that time. My feelings were hurt by words of those not understanding the truth, and I felt disrespected and outed.
As I navigated the new terrain of my life — hyper-protecting the wellbeing of my children, fielding worries and questions from family, looking for my own first home — one thing became evident: I had to count on myself. For the first time, I recognized at 40 years old, external validation was not coming. I had to learn to trust myself. Jim Kwik has an incredible quote that found me: “If an egg is broken by outside force, Life ends. If broken by inside force, Life begins. Great things always begin from the inside.” This was my egg cracking from the inside, by my choice and readiness.
Since this time, I have helped nurture incredible teenagers moving into their own lives, owned and sold my own home, started this incredible company that I intend will help the world, and rejuvenated my entire being. I have never felt so strong, capable, energized, and excited to greet life with full purpose and ready to enjoy the adventures ahead!
How have you cultivated resilience throughout your life? Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?
I love the word “cultivated”. It conjures images of gardens and growth, and implies tending to things worth nurturing. When I was 8 years old, I was hit by an impaired driver while crossing a small residential street on my bike. I was launched over 35 feet and landed on our gravel driveway. The impact caused all my ribs and left arm to be broken, a fractured leg and skull, and ruptured my spleen, liver, and both of my kidneys. After the first 14-and-a-half-hour surgery, the doctors told my parents I would not survive the night. They had done everything they could do, but my injuries were too extensive. Even recalling this story, I am extremely emotional as a parent, recognizing the depth of emotions and torment my parents must have felt.
My mom went to the washroom and collapsed, then started praying. In her recount of the experience, she shares that she heard the voice of Jesus tell her not to worry, that I was going to be ok, and I would go on to help the world. She came out to my dad, defeated in his waiting room chair, and told him all would be ok, joyfully. The despair for my father was immense; he now feared he had to deal with losing his oldest child and the mental breakdown of his wife.
The story has many ups and downs but is one of true resilience for me. I spent three months in the hospital, and I recovered fully after a year, to the dismay of the doctors and surgeons. My friends and family certainly treated me as though I was made of glass for a while, but I overcame and have gone on to lead a full and active life! I am connected to a sense of ethereal spirituality because of my experiences, and I truly believe that Each of us matters to All of us. This means that I intend to share of myself in every interaction, even if only through positive intent and energy, to be a part of extending a frequency of higher vibration to help elevate our world, one soul at a time.
Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each. Improving resilience to support through challenging times can be developed! The simplest steps to take are:
- Acknowledgement of Emotions — Unless we accept that a setback has impacted our emotions, we cannot progress to becoming resilient. Denial and diversion will only keep us feeling stuck where we are. Here’s what’s important: Emotions are Energy in Motion. If we do not allow them to move through our body, they will remain trapped, like undigested food, until the compound effect causes us to erupt. Sitting with our emotions is what allows for the first true step in activating resilience.
As an example, when I was first dealing with my injury from work, I spent weeks in distress where my inner dialogue was constantly, “Why did this happen to me? Oh my god, why me? Please make this pain go away! What did I do to deserve this?!”. I was running from acknowledging and accepting my emotions, continuously regurgitating thoughts that had me feeling just helpless. After wallowing in it, crying, sleeping for what felt like years, I’d had enough. The moment I gained some footing and just asked myself “What am I actually feeling?”, I realized I was angry that it happened to me, stressed and ashamed to leave my team without support, and sad that I was in such agonizing pain. I was able to address the emotion with a touch of distance from it, after acknowledging and accepting it for truth, nonjudgmentally.
2. Awareness of the Body’s Reaction — Turning our attention inward offers us an opportunity to consider our body’s reaction to the emotions arising from situations of adversity or pain. Most of our lives, many of us have been encouraged or told how to think and feel (for example: “Don’t cry, you’re a big girl/boy!”; “Suck it up, you’ll be fine.”; etc.). However, becoming aware of where in our body we “feel” the emotional reactions, and naming that experience, is vital information when dealing with threat. A reminder here, that threat to your nervous system is anything that causes a sympathetic response, or a biologically hardwired” fight or flight” response (e.g.: heart racing, faster breathing, tightening chest, racing thoughts, intense emotions) that puts us in survival mode. Without this awareness, we are merely coping; not healing, and certainly not activating or building resilience. Becoming conscious of our body’s responses to not feeling safe gives us the opportunity to interrupt survival mode patterns and regulate our nervous system.
3. Toning the Vagus Nerve — Most of us have never been taught how to regulate our nervous system, either. Once we allow ourselves to become aware of and name our body’s reaction to adversity/threat, the next step is to take ownership of what we can control: our own responses and choices. Toning the vagus nerve is about returning to our parasympathetic, or rest and digest, state. Some simple ways to do this include:
- breath work (try deep belly breathing or box breath);
- deliberate cold exposure (cold shower or walking in snow);
- singing, gargling, or humming;
- 5 senses mindfulness (pausing to bring all senses to an action, such as enjoying your coffee or water);
- and movement like dancing, yoga, or shaking (think of how a pet “shakes off” being startled).
The science behind practicing these simple methods of returning to the body is incredibly positive and they have made a huge impact in my own personal “returning to baseline”. One quick, important note here: most people think of these practices when they are caught in dysregulation, in survival mode, but it is VITAL to remember to practice toning when you’re relaxed. We call this “getting your reps in” 😉.
4. Strengths Assessments — As we settle into a calmer state, returning to our bodies and our baseline, we come to the present moment where we can take stock of our accomplishments and strengths to date. This mindful practice requires calm to be an honest assessment, but if we begin with the obvious (think: “well, I did graduate high school, play piano; help my family with taxes”, etc.), we will soon gain momentum on teaching our brain to seek evidence for that which we need. “What are my strengths?” can sometimes stall us, so consider taking a strengths assessment online — the VIA is one of my favourites and takes less than 15 minutes! You’re left with a wealth of information that helps you understand your best qualities. Then, I remembered who I was.
5. Intentional Gratitude — Not a checklist of gratitude…Intentional Gratitude. The kind where you take time to recall, with all senses, the aspects of your life that can and do bring you joy. I started putting the pieces together and the picture I saw was one in progress. A portrait of a life being supported by outside forces that knew what was better for me. Now I started to feel grateful. It began with the easy ones: the eyes and hugs of my children; my warm and safe home; the food I could still afford to nourish my body. It transcended to existential gratefulness: the knowing that every single breath is a gift. Every sunrise. Every sensation. I felt alive again.
With these steps enacted, while showing compassion towards ourselves, we can turn the original self-talk — that over-protective, stuck in what’s familiar, inner critic — into a more productive question-answer dialogue. In my example, instead of questioning why I deserved such a terrible fate, I began gently asking, “What could be a good reason that this happened? What good can come of this?”. It took some coercion to reframe the ease of that protective negative thinking (i.e., “I’ll never get better”; “I’m so broken”), but as I repeated the questions that might offer a different answer than the ones of debilitated hopelessness, my brain started seeking evidence that there must be other reasons!
This reframing helped me consciously consider that I was on the verge of burnout. Had the injury not happened, I may have had something much more terrible happen, even an accident, due to the overworking, survival mode I was in. With gratitude, I soon recognized that this had happened FOR me. I felt true gratitude for the grace of timing in my life that ended up protecting me from causing extra harm to myself, my family, my team, or any other important member of society by accident. My injury prevented potentially long-lasting harm by forcing me to become immobile to heal. And my healing was far more than physical because of the opportunity. Yes, I called it an opportunity. This is one of the ways we can choose to see the gift through and in the pain.
If we approach our lives mindfully and with a growth mindset, we can learn to better communicate with our brains and teach our bodies to Respond more often, instead of react. This level of conscious control is a choice. Once we accept that we always have a choice, access to resilience is ours.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I have a high, hard goal of abolishing shame. If I were to inspire a movement, it would be in service of this goal. I don’t agree with the idea of “healthy shame”. No; there is no healthy Shame. Shame is disgusting. Remorse and regret can be healthy teachers, but shame is treacherous and debilitating. A distinction needs to be made. Conscious nurturing is required. Nurturing of each other, of our unborn and born children, as we would tend to anything we want to grow, like a garden: with love, life, peace, and joy. Nutrients of life. Rising it with love and good intention.
Shame has the lowest of low vibrations. How can this energy in any way be good for us? We need to love each other back to acceptance. We need nurturing, peace, safety. As we face and have faced being ”othered” our entire lives, it’s time to turn the tables and find the threads that bind. No more disparity. No more separation. No more duality. We have learned everything different between us already; we have individual access to a world of information today that is at the same level as what only the heads of state and the pentagon had merely two decades ago. We know ENOUGH of differences. It’s time for synchronicity. It’s time for the concept of namaste. It’s time for truth — that Each of us matters to All of us.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂
I have been inspired by so many influential leaders of today and it would be incredible to share with, collaborate, and learn from my fellow Greek entrepreneur, Ms. Arianna Huffington. Not only is her first name my daughter’s name (Ariadne — which I only just found out!), but her dedication to reaching the world in health and wellness through Thrive Global is something to aspire to. I believe we connect best with others through storytelling with authenticity and vulnerability, and she’s done this flawlessly. Coupled with my heartfelt desire to positively impact the world, it would be an absolute privilege to share time with Arianna.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
It would be my honour to hear from your readers and connect with anyone interested in my work. I am always looking for ways to contribute as well, so please don’t hesitate to connect 😊.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
Celebrated Leader Frances Hesselbein On What Great Leadership Is And Is Not
The subject of leadership is arguably among the most covered and analyzed topics of our day. But I’ve found that much of what we read, and the prescriptions given for great leadership, often leave out mention of the single most important ingredient to great leadership—and that is how leaders actually live their lives. This includes how they communicate and relate to others, how they demonstrate their values, and the ways in which they articulate and pursue their ultimate mission and vision of how they wish to be of service to others.
To learn more about true leadership in action (not just what we’re taught in books), I caught up this month with Frances Hesselbein for her unique perspective and insights, honed over many years of groundbreaking and celebrated impact. Our interview focuses on what great leadership is and also, what it is not.
One of the most highly respected experts in the field of contemporary leadership development, Frances Hesselbein is the Chairman of The Frances Hesselbein Leadership Forum at the University of Pittsburgh and the co-Editor-in-Chief of the award-winning quarterly journal, Leader to Leader. President Clinton awarded Hesselbein our country’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, for her leadership as CEO of Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. from 1976–1990, as well as her service as “a pioneer for women, volunteerism, diversity and opportunity.” In 2022 she was awarded The President’s Volunteer Service Award.
The Frances Hesselbein Leadership Forum reflects the vision of a university-based center for teaching, applied research, and public service where leaders and aspiring leaders from around the world can gather to advance the art and science of leadership and put these principles to practice in public service. The Forum provides leadership development opportunities for graduate students at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, hosts a public lecture series, and publishes the award-winning journal Leader to Leader.
Hesselbein shares below her special take on leadership, mission, values and success:
Kathy Caprino:Frances, so much has been written and taught about leadership over the years, and your many books and interviews have shared your leadership insights and experiences. I’d love to know—what is your ultimate definition of great leadership, in a nutshell?
Frances Hesselbein: I have been inspired by great leaders like Abraham Lincoln and great management thinkers, such as Peter Drucker and many others. However, when I first started as the CEO of the Girl Scouts USA in 1976, I realized I could not move forward with only quoting these great leaders. I had to define leadership for myself.
Our personal definition of leadership drives what we do and why we do it. This definition is found within us. For me, “leadership is a matter of how to be, not how to do.” A great leader does not preach about their values; they live them. In the end, it is the quality and character of a leader that determines their performance and results. It is all about ethics, collaboration and transformation. Great leaders are consistent with their actions and values. We don’t voice a wonderful sentiment and then behave in an opposite way. That’s when morale, motivation and productivity go down in an organization, company or movement. A great leader is the living embodiment of their values.
Caprino: What are the 3 most important teachings we can give emerging leaders that they aren’t receiving today, that would help them make a greater positive impact?
Hesselbein: Emerging leaders should listen, have courage, and practice horizontal leadership.
Listen: In addition to listening to others, I suggest to all emerging leaders to listen carefully to the voice within themselves. It tells them where they should be going and what they should be doing. When we try to push that voice down, we waste time and effort not doing what we were called to do: lead.
Courage: We have the courage to always place the mission first, to be demographics driven and to be values based. We don’t cut corners and do just two out of the three. The mission is our reason for being. Therefore, we don’t take a project if it doesn’t further the mission no matter how nice it is. We say “thank you” and keep moving. It takes a certain courage to close one door because it doesn’t support the mission and trust that another door will open.
Horizontal leadership: It is not one leader, but many leaders contributing to the mission and values of their organization. Leaders give other people the opportunities to learn, grow and lead and are exemplary in their leadership. Horizontal leadership is more than banning the hierarchal structure. It is about leading beyond the walls and leading together to address critical needs and issues in the community.
It is also important for emerging leaders to keep in mind what “making a greater positive impact” means. The outcome we should be striving for is changing lives. Changing lives is our bottom line, not squeezing nickels. Changing lives motivates and energizes our institutions, as we are ultimately striving for “significance, not success,” as Peter Drucker would say.
Caprino: What is the worst mistake that you’re seeing leaders make and why do they make it?
Hesselbein: The worst mistake I see leaders make is abandoning the mission. Some leaders find themselves taking on projects or clients that are not aligned with the mission because of the money that is attached to it. You must always stay true to the mission. The mission is your reason for being.
Caprino: You’ve won over 25 illustrious awards including several Presidential and Lifetime achievement awards, published over 35 books, and done so much to contribute to our world of work, and have a truly unique birdseye view of leading with impact. I’m interested to know what situations or events in your early childhood and life do you think contributed most to your leadership strength and capabilities, and your confidence to lead?
Hesselbein: We all have a defining moment in our lives that helped us know what is important to us. My moment happened when I was just 8 years old. I remember I would coax my grandmother to let me play with two beautiful old Chinese vases that would sit above her pipe organ keyboard in her home, and she always said no.
Finally, on one Saturday visit, feeling very assertive, I stamped my foot at my grandmother and demanded that I be allowed to play with the vases. Instead of scolding me, my grandmother led me over to a small love seat facing the pipe organ, put her arms around me, and told me this story.
“Long ago, in this little town was a Chinese laundry man, who lived alone in his small laundry. Each week he picked up your grandfather’s shirts and brought them back in a few days, washed, starched, ironed perfectly. Mr. Yee wore traditional Chinese dress, a long tunic, a cap with his hair in a queue. When your mother was eight years old, some days she and her little sisters would come home from school crying that the bad boys were chasing Mr. Yee and calling him bad names.
The boys would tease him, calling him, ‘Chinkey, Chinkey Chinaman,’ and other unkind names, and they would try to pull his queue. One day, there was a knock on the kitchen door. When I opened it, there stood Mr. Yee, with a large package in his arms. I said, ‘Oh, Mr. Yee, please come in. Won’t you sit down?’ but Mr. Yee just stood there and handed me the package, saying, “This is for you.”
I opened the package, and in it were two beautiful old Chinese vases. I said, ‘Mr. Yee—these are too valuable. I couldn’t accept them.’ He said, ‘I want you to have them.’ I asked why. He told me, ‘Mrs. Wicks, I have been in this town for ten years and you are the only one who ever called me Mr. Yee. And now I am going back home. They won’t let me bring my wife and children here and I miss them too much, so I am going back to China. The vases are all I brought with me. I want you to have them.’ There were tears in his eyes as he said good-bye.”
In my grandmother’s arms, I cried my heart out for poor Mr. Yee. That was long ago—the defining moment when I learned respect for all people, the defining moment that would stay with me, would shape my life with passion for diversity, for inclusion.
The person who had the greatest impact upon my life, my career, and my work was my grandmother. People always expect me to talk about John W. Gardner, Peter Drucker, or Warren Bennis—all the great thought leaders who have been part of my journey. Yet from my ﬁrst consciousness of relations with other people, my grandmother has been my leadership model. She listened very carefully.
With us grandchildren at just six or seven years old, she looked into our eyes and she listened to us as though it was the most important thing she could be doing at that moment, and she never cut us off. She listened to us with total concentration and warm response and we learned to listen because we wanted to be like Mama Wicks. That kind of sensitivity and appreciation of others was a very important lesson, learned very early.
I suggest parents listen and give their children the attention they need to develop confidence. In that way, a child learns early on that what they have to say matters.
Caprino: What leaders have you seen or work with recently whom you feel truly embody ideal leadership behavior/values/principles, based on your experience?
Hesselbein: I’ve had the opportunity to work with many great leaders during my career, but recently, I’ve been most inspired by the young people I meet and work with. I continue to serve as Chairman of the Frances Hesselbein Leadership Forum, in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at my beloved University of Pittsburgh. The Forum is training the next generation of servant leaders, which is so important for ensuring our bright future.
I am also inspired by the young leaders we publish in Leader to Leader, for which I have served as Editor-in-Chief for over 25 years and which is now published by the Forum. Leaders like LaShyra “Lash” Nolen, the first Black woman elected student council president at Harvard Medical School. Lash wrote about her leadership journey in our 100th issue, which began when she was just 10 years old and is grounded in a commitment to equity, community, and social justice.
As a young woman, she has already made a profound difference in the lives of her peers and her patients, and her work demonstrates that leaders can effect change at every level. I am so inspired by her leadership.
Caprino: Frances, do you have any last words for emerging female leaders who continue to face gender bias and discrimination in their workplaces and work cultures, but will not be deterred from their ultimate leadership visions?
Hesselbein: As leaders who are women, we begin by acknowledging that we bring a special dimension to the work of our organization. Our contribution to furthering the mission is enhanced by our gender—any effective leader brings her life experience and point of view to bear.
Diversity of gender, race, culture, and background in our leadership teams strengthens and enriches our organizations. But that is not the reason we, as leaders who are women, do what we do. The mission that defines why we do what we do has no gender.
Women have something to contribute beyond gender. I never thought of myself as the woman in all my board positions (though indeed I was); rather, I knew I brought a special perspective to the deliberations and the decisions in addition to my knowledge and expertise.
Feel stuck? Think different! 5 ways – backed by neuroscience – to break out of a rut.
Have you ever felt stuck? Or like your life was on auto-pilot? Did you feel bored with the trajectory of your life?
Why we’re feeling stuck can be caused by any number of situations. We might be uninspired. We might be overstimulated. We might not feel accomplished. We might be afraid. We might be overly stressed. We may also have everything we want & need and we’re not used to it. There’s many routes to the same outcome.
Boredom has an evolutionary purpose.
Interestingly Dr. Sandi Mann, an Organizational Psychologist who specializes in boredom, suggests that it has an evolutionary function. The fact that our brain automates our actions until they become second nature, allows us to be attentive to new stimulus. Imagine if everything you did every day felt new & exciting; like a mystery to solve and conquer? It would be hard to evolve past that specific state.
So boredom exists both to allow for the automation of daily tasks, but to also create the stimulus for evolution. Because when we’re bored/stuck, our brain actively searches for something new.
No need to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
In some situations we may go for giant upheavals. We may leave our jobs, our career paths, our cities, even our spouses. This is guaranteed to bring a whole lot of change, which can solve the issue in the short term. Of course in any new situation, we inevitably develop another set of patterns, or habits, and then we’re back where we started.
To stop feeling stuck , you don’t have to uproot your whole life. To keep our brain from settling into full auto-pilot mode, there are small steps we can take that can help us satisfy our craving for the novel.
The phrase “step out of your comfort zone” is basically the recipe. Meaning that you want to intentionally create time to do things differently, even be uncomfortable.
Here’s a list of ways you can bring excitement to your mind, without having to undo your life.
1. Take a class
Learning has been found to promote neurogenesis. This means that the brain creates new neurons which make new connections. You literally expand the network in your brain. Using neural-pathways that are different & creating new ones, “shakes” up your brain. Not to mention that this expands your thinking, and – depending on the class – can add valuable skills to your tool belts. In a research paper I did on stress management tools, I discovered that skills are a fundamental key to improving self-esteem. Improved self-esteem and skill confidence shows up as positive changes in your life & at work.
2. Take a new route to work
When we do the same route everyday, our brain essentially falls asleep during the process. We’re trained to a path and we rarely stray from it. Taking a new route forces your brain to wake up. Pay attention to your surroundings and embrace the trip as an adventure. Are there new restaurants, stores, parks that you could try in the future? This search is what your brain needs to feel refreshed.
3. Cook something for the first time. Experiment with different cuisines.
This feeds into learning as well, but you can also get additional dopamine hits (the feel good hormone) in the planning phase, the preparing phase, and eating/sharing phase. As long as you don’t put a perfection burden on yourself, this process of creativity and discovery can create hours, even weeks, of feeling good and rejuvenated. Studies have also shown that cooking as a group is great for a sense of belonging, positive emotions, self-esteem and an increased sense of quality of life.
4. Research a destination for a vacation
There’s scientific evidence that PLANNING experiences is one of the best ways to reduce stress and improve our mood. Simply the anticipation of places we could go to is enough of a mood booster to make you feel rejuvenated.
5. Rearrange the furniture on occasion
We all know the Kondo joy of decluttering, but just moving pieces around in your space can make your entire environment feel brand new. This can spark your creativity and may give way to other projects or ideas – but surely a sense of newness.
Out of the comfort zone.
Remember it will feel uncomfortable. That’s the point. Anytime you do something new, it is uncomfortable to the brain. Your own thoughts may even try to talk you out of it. But if you’re trying to break out of being stuck in autopilot living, discomfort is natural.
Lean into your sense of creativity – in whatever form it comes to you – as this is the path straight out of stuck.
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