Dr. David Jones led Canada’s response to pandemics and public health crises. Then he faced his own health crisis.
I recently had the privilege of speaking to new graduates at Carleton University. I pondered what I could tell them that would be useful as they head out to pursue their chosen vocations. I have been blessed with an interesting and rewarding career. I could never have imagined when I was younger doing some of the things I have had the opportunity to do. There are also many things I thought I would do, or hoped would work, that never happened.
The invitation to speak made me reflect on my career and specifically on leadership: what it means, the attributes required to do it well, and the occasions many of us are provided in life, and the hope that we will be able to rise to them.
It is a leader’s responsibility not to know everything, but to find out. An important aspect of successful leadership is to surround yourself with smart people who are willing to tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear.
Building a network of different people; friends, colleagues, mentors and family – that you care about and who care about you – will sustain you as you will sustain them. Being connected, we live longer and healthier and recover faster from adversity. It is key to resilience.
A different kind of test
The past few years have put my leadership approach to a different kind of test, as I found myself in a new situation, facing challenges that I never could have imagined.
My career has been essentially building new organizations or reforming existing ones, all the while tackling public health challenges – everything from poverty to pandemics. Then, a little over three years ago, I experienced a stroke that turned my life upside down.
I discovered that managing a pandemic was easy, at least compared to stroke recovery. After all, I knew how to deal with public health crises. But having to relearn things that once were easy, with a brain that didn’t work as well as it did previously, was not something I could have anticipated.
While I was not totally paralyzed, I was very weak on the left side, needing a cane, and had trouble with balance. My right brain didn’t pay much attention to what was happening on the left side of my body and the two sides didn’t talk to each other very well.
More troubling were the cognitive changes and the loss of short-term or working memory. When your working memory fails, you don’t remember what you don’t remember, not even the fact that there was something to remember in the first place. So I had no idea, for example, that I had already asked my wife Glenda the same question three times (and not just because I have a Y chromosome). Or that, in a conversation, once distracted, I only knew there must have been something we were talking about because people were standing in front of me looking expectant.
Watch Dr. Jones’s interview on CBC News about his stroke.
At the same time, I had to relearn many things that had previously been easy — how to walk backwards and turn around, the names of common items or tools, things I could describe or visualize but for which there was no name. Sadly, I even had to relearn the names of my grandchildren.
Thinking became hard and exhausting work. After an hour of discussion or other activities, my brain would go on vacation, and in noisy environments, like a restaurant, it wouldn’t be long before I shut down.
Some people study and practice meditation for decades, in order to reach a point where their mind is empty of conscious thought. Apparently I don’t have to work at it – though I doubt this is a state of enlightenment.
Fortunately, I had a tremendously dedicated group of therapists and doctors, without whom I might still be limited to the couch and simpler days.
My new reality
With time I have regained ability or adapted to my new reality, to the point that it would be difficult for others to tell that I had experienced a stroke. And while I can go longer, and I recover faster, there is a point where I just need to sit.
So where am I going with all this?
What I learned from my experience in leadership helped me recover from my stroke. The people I cared about and who cared about me helped me sustain the energy I needed to overcome all the frustrations.
Others taught me ways to cope and improve. I did not do any of this alone. Qualities I believe are essential to exercising good leadership guided me through stroke recovery: respect for others, integrity, dignity, honesty, transparency, openness, the ability to adapt, and sharing successes.
Making the best of a situation is key. I expect improvement, and I work at it. There are frustrations and setbacks, but they do not define me.
My career changed as a result of my stroke, but I am still able to contribute. Whatever our age or stage, we are on an incredible journey called life, and making the best of it serves us well.
This article is adapted from a convocation address by Dr. Jones at Carleton University, where he received an honorary doctorate.