Making leader and cancer rhyme.

In 2019, the managing segment of organizations – leaders, executives – is still seen as invincible. Being in a position of power means strength. This same powerful posture can be shattered in the few seconds it takes to hear three dreaded words: “You have cancer”.

Cancer diagnosis represents the ultimate vulnerability encounter. Cancer carries a highly emotional charge creating a professional taboo. Why would doctors save people from a cancer death if professional organizations reject them later on? What is the point of surviving one lethal disease if society has decided to exclude the cancer survivors from its functioning, and specifically from professional development?

On Saturday October 12th, 2002, an emergency doctor opened the white curtain of the ER cell where I was waiting for test results: void of any bedside manner, he pronounced those three dreaded words. My whole world exploded. A year of oncological treatments followed until I heard the dreamed-of four words: “You are cancer free”.

In the years that past, while using myself as an instrument, I began to observe a change in the way I was behaving professionally, especially when leading teams. With “the leadership of a leader (being) the outward expression of his/her inner theater” (Kets de Vries, 2006) in mind, I wondered whether this self-assessment could be observed with other cancer survivors leading teams.

Worldwide 18 million new cancer cases are diagnosed every year (Globocan, 2018). Out of the 18 million persons diagnosed, 7.5 million persons survive every year with 43.8 million persons having a 5-year prevalence rate (Globocan, 2018). When a longer life (OECD, 2019) is coupled with an earlier detection rate of cancer, this leads to more people surviving cancer and continuing an active life afterwards (Warren, Mariotto, Meekins, Topor, Brown, 2008; Cancer Research UK, 2019). Nowadays people survive cancer at a higher rate, at younger ages, in better conditions (Steiner, Nowels, Main, 2010; Ganz, 2005) and naturally continue their professional paths. “Advances in cancer treatment have made postcancer life, including school reentry, possible” (Kim, et al., 2018).

Through the interviews of twenty-one cancer survivors in managing roles across fifteen countries, I have researched the effect a cancer diagnosis has on the leadership of organization leaders, regardless of cancer’s types. “The word ‘cancer’ reflects more than 200 diseases, each with its own trajectory of experiences” (Truant, Fitch, O’Leary, Stewart, 2017).

While the literature has started to describe the professional constraints and limitations of cancer survivorship (Duijts, van Egmond, Spelten, van Muijen, Anema, 2013; Mols, Thong, Vreugdenhil, van de Poll-Franse, 2009; Keim-Malpass, Levine, Danhauer, Avis, 2016), there is scarce documentation on the potential benefits beyond limited trauma-based research, and certainly little research on the professional context of cancer survivorship at a management level. A cancer diagnosis is a life-changing event or “a highly stressful and challenging life-altering event” (Tedeschi, et al., 2018). Being confronted with the ultimate fear humanity has – the fear of death (Munley, Johnson, 2003) – at an earlier age than the majority of human beings carries significant psychological, emotional, social and financial consequences in the life of the survivors. Leaving aside the financial angle, the psychological, emotional and social spheres collectively point to the elements of Posttraumatic Growth, with its progression and rebound, rather than Post Traumatic Stress Disorder whose negative orientation does not reflect the specific nature of the collected cancer experiences. “Leaders’ life-stories should be approached as “depositories of meaning” (Gabriel, 2000, p. 15) and analyzed to discover those meanings (Shamir, Eilam, 2005).

Their narratives spoke about a more direct communication style, a sharpened decision-making process, a tendency for more risk-taking, the experience of social exclusion, a new sense of freedom, a redefinition of time, diverse generational lenses, acquired strength, a patience paradox, increased awareness and empathy leading to a natural trust, and, finally, an important shift to meaningfulness. “No one can be authentic by trying to be like someone else” (George, 2015). The interviewees observed either a significant emphasis on skills they already possessed prior to diagnosis, or a spontaneous shift to people-oriented skills, the so-called soft skills. Many commented on the natural evolution to “bring the person back into the organization” (Kets de Vries, 2006) after their cancer treatment.

Interviewed leaders had a difficult time separating the personal from the professional angles, which speaks to their visible post-cancer congruence. By evidently letting go of the non-important elements of their lives, they were able to reduce “the boiling cauldron of diverse motivational needs” (Kets de Vries, 2006) to their true selves. Their developed awareness also birthed some points worth observing like patience shortage, higher risk taking or cancer halo.

All the characteristics surfacing in the cancer survivors’ stories resemble the criteria of an excellent authentic leadership development program. Instead of being delivered in a classroom full of attendees with diverse levels of engagement, these cancer experiences were authentic and very personal. As such they are particularly powerful in their capacity to make a long-lasting impact on their participants and those in their professional surroundings – including colleagues, customers, and suppliers.

A striking observation from these interviewees lays in their common entrepreneur mindset. Uncomfortable with the cancer societal taboo, most of the organizations of these cancer survivors have failed to see the accelerated leadership development that took place during and after cancer. Therefore, the majority of interviewees has left their original organizations, mostly to start their own companies. The few who stayed inside adaptive “strength-based organizations” (Avolio, Gardner, 2005) have been able to deliver valuable authentic leadership to their teams, thus reinforcing the human bond between people, structure and vision. Kets de Vries (2006) states that “irrational behavior is a common pattern in organizational life”. A lasting wonder remains as to which irrationality is to dominate the other. Be it the “life-long membership club” description of cancer by Matthew, one of the interviewees, or organizations which let go of their cancer survivors in managing roles with combined guilt and relief while investing significant monetary amounts to create leadership development programs to emulate authentic leadership amongst their remaining leaders.

This research could be of interest to executives who survived cancers in acknowledging their leapfrogging paths as well as assisting them in watchful areas linked to their survival experiences. It could support organizations in the accelerated development of cancer survivors in leadership positions while providing some insights to the reporting teams of cancer survivors by better understanding some specific elements of their leadership style. Lastly, executive coaches would benefit from the additional context provided here, which will assist them in guiding their cancer survivor clients who are in leadership roles.

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Research references

Avolio, B., Gardner, W. (2005). Authentic leadership development: Getting to the root of positive forms of leadership. The Leadership Quarterly 16, 315–338.

Duijts, S. F. A., van Egmond, M. P., Spelten, E., van Muijen, P., Anema, J. R. (2013). Physical and psychological problems in cancer survivors beyond return to work: a systemic review. Psycho-Oncology, 23, 481–492.

Gabriel, Y. (2000). Storytelling in organizations: Facts, fictions, and fantasies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

George, W. W. (2015). True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 

Globocan (2018, September). IARC Global Cancer Observatory. Retrieved from

Keim-Malpass, J., Levine, B., Danhauer, S. C., & Avis, N. E. (2016). Work-related perceptions and quality of life among breast cancer survivors. Psycho-Oncology25(7), 873–876.

Kets de Vries, M. F. R. (2006). The leadership mystique: Leading behavior in the human enterprise (2nd edition). Harlow, England: Prentice Hall Financial Times.

Kim, M. A., Park, H. J., Ahn, E., Shin, D. W., Lim, Y-J., Park, K. D., Park, J. H., Yi, J., Kim, S. Y., Park, M., Park, E. S., Hong, J. S. (2018). Experiences of Peer Exclusion and Victimization, Cognitive Functioning, and Depression Among Adolescent Cancer Survivors in South Korea. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry,88(4), 441–449.

Mols, F., Thong, M. S. Y., Vreugdenhil, G., & van de Poll-Franse, L. V. (2009). Long-term cancer survivors experience work changes after diagnosis: results of a population-based study. Psycho-Oncology18(12), 1252–1260.

Munley, P. H., Johnson, P. D. (2003). Ernest Becker: a vital resource for counseling psychology. Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 16(4), 363–372.

Shamir, B., Eilam, G. (2005). “What’s your story?” A life-stories approach to authentic leadership development. The Leadership Quarterly, 16, 395-417.

Steiner, J. F., Nowels, C. T., & Main, D. S. (2010). Returning to work after cancer: quantitative studies and prototypical narratives. Psycho-Oncology19(2), 115–124.

Tedeschi, R. G., Shakespeare-Finch, J., Taku, K., Calhoun, L. (2018). Posttraumatic growth: Theory, Research, and Applications. Routledge.

Warren, J.L., Mariotto A.B., Meekins, A., Topor, M., Brown, M. L. (2008). Current and Future Utilization of Services from Medical Oncologists. Journal of Clinical Oncology, 26(19), 3242–3247.