Lessons in business leadership learned from a 12-year-old

Executive director, Chai Lifeline Canada

At Chai Lifeline Canada, a national organization that provides support to families of seriously ill children, I expected to learn a great deal about pediatric illnesses and how to help others cope with the myriad challenges they bring. In my 13 years as executive director, indeed I have.

What I didn’t expect was that to learn valuable business leadership skills from the most unlikely source – the sick children themselves. In particular, a 12-year-old boy named Michael (this is a pseudonym), who was fighting cancer, inadvertently taught me five key lessons in business leadership that I now apply daily as manager of this thriving organization – lessons that any businessperson would do well to adopt.


Pediatric cancer, like business, brings with it many ups and downs. Michael underwent chemo treatments every three weeks for six months, enduring the nausea, discomfort and hair loss that went with it. He could have focused on the downs, but instead, he chose to celebrate the small wins — finishing a round of chemo, seeing his white blood cell count increase and watching new stubble break through his scalp. Feeling good about these achievements motivated him to look forward to overcoming the next challenge.

In business, rather than lamenting over lower-than-expected results in a particular quarter, for example, I’ve learned to stay resilient and optimistic, focusing on even the most minor gains. I’ve become grateful for setbacks because they help propel our business forward. As an added bonus, I’ve come to realize that positivity spills over to staff, boosting their morale and performance.


When you’re forced into a corner and have no choice, you have to fight. Michael knew his limits and relied on the capabilities of others to help him cope and thrive. Beyond the medical experts, he asked for emotional support and relied on our organization’s services in every way possible – from counselling, to hospital visits, to adopting a “big brother” to keep him company during his long stays at home.

In business, many people think asking for help is a weakness, yet in reality, it is a strength that demonstrates self-assurance. It takes courage to step back and relinquish control – whether owing to time or other constraints – but by delegating to the right people, you will free up time and have a clearer head to better achieve your business objectives. What’s more, calling for backup helps create a stronger bond with those you engage.


Michael relied on the support of his family to get him through his challenging time. In spite of his young age, he understood that aside from a top-notch medical team, he needed his parents to be the managers of his care and his siblings to provide a sense of normalcy. Michael’s parents relied on our organization’s expertise and experience to provide the support the whole family needed.

Every business leader knows the importance of a strong support team – not just internal managers, but also outside advisers who can provide direction, recognize opportunities and help accelerate the execution of ideas. If every business had a life-or-death attitude in engaging the resources needed to succeed, imagine the potential for growth.


Children are real – you can read their emotions on their face. When you do something nice for them, their happiness is apparent and it makes you want to do more. Michael wore his heart on his sleeve and his constant appreciation kept our team upbeat and motivated.

In today’s technological world, business leaders have much to gain by setting themselves apart with the human touch. There’s a time to let down your poker face and show a sense of humanity and gratitude to staff, customers, suppliers and other stakeholders. Not only will your actions evoke a positive response, but you will undoubtedly see increased engagement, motivation and stronger relationships as a result.


As business people, we’re all guilty of having made a bad decision or two as a result of acting hastily. Everyone is looking for an edge and may therefore act in desperate ways. It is at times such as these that it’s important to take a lesson from innocent children like Michael: Keep things in perspective and don’t overanalyze.

Just do what you need to do as you aim for the ultimate goal of reaching the pot of gold at the end of rainbow. It may take time, but know you will get there.

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