Yesterday, the media volleyed around stunning stories of tennis legend Venus Williams’ diagnosis of Sjögren’s Syndrome and her subsequent withdrawal from the U.S. Open. The story saturated mainstream news networks, receiving full court attention from health and lifestyle journalists in addition to devoted sports reporters. All this press served to racquet up both sympathy for Williams and intrigue into her “shocking diagnosis”, Sjögren’s Syndrome (Moisse & Childs, ABC News, 9/1/2011). In full disclosure, I also have Sjögren’s Syndrome, and fall in an exceedingly rare demographic as a young male afflicted by a predominantly older female autoimmune disorder. While I certainly appreciate the attention Sjögren’s will receive with the arrival of this high-profile case, I wish less to commiserate than I do to investigate how a leader navigates illness.
Venus Williams, who was recently ranked the 10th most powerful black woman in the U.S. and the 86th most powerful celebrity in the world (Forbes, The Celebrity 100), is certainly a leadership titan. She launched her own fashion line and interior design firm and is a co-owner of the Miami Dolphins. The list of accomplishments on and off the court is exhausting and diminishing for anyone who thinks they’ve found success.
Unfortunately so is Sjögren’s Syndrome. While the hallmark symptoms of the syndrome are dry eyes and dry mouth, the Sjögren’s Syndrome Foundation explains that, “patients may experience extreme fatigue and joint pain and have a higher risk of developing lymphoma” (Sjogrens.org). It’s certainly serves up a challenge for a part-time table tennis attendant let alone for a professional tennis star at the peak of her career.
We often speak of the importance of mobilizing an agenda, sustaining momentum, and tirelessly operating in a campaign paradigm. So how does a highly competent, politically savvy leader manage when the body starts attacking itself? I wish I had an easy answer for this nauseating challenge but (much to my parents chagrin) I’m no doctor and hardly a leadership expert.
What I do know and what we often emphasize is that organizations, like your bodies, are uncertain organisms. Just as you never know when Hurricane Irene will flood your foyer, you can’t anticipate illness. While we may wish our doctors worked next to our desks, we lack this luxury.
The key is maintaining your coalition and vigilantly preparing for disorder. God forbid the day arrives when your body turns on itself, but, if it does, you at least want to avoid having an autoimmune coalition that mimics your disease. Cultivate an earnest, empowered coalition that will brace your organizational body if your personal frame gives out. If Sjogren’s dries your glands, find a team that will lubricate your agenda and carry you to the finish line.
Venus Williams’ courageous response to her diagnosis was that, “[Sjögren’s] will help me to feel grateful for everything that I have. And at the same time it makes me want to get up and fight harder every single day” (Moisse & Childs). So have another cup of coffee, eat your deep fried Oreo, and confidently plunge into your campaign. But remember to remain mindful of your personal and professional health.