I live in an apartment complex built for retired defence officers. I hear stories from them about engagements where their own life and lives of fellow men were at stake. While I could understand logically what they would have gone through, it was really difficult to relate to those stories emotionally.  All that changed recently after my wife, Rathiga, passed away after a battle with cancer. IT projects that we get stressed out about hardly involve such high stakes. However, we could learn valuable lessons from such survival battles.

As I reflected on the past few months (that actually had felt like years), I could glean five lessons that anyone in positions of leadership could learn from Rathiga. My intent is not to come up with a comprehensive list of what a leader should do when facing such engagements. Lessons are drawn from how Rathiga thought and behaved at certain times that stood out for me. Here we go.

Lesson 1: Decisions may be taken jointly but it is your decision as a leader

At the start, we had jointly decided to pursue a non-conventional method of treatment for 2-3 weeks. Obviously, this choice was against conventional wisdom and it took a lot of deliberation before the decision was made. After 10 days into the treatment, I got a bit shaky and was not sure if we were on the right path. When I shared my concerns with Rathiga, this is what she said: “I still have faith. Let us stick to the current path. Whatever happens, I will not blame you later for this choice”. It brought tears in my eyes then and still does.

While the initial decision was taken jointly, she clearly knew that it was her decision in the end and was willing to wear the consequences of her choice – good or bad. Isn’t that a great lesson for any leader? I guess this is one of the reasons why leadership can be lonely.

Lesson 2: Prepare oneself for the battle and prepare others

At a later point, we chose to change course and pursue conventional allopathic treatment. Chemotherapy started and the doctors had put Rathiga on a reduced dosage in the first 21-day cycle given her condition. Full dosage was planned for in the second cycle. We all know that chemotherapy can have unpleasant side effects like hair-fall, weight-loss, pain, etc. In the first cycle, Rathiga did not have any of these symptoms due to the reduced dosage.

Here is what Rathiga told her mother (who was attending to her) in private: “Amma, be prepared to see me thin and without hair in the second cycle of chemo. Whatever happens, do not be scared. It is all temporary and I will recover after the therapy. Have no fear.” It is one thing for a leader to prepare oneself for the scars of a battle but it is another level of maturity to prepare others on what to expect.

Lesson 3: Be dignified in difficulty

Rathiga always behaved with dignity and presented herself very well in front of others. It was not easy during her suffering though – she did not want others to sympathize with her. During the chemotherapy, we stayed in a city away from home in her cousin’s place temporarily. Rathiga always had a bath every day, tidied her hair and put on fresh clothes. She will come out and greet others when she felt better and go back to her room to suffer in private. She needed people to take care of her then but that was restricted to just a few. She always presented herself in the best possible light and preferred respect over pity.

Lesson for me was: As a leader, one does not have to expose all your problems and seek sympathy from others. It is better to be dignified and you will command more respect from your team.

Lesson 4: Focus on what needs to be done now

As the disease progressed and treatments were failing to deliver, Rathiga had plenty of opportunities to talk about what could have been done differently. Not even once, let me repeat, not even once did she use phrases like ‘I should have done this’ or ‘you should have done this’ or ‘doctor should have done this’. For her, past was past and she absolutely focused on what needs to be done now to recover from the illness – all this focus while her condition was getting worse week after week.

Mindfulness is the buzzword nowadays. I certainly find it difficult to practice. In my view, Rathiga’s behaviour exemplified one aspect of mindfulness i.e. the focus on the present.

Lesson 5: Never say die

When I teach Project Management, I often talk about the importance of goals and the need for relentless focus on them for high-performance. ‘Never give up’ was my favourite phrase. Somehow, I had never quite understood the true grit needed to hold on to one’s goals till the last moment.

We were staying in my cousin’s place in this city away from home and were planning to move to a friend’s vacant apartment in a few days. Throughout the ordeal, Rathiga always stayed positive and was always hopeful of her recovery. Even the night before she passed away, she was making a list of all the items that we need before we could move into this new apartment. She woke up at 2am and she was talking about going to the hospital the next day.  Little did she know that she was going to pass away in her sleep at 3:30am.

To me, that attitude gave a new meaning to the phrase ‘Never say die’.

In conclusion…

I tell this story only to share some of the leadership lessons that I learnt from a warrior like Rathiga. I certainly do not want you to feel sorry for her. She led a wonderful life – she was always grateful for what she had; She lived a life of significance and made a difference to many people’s lives; and she has left a legacy of wonderful relationships that she had nurtured.

I realised that we do not have any control over how long we live, but we could certainly choose how well we live.