What Overcoming a Life-Threatening Brain Tumor Taught Me About Leading with Purpose

Many of us are still struggling with the hardships that 2020 brought to light, which reminded me of one of the most challenging periods of my life and the invaluable lessons it taught me. We cannot always see things clearly in the moment, but adversity provides us with the opportunity to learn more about ourselves and extend those experiences to other areas of our lives, ultimately helping us thrive.

I was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2009 and told I would need surgery to remove it. I was the CFO of Home Franchise Concepts, a wife, involved PTA mom, and a fitness junkie. I thought I had my life all figured out, but after a 15-hour brain surgery and many setbacks, I had to learn to walk all over again.

It was a very long and demanding recovery; for months, I couldn’t even move my neck. I was forced to slow down because I couldn’t go any faster – I had time to focus on myself, what it meant to be Shirin, and figure out my purpose. And while it may be a cliché, I found that from this pain and suffering, I discovered a more improved and authentic life and the subsequent successes that it brought. It was an awakening (more like a rude wakeup call) that ultimately taught me lessons that helped me become more empathetic and, as a result, a more successful leader.

Even in the world of business, you can still “do good”

Following my recovery from the surgery, I decided to continue on as CFO. At first, I debated whether or not I should return back to a corporate job – wondering if I should quit to volunteer at charities or work for a nonprofit. But I realized that everybody is unique and talented in their own way. For me, I knew my strength was running a business and doing it in a way that’s good for others. This led me to my most recent role as CEO, where I was able to give franchisees from all walks of life a chance to run their own business and achieve financial independence. Even though I was leading a for profit business, I realized that living my purpose, could still be meaningful if I led by doing the right thing, caring for my team, being honest and looking for ways to improve things for others and the world.

Know what success means to you in the moment

Having a clear vision of what success looked like was crucial to me as I recovered from surgery. Success might have meant doing five boot camp workouts a week or organizing a PTA event, but after the surgery, I had to redefine success in light of my current circumstances.

As a leader, I’ve found that defining success based on our current experiences and what’s going on around us is critical. I’ve been involved with many projects where everyone was seemingly aligned only to find out that everyone’s idea of success was different from each other.. Before beginning work on a large initiative or project, I’ve learned to take a pause and to think through not only the key objectives and measurable success goals but also if they make sense at that time .

Be accountable to yourself

Accountability is one of the main pillars of both personal and business development. After my surgery, being accountable for creating my own path to recovery was the only way I could make strides. I did this by gently but persistently pushing myself to take a few extra steps a day. I would count my steps every day and plan on adding just one more the following. This is how I could finally walk distances after starting off with just couple of steps a day.

I like the saying: “what’s measured is managed” – it refers to all stages of our evolution. Clearly defining measurable goals for any given project creates a way for you to gauge progress against it. When we are faced with uncertainty, like many of us are today, the concept of measurable success and related accountability is more critical than ever.

Arm yourself with the right support system

Just like any other challenging time in our lives, being an effective leader requires relying on other people and having a reliable support system in place. It’s important to ensure that your “team members” are in the right seats. I ask myself early and often – do I have the right people around me to help me succeed? Is everyone in the right place at the right time? If not, what can we do to fix it?

Unleash your power

The best way to confront our fears and unlock our leadership potential is to unleash our true selves. During my recovery I focused on understanding who I really was and made gradual changes to only fill my life with people and activities that enriched myself or my business.

To become the best version of myself, I had to first learn who I was, unleash my presence, and declare it.

Shirin shares lessons learned from a career of success in business.

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