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Wake Up Calls: Moments that Change our Lives

By Mary Shippy and Christine Watkins Davies

This article is the first in our Field Notes on Leadership Series. We hope this series provides you insights to facilitate your leadership journey.


Over the course of my career as a leadership coach, I have witnessed some huge transformational shifts and changes in the leaders I have worked alongside.  I would like to claim that it was “my excellent coaching” that created the transformational shift, but the truth is much more fundamental.

What I love about working with humans is their capacity to change.   These shifts can be traced back to a moment in the leader’s experience when the “lights came on”, things became clear, and they saw the event before them as their own personal wakeup call or what we term a “pivotal moment”.

We interviewed several leaders that have shifted or changed in a transformational sort of way.  This change has been acknowledged by peers, and others, as well as themselves. A part of this interview process was getting curious around what caused the change, who supported this change and how, and what these leaders are still learning from their transformational experience.

Three themes emerged in our interviews:

  1. Each leader experienced of a pivotal event or moment
  2. Each leader discovered an inner strength/power
  3. Each leader found connection to others in the muck of life.

A Pivotal Moment

The first theme that emerged was each leader had a pivotal moment when they realized that they needed to make changes in their leadership vernacular.  These pivotal moments came in a variety of ways, but each leader had one. A “light bulb” moment of sorts.  A moment where they realized there was work to do on their part in adjusting to the needs of those around them.  A moment where they recognized they needed to transform in order to be more effective and show up authentically.

One leader shared, “I was blocked before my first peer review. Reading that 360, there were things that were really beautiful, then there were things that really hurt me and I realized I had hurt others.  Some people shared they didn’t want to work with me. At that moment, the blinders came off of my eyes. I realized that everyone doesn’t see the world as I do, and I’ve also begun to understand that others don’t experience the world as I do.  One of my learning edges right now is really connecting with people where they’re at, not where I’m at.” 

Surprising Strength (even in the face of incredible challenge)

When asked about capacity, each of the leaders shared stories about times of struggle.  We were surprised to hear they all discovered they were able to handle much more than they thought they could.  During times of extreme struggle, they found strength and perseverance even when they didn’t expect to.  Their desire to be of service to others led them to have faith in themselves and their abilities.

“My son was diagnosed with Autism. I realized that he wasn’t able to communicate my way, so I had to learn to communicate his way.  He taught me so much about empathy.  Later, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease and have gone through extensive treatments.  Work has rallied around me.  As a leader, having had shattered expectations of what your life is going to be like, I’m now able to recognize that everyone at work may be going through some sort of challenge or tragedy. We all are. Now, I’ve been through all of these challenges and I’m showing up wanting to see how I can help others.  So many years ago, I would have had a totally different response to others.  My growth in faith has really helped me as a leader to.  How do you have empathy?  How do you do what’s right?  Others want to be able to depend on their leaders to do the right thing.  As a guy who is looking at heaven every day, I don’t want to miss out and not do the right thing. I have found strength I never knew I had.”

Transformation Is Not a Solo Act

Each of the leaders we interviewed have sought out support in a variety of ways.  Whether it be with a leadership coach, a peer support group, a leadership book, or leadership development trainings, they did not move into the transformational process alone.  Every leader interviewed described how they sought help and guidance from others in order to make changes in their leadership.  None of the leaders shared stories of being told what to do during times of struggle or crisis, but each one of them shared stories of having someone support them where they were in the process.  Whether it be a family member, a friend, or colleague, each leader interviewed had someone standing by them as a sounding board or champion.  The recognition that they couldn’t move through this process alone was significant.

“Working with a coach really opened up a lot for me and shined a light on so many things I needed to look at.  My leadership ability has changed.  I can sit in conflict with others because I can sit with it myself.  I want to make a lasting impact and that’s going to be with people.  If we want transformational change, that’s with people. I’m more in tune with myself and my own biases.  I feel like I have a lot more followers and fans now.  My ability to influence has obviously improved.  Internally, I feel much healthier and complete.  I can show up as my best self.  I can seek guidance from colleagues instead of always being the one to tell others how things are done. Folks have a greater level of trust and confidence in me.  I’ve sought out opportunities within the company that I wouldn’t have before.  There’s been a lot of greatness from the inside.  I see that I’ve made a positive impact in my professional and personal life and I realize I could never have done it on my own.” 

A few questions to consider:   Are there pivotal events in your life that have offered you an opportunity to learn and grow?  If so, who supported this growth and how did they do it?  What did you learn?  What are you still learning?  Have you been a stable support system for someone you lead?