Dr Nancy Stanford Blair & Dr Mark L Gesner
Discovering Your Life’s Message

P Nancy Blai Mark Gesner LE Thinkers Dec 2019

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Nancy Stanford Blair, PhD, knew she wanted to make a positive difference in people’s lives from a very early age. Once she discovered teaching as the route to touching the future, she never turned back. With a career that spans four decades creating learning opportunities at the primary, secondary, college and professional levels, Nancy has always promoted the singular and collective influence of people to transform themselves and the circumstances around them. Specifically, Nancy has created multiple local, state, national and international programs that have successfully developed inspirational, transformational leaders. She is currently Professor Emerita of Doctoral Leadership Studies at Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a consultant in leadership formation and sustainability, and a proud grandmother of seven future leaders. She has co-authored four books: Connecting Leadership to the Brain, Leading with the Brain in Mind, Mindful Leadership and Leading Coherently: Reflections from Leaders around the World (SAGE). She has earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and her PhD from the University of Illinois. Nancy brings her message to life through creating the unbridled capacity in others to masterfully and fully serve their corner of the world.

Mark L. Gesner, PhD, was exposed to transformational leadership early in life at large family gatherings in Brooklyn, New York, where his grandmother and great aunts inspired a sense of strength and belonging among all who entered. He sought to emulate their positive influence with his colleagues and students, and learned how to be especially impactful by traveling the world where he gained a deep appreciation for diverse perspectives and finding wisdom in unexpected places. These underpinnings informed Mark’s career of creating innovative programs, supporting entrepreneurs, growing organizations and businesses, building partnerships, and developing mission-driven leaders. He has designed programs and led courses about innovation, organizational development, cross-cultural management, leadership and community engagement. He currently serves as Executive Director of the Hub for Innovation and Community Engaged Learning at Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Prior to working as a faculty member and administrator in higher education, Mark was a leader for Hostelling International USA, an organization promoting cross-cultural understanding through affordable travel. He holds an undergraduate degree from the State University of New York at Albany, and graduate degrees from Harvard University and Cardinal Stritch University. Mark brings his message to life by being an engaged local and global citizen who supports others in realizing their individual and collective aspirations and to discover home wherever they roam.

Published by SAGE: https://in.sagepub.com/en-in/sas/your-life-is-your-message/book271730

When Mahatma Gandhi was asked by a reporter to sum up his life’s work, he responded simply, “My life is my message.”  We all send a message with our thoughts, words and deeds, but is it the message we intend?  Are we purposeful in putting forth our better self, our elevated version of the person we want to be? We invite you to explore and clarify your message to align it with the legacy that you want to leave behind.

Based on over 100 interviews with leaders from around the world who found their way to mission-driven lives, we discovered a path to determine our lives’ meaning and the influence we all hope to achieve. From CEOs of Starbucks and Southwest Airlines who developed their leadership messages early in life, to community catalysts in Kenya and India whose sense of purpose propelled them to enhance the lives of those in poverty, we learned compelling lessons for all those seeking fulfillment and positive transformation for the self, others, and the systems in which they live and work.

If you are an emerging or accomplished leader of an organization, a business, or within your community and are interested in finding the authentic and impactful leader within, read on.  Some might argue that now, more than ever before in the history of human existence, we need leaders like you who are self-aware, committed to a set of central core values, and are intent on aligning their life’s work to the improvement of their corner of the world. Whether you educate today’s children for a challenging tomorrow, run a successful corporation that seeks a return on investment on multiple levels, provide healthcare for burgeoning public human mental and physical needs, or are committed to a non-profit and its mission — we need YOU to be the best you can be….the most authentic you….the most impassioned you….the most coherent you, who knows your message and shows it throughout your life’s work.

The Ascending Spiral of Transformation:

Think of this journey as an upward spiral that begins in your childhood with rudimentary questions about who you are, why you are here, what you want and how you want to be.

Figure One: The Ascending Spiral of Transformation

At the bottom of this spiral are your early musings about the weighty questions — asked and answered from a child’s point of view based on your family, culture, religion and schooling. As you mature, you have the opportunity to ask these questions again and again, becoming more tightly coiled in your understanding of yourself and where you are headed. As a current leader, it’s always good to pause and update your responses to see if you have indeed found alignment in the answers, or if not, determine how to get back on track.

Questions for Transformational Leaders . . . Including You

Are you ready to find your message and realize the vision to which you aspire? One way of getting inspired for the journey forward is to get to know some of the leaders we interviewed and see how they responded to our queries about their leadership, and build upon their lessons learned by asking yourself the very same questions of yourself.

Who Are You?

Who are you? Not your role or gender, or who you are in relationship to others. Rather, who are you at your core? What are the central values that motivate your decision making every day?

One of our interviewees, for example, explained how she focused on her values regarding equity and human decency.  Retired Ambassador Brenda Schoonover, a lifelong career diplomat for the United States State Department, Chief of Mission for Belgium and Ambassador to Togo, described her childhood growing up in segregated America. From being one of the first African Americans to integrate a high school in rural Maryland, to joining the first Peace Corp Mission to Philippines, she formed a solid set of core values that included respect for differences, fair and just treatment for all and appreciation for diversity.

Who, reader, are you?

Why Are You Here?

Why are you here? This is not meant as a vague existential question, but more as a clarifier of your life’s purpose and mission.

One of our interviewees responded to this question by focusing on how she served the needs of others.  Colleen Barrett rose from an executive secretary to the President of Southwest Airlines to become the company president herself. Her purpose, as she described it, was to provide excellent care for her employees so that they in turn felt fulfilled as they lived out the mission to “Fly Southwest, the most service centered airline in the industry”. As a result of her clear focus on purpose, her airline was the only one who didn’t face bankruptcy in the turbulent 90’s because the employees became shareholders with a full stake in supporting the company.

Why, reader, are you here?

What Do You Hope to Accomplish?

What do you want to accomplish with your life? This is not the money you will amass, but rather, the difference you will make.

Another of the leaders interviewed answered this question by highlighting his goal of giving back to his roots. Kiren, was a dedicated servant leader that we met at the Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad. As a successful engineer in Chicago, his purpose was to give back to his native country, India. Eventually, he discovered a clear goal-to educate the children of the slums. As a result, he was able to build an educational system that developed from a handful of kids on the street corner near the Ashram to full support of 9000 children.

Reader, what do you hope to accomplish?

How Will You Get There?

How will you realize you mission and vision? This is not a question about a laundry list of actions you plan to take, but rather, how will you form an overall approach to leadership that is aligned with your values and purpose?

Jamie Elder, a social entrepreneur who grew up in poverty, explained his “How” by considering his legacy and the path that would yield the result he envisitoned. He has a keen sense of how his family and mentors formed him, and readily articulates that he wants “to be remembered for being an active and valuable contributor to the final integration of Black Americans into the American society through economic prosperity and ownership. I want to be remembered for being a pioneer in the field social entrepreneurship and innovation. Most importantly, I want to be remembered as someone who didn’t waste my life living selfishly for myself, but sacrificing and compromising when necessary for the better of others.”

Reader, how will you accomplish your mission?


Did you find a consistent line of meaning from the first question to last? Is it clear to you how your values relate to your purpose and how your purpose drives your ultimate goal? Do you believe your leadership actions are in concert with all the above? If not, where do you see the breakdowns?

Breakdowns occur when we are feeling disconnected from ourselves and our life’s purpose, when we are feeling untrue to our core values, and when we are dissatisfied with the outcomes we seek or we lack confidence in our actions. The following questions may help you discover any breakdowns you are currently experiencing.

1. Disconnected?
If the breakdown is between your who and your why, then more time is needed to think about
your deepest core values and what gives your life meaning and purpose. You’ll know the feeling
if you feel disconnected from the work you are currently doing.
Do you have an unsettled feeling about living a life of meaning?
Are you unsure about what’s most important to you?

2. Needing Clarity?
If the breakdown is between your why and your what, then more time is needed to become clearer
about the outcome you desire and how it will indeed help you fulfill your purpose. You’ll know the
feeling if you have already started to achieve some outcomes but the results aren’t really making
the difference you initially sought.
Is your goal clear enough so that you will know when you achieve it?
Is the goal truly aligned with your purpose and values?

3. Trouble Sleeping?
If the breakdown is between your what and how, then more time is needed to reflect on your
leadership behavior patterns. You’ll know the feeling if you have trouble sleeping at night because
you don’t like the decisions you made or the way you behaved during the day.
When times get tough, do you forget to revisit your core values to drive your decisions?
Do you feel confused about what is the right decision to make and action to take?

Breakdowns are common in the role of leadership. It’s a tough job with many others counting on you. All the more reason for you to invest the time and energy necessary for a deeper dive into your own transformation, one that emanates from internal clarity and powerful external coherence.

Figure Two: Leading from the Inside Out

Forging Ahead:

We encourage you to forge ahead and live a life of “more” that suits your own sense of coherence, strengthens your ability to lead, and empowers you to positively transform yourself and your organization.  Discovering this place of clarity feels like home. It is not about finding a destination or end product, but rather a process and path for which only you have the directions.  It is a place where your life is your message.

© Nancy Stanford Blair, Ph.D. and Mark L. Gesner, Ph.D.