Montana State University

Mountains and Minds

Do hard times create good leaders? October 15, 2013 by Deidre Combs • Published 10/15/13

This semester MSU kicked off the Year of Engaged Leadership, a kaleidoscope of activities designed to give the tools of leadership to all MSU students. In this essay, Deidre Combs, an author, consultant and leadership instructor, writes about how each of us can be called to lead.

When I met Jenny McCune, she was re-learning how to walk. The prior summer, the 47-year-old former Gallatin Valley Bike Club president turned road racer was out for a training ride when she miscalculated a corner and crashed into a ravine. Initially, Jenny was left with no movement below her shoulders. Doctors said she would recover because her spinal cord was bruised, not severed, but they couldn’t say by how much or whether she would walk again. She was fitted with a power chair and had to be fed.

Yet, after a year of intensive physical therapy with an undeterred strong will, Jenny was able to relearn how to feed herself, use her cell phone, eventually walk and even ride a three-wheeled trike. Jenny once told me through the recovery process that, “You have to get really comfortable with the risk of failing.”

Yet, while still working on walking without assistance in that first year, Jenny decided to enroll in graduate school at Montana State University. Her goal? To become a mental health counselor.

To me, Jenny is a leader. She does not run a major company, serve as mayor or head a department…well, at least not yet. She is simply someone who wants to create positive change and make the world a bit better. As John Quincy Adams once said, “If your actions
inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” I recognize that this is a broad definition of leadership and that everyone who is reading this essay could be called a leader. That doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.

Throughout our lives we can all be called to leadership. Others may inspire us to step forward and work to improve the greater good. We might be impressed with Jonas Salk’s work to find the polio vaccine and dive into medical research. Rosa Park’s courageous activism may call us to lead in civil rights or we may have a great teacher who motivates us to enter the education field.

Or, we may be called to leadership through hardship. Difficulties can expose us to desperate needs of which we were previously unaware.

A young religious studies university student in Israel in 1984, Jerry White was hiking across a field with friends when he stepped on a land mine and lost his lower leg. Although he describes a comfortable post-trauma life with an eventual wife and four children, Jerry explains in his book, Getting Up When Life Knocks You Down, that he fully recovered when he met a young girl from Cambodia with one leg and crutches who said, “You are one of us.” When he accepted that he was a part of a global community injured by land mines, Jerry began looking for ways to give back and share what he had learned. Co-founding the Landmine Survivors Network and leading a worldwide ban on land mines, Jerry worked tirelessly over the next 20 years to help victims to become survivors and won a Nobel Peace Prize in the process.

Around the world, great myths and legends describe an underworld where it is dark, confusing, and demons or the dead reside. In some tales, the story’s heroine or hero suddenly drops into this strange place, as with the Greek myth where the young maiden Persephone is skipping through wild flowers, and the ground underneath dissolves. She is taken to the God Hades below. Brave protagonists in other tales, like Hercules or Inanna, the Summerian Queen of Heaven, choose to descend into the mysterious underworld to test their power. Regardless of how you get there, this is a very hard place to escape.

Globally, we have long used the metaphor of the underworld to describe tough times. When we receive a bad diagnosis, divorce papers or a pink slip, we too can descend into an obscure and a confusing alternative reality. We may be going through the motions in the daily grind of work, groceries and taxes, but it’s as though part of us is not present. When we are struggling, we also often meet our own inner demons like impatience, rage or vanity. These experiences can provide such loss that it can feel like a “little death” as the Buddhist tradition defines them. And, no matter if we are innocent victims of bad circumstances like Persephone, or it is our choices, like Inanna or Hercules, that transported us into darkness, difficult struggles can mire us below in emotional darkness for weeks, years or even a lifetime.

"I hope that each difficult circumstance that we encounter can also bring us to a deepened sense of purpose and more fully into engaged leadership."
—Deidre Combs

Searching myths that include the underworld for clues on how to transcend tough times, I noticed that our heroes are often asked to provide some sort of payment to be released from the depths and return to the land of the living. The protagonists are required to pay a boatman, spend a portion of time each year in the depths, or provide another to take their place below. The characters are typically expected to first give before they are allowed to return home.

Jerry White discovered that once a land mine survivor had completed the Landmine Survivors Network’s program, the new survivor had to then give back to other victims or the community to fully recover. Network research revealed that resilient survivors made meaning out of the circumstances and had a desire to be altruistic. Volunteering as a final recovery component thus became a core principle upon which Jerry built Landmine Survivors Network.

Engaged leadership after hardship is a way to pay the mythological boatman. We can bring insight from the depths of the Underworld to others and plant ourselves more firmly in the land of the living by giving back what we have learned. We may give through our careers like Jerry or Jenny McCune, or we can also make others’ lives better in other ways. I feel like I get to open secret safe deposit boxes and revel in treasure when I offer the give-back-to-come-back concept in Thriving Through Tough Times workshops, and I receive participant examples of what they have achieved.

For example, a young teacher, a middle child of six, lost a beloved mother several years ago. The family sunk into a deep depression. To come back, the children created a tradition that on their mom’s birthday each year, they would all do random acts of kindness. They paid for another family’s dinner or the toll of a car behind them. With each act, they left notes saying that their gift was in honor of their mother.

Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote in When Bad Things Happen to Good People, how we may not ever understand the reason for why we have been struck by tragedy, but we always have the power to make whatever happens meaningful or use it to help at this time. What have you gathered from a rough experience that others may not know? Might you be able to deeply listen with compassion to another who is living through a divorce or cancer treatment and ease one person’s pain? Perhaps you have valuable advice from your own hard-won wisdom. Where can we each pay the boatman and lead well?

Now six years after her accident, Jenny McCune has graduated from Montana State with a master’s degree in counseling and should be licensed by this fall. Jenny can now be found at Community Health Partners, a high quality medical facility in Bozeman that provides health care regardless of ability to pay. Jenny works with clients with different mental health disorders and also runs several chronic pain/chronic condition management groups.

“Being disabled and running a group helps instill hope for my clients,” Jenny said. “Many of them are discouraged and are afraid that they will be unable to work again or enjoy their lives. I’m an example to them by running the group, and I learn as much from them as they learn from me.” Jenny says that falls still happen and it isn’t always easy, but that her life is rich and fulfilling. I appreciate her and Jerry White’s modeling literally how to get up from great hardship and learn to walk once again. They remind us that in our personal tragedies, we can each find fertile opportunity to help others in ways unavailable prior to our loss. I hope that each difficult circumstance that we encounter can also bring us to a deepened sense of purpose and more fully into engaged leadership. â– 

Deidre Combs, who serves as an assistant teaching professor in MSU’s Leadership Fellows Certificate Program, is a management consultant, mediator and the author of three books, including her most recent Thriving Through Tough Times. Since 2007, Combs has taught leadership and conflict resolution techniques to U.S. State Department-selected visiting fellows from throughout the Americas, Asia, Africa and the Middle East.


What makes a leader?

Most of us know leadership when we see it in action, but how is leadership defined? Mountains and Minds asked several leaders from the MSU community to describe the most important characteristics of leadership. Here is what they said:

Carmen McSpadden
How do you create positive change in yourself and in your community? How do you work effectively with others, establish a common purpose and cultivate positive change? At MSU, our leadership instruction strengthens people skills, cultural awareness, ethical acuity, decision-making acumen, self-reflection and personal growth to effectively serve our students in their own evolving social and professional environments, both while at MSU and long after graduation.

Carmen McSpadden, director of MSU's Leadership Institute, the MSU Leadership Fellows Program, and a noted teacher and a respected scholar of leadership studies
Michael Spencer
The two ingredients (of leadership) that ring truest for me at the moment are a combination of courage, audacity, really, for doing something different, combined with an ability to draw people around you into your cause and helping those people to become deeper, more valuable versions of themselves through the work that you do together for a common purpose.

Michael Spencer launched Studio Re, Design and Development, Inc. while still a student at MSU. Now the architecture graduate promotes sustainable housing in Kenya, Montana and elsewhere.
Lana Lake
To me, it is essential that a leader is humble and willing to serve first and lead second. Servant leadership is something I strive for because I believe that biblically we have been called to serve with compassion and without alternative motive of fame or glory.

Lana Lake, senior from Frenchtown, Cadet Wing Commander, Air Force ROTC, Young Republicans National Committee-woman, Truman Scholarship finalist, Septemviri member and recipient of the William Randolph Lovelace Memorial Award
Jill Davis
Today, our “digital native” millennials are re-imagining the top-down, hierarchal model of leadership to a “shared leadership” approach demonstrating the effectiveness of this new thinking in the workplace, as well as with social media and political campaigns. This “collective” slant to leadership is optimizing their political and social impact both locally and globally.

Jill Davis, award-winning adjunct English professor, is recognized for incorporating community service into her curriculum. Her classes have launched the rebirth of the MSU Iris Garden and are now chronicling the stories of Bozeman's senior citizens.
Julian Collins
The most important part of leadership is listening to those around you, which helps to accomplish the goals and missions set forth in the most efficient way possible. Using the knowledge and strengths of those whom you are leading will enable their growth, as well as, help to create a better community.

Julian Collins, director of the MSU College of Engineering Designing Our Community and former program coordinator for American Indian Research Opportunities
Jason McEndoo
Leadership is about influence-nothing more, nothing less. Leaders are agents of change that add value to those around them and make a positive impact in their organization. Good leaders inspire their followers to have confidence in them. But great leaders inspire their followers to have confidence in themselves.

Jason McEndoo is in his 11th season as MSU's offensive line coach. The 2011 American Football Coaches Association FCS Assistant Coach of the Year has five MSU championship rings, which is more than anyone in MSU history. This year he is working on earning a sixth.

To learn more about MSU’s Year of Engaged Leadership and the calendar of activities and events celebrating leadership throughout this academic year, go to: