Leadership Lessons from a Near-Fatal Car Accident


If you ever run into me on an occasion where I happen to be wearing business attire, you might notice that I’m donning suspenders instead of a belt.  Some people may think I’m wearing suspenders to look more corporate, or to embody a more sage “leadership adviser” persona – but the truth is, the suspenders are not my first choice. Several years ago, a life-changing event caused me to trade in my belts for suspenders. I have no complaints, however; I’m grateful for the suspenders. Not only do they provide much-needed assistance, they are also a constant reminder of the most harrowing experience of my life – an experience that affirmed for me two “uplifting” lessons about leadership.

It took a team of doctors 18 hours to put me back together again.

On the Friday afternoon of 4th of July weekend, 2009, I was on the New Jersey Turnpike returning to my home in Madison, NJ from another bustling day of activities as CEO of Campbell Soup Company in Camden, NJ.  My wife was away in Washington, D.C. helping our daughter move into her new apartment (she was about to start her first job after graduating from Northwestern University).  In the backseat of the car, I was dozing with my seatbelt on, at the end of a busy week. We were traveling between 70 and 80 miles per hour when my driver had a momentary lapse in concentration and drove into the back of a large truck that was stopped near an exit.   Fortunately, the driver’s air bag deployed and he escaped unharmed.  I was not so lucky. My torso was crushed by the seatbelt, breaking 10 ribs and severely damaging several internal organs.  It took a team of doctors 18 hours to, literally, put me back together again.

When I awoke in the ICU many hours later, confused, groggy, and with a mysterious pain throughout my chest and abdomen, the first thing I saw come into focus was the comforting sight of my wife by my side. She had rushed to the trauma center from D.C. in a panic at the thought of me waking up alone.  For better or worse, the surgery lasted so long that she easily made it in time.  Squeezing my hand, she said three words that I will never forget, “I’m right here.”

Turns out, she was right – I was profoundly grateful not to be alone when I awoke and had to begin coping with the reality of my situation.  Having her (and shortly thereafter, my daughter) by my side, supporting me, and helping me get through some very long and challenging days, made all the difference.  All she did was show up.  But the simple act of being present when I needed her most helped me immeasurably, and steeled me for the long road to recovery that lay ahead.

People simply need to hear from their leaders, “I’m right here.”

The experience supported a powerful observation I have had about leadership throughout my career. I have found that no matter how complicated the issue, or dire the situation, sometimes people simply need to hear from their leaders, “I’m right here”, “I’m with you”, “We’re in this together.”  Being present and available to others can energize them, renew their resolve, and give them the necessary encouragement to see things through. That was the first lesson that was affirmed for me as a result of my accident.

The second lesson reinforced something I had already learned 20 years earlier in my career, when I was fired from my job (you can read about that here) — but it was brought to life anew in my journey to recovery.  In the hospital, there was an army of nurses, doctors and support staff caring for me.  Attentively, they would check up on me, asking about my pain, diligently tending to my wellness, listening to my responses, tinkering and course-correcting my treatment along the way.  But I quickly learned that I could tell the most adept personnel apart from the others by one important differentiator.  Every time the most engaged caretakers would visit my room, they would always approach me with an unmistakable, sleeves rolled-up spirit of, “How can I help?”  The best helpers were fully present in their interactions with me — not nervous, hesitant, or withholding.  They were self-assured, compassionate, and generous with their time, attention, and knowledge.

Put simply, I came to believe that the best professionals were the kindest professionals.  Many people think that influence or leadership presence is earned by being imposing or austere, or by seeming busy, unavailable, or unapproachable.  In fact, many aspiring leaders worry that the vulnerability that accompanies kindness, or offers of help, will make them seem “weak.” But I observed the exact opposite.  What I saw during my recovery was that I could easily gauge the expertise level of the staff by how confidently and generously they offered their help.  That was a powerful lesson.

The best professionals were the kindest professionals.

What’s more, I found that whenever I was tended to by an “expert-level” helper, not only did I feel assured that I was in good hands and that everything was going to be okay, but I also felt uniquely motivated to stay the course.  In a situation where despair and hopelessness could easily have set in, their eagerness to be helpful gave me faith in the process and inspired me to match their spirit of contribution by giving my recovery the maximum effort possible. Their unwavering “How can I help?” attitude had a profound impact on my own energy levels.

I have seen time and again that the same is true in leadership.  The more we approach our work from a place of, “How can I help?” the more effective we become.  To achieve optimal outcomes, the people who are depending on our leadership must see how devoted we are to their success, that we have their backs, that we are willing and able to pitch in to reach shared goals.  It makes sense.  After all, why should they care if we don’t visibly pledge to do the same?  Why should they trust us if we’re not right there with them?  Yes, we must champion high standards of performance.  But we’ve also got to support those high standards with a caring attitude towards the people involved.  When we offer to help, we let people know that they’re in good hands, and we invigorate the overall effort by inspiring others to mirror our commitment with their own tireless work and devotion.  As I have seen firsthand in my over 40 years of leadership practice, study, and experience — this approach may seem obvious but it is truly the stuff of leadership that works in the 21st century. And, it is all too often overlooked.

Life is short.  It could all be over in an instant.

Which brings me back to the suspenders.  Because of the accident and the six surgeries it precipitated, I have a lengthy scar that runs up the lower half of my torso, reminding me of my near-fatal accident years ago.  And, the suspenders I have to wear to accommodate my “new” surgically modified body and to avoid the discomfort of aggravating my scar, are a constant but very welcome reminder of the importance of kindness.   They quite literally “lift up” my trousers – which, thankfully, always reminds me that everybody needs a little lift now and then.  Often, people are steeped in the same complex web of challenges that we are as leaders.  They get just as many e-mails, texts, and phone calls.  They have just as many kids, cousins, parents, spouses, religious groups, book clubs, to-do lists, vendors, colleagues, babysitters, and bank statements vying for their attention and depending on them to not drop the ball.  Sometimes, all they need is for their leaders to simply show up at their side when the chips are down – letting them know that as a leader, you are right there with them, and that you are willing to help them do whatever it takes to get the job done.  Approaching leadership with a “How can I help?” attitude really can, and does, make all the difference.

Life is short.  It could all be over in an instant.  At the end of the day, I can’t think of a better legacy to leave than one of high performance characterized by contribution and kindness.

Follow this post up with Doug’s companion piece, More Leadership Lessons from My Life-Threatening Car Crash