Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Lean On: A Tribute to Susan Lewis

A lot of people are talking about Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. I've only read excerpts of it so far, but her words remind me of another extraordinary woman: my friend Susan Lewis.

Susan Lewis, friend and leader.
Photo courtesy of Tim Crowley
Susan passed away on Friday after a hard-fought battle with cancer. She was a principled and focused leader with high expectations for herself and everyone around her.

I met Susan five years ago when she came to work at Case Western Reserve University's College of Arts and Sciences as executive director of development and external relations. She had worked at the university years before and some of my colleagues knew her to be a take-charge, no-nonsense boss. 

When Susan returned to the university in her new role, some of us didn't know what to make of her. She was too cool and composed. She was direct and demanding. I regarded her warily. As we got to know each other, though, we developed a rich working relationship and a cherished friendship. We shared our personal and professional lives. We brainstormed ideas for projects, we shared parenting stories, we chatted over countless cups of coffee and tea. 

Susan offered valuable career advice and helped me navigate treacherous university politics. Her children were older than mine and she shared her wisdom and experience generously, especially the year my son's third-grade teacher seemingly had my cell phone number on speed dial. One thing I loved so much about Susan was that she was always willing to listen and always ready to help. 

As supervisors, we often discussed ideas about leadership. Both of us were committed to promoting the university's Women Staff Leadership Development Initiative. We wanted to build a robust community of women leaders. We wanted to nurture an environment that supported women in the workplace. 

I often leaned on Susan for support and advice. One afternoon at work, I received the devastating news that a friend had taken her own life. Overcome by shock and sadness, I felt unhinged. The world no longer made sense to me and I was lost. In the middle of a dean's cabinet meeting, I burst into tears. Afterward, I told Susan how embarrassed I was that my emotions overcame me so publicly. She comforted me, reminding me that we are human, that we have emotions. Sometimes we lose confidence in ourselves, but we gain it back. "Fake it 'til you feel it again," she said. 

On another day, Susan came into my office smiling shyly. She asked me to review two essays she had written for a graduate program application. I was flattered that she sought my input on something so personal and meaningful to her.

In one of her essays, Susan had written about her diagnosis of cancer in 2003, a life-changing event that suddenly derailed her successful career. Up until that point, she had defined herself by her professional accomplishments and career path. 

"I loved to do, to achieve, to solve, to be active," Susan wrote. "I had fallen victim to the mindset of valuing oneself as a reflection of what one does. The experience of cancer and cancer treatment opened my eyes to the endless possibilities of one’s career, and enabled me to construct [a] more balanced and satisfying personal and professional life. In the end, it was my cancer 'milestone', and the opportunity to step outside my 'professional' self that was truly the starting point on my journey to professional self-awareness."

Prior to reading her essay, Susan and I had not talked about her battle with cancer. I did notice the sun hats she wore even on cloudy days. Sometimes I overheard her chiding fair-skinned colleagues to cover their bare shoulders and arms and at least wear sunscreen. I had chalked it up to her motherly instincts, though, and not known she had fought skin cancer.

Suddenly, Susan's tough exterior made sense. She was a warrior. For 17 years, up until her original melanoma diagnosis, she had worked for the Boy Scouts of America and been surrounded by men in a traditional top-down organizational structure. The experience had steeled her and motivated her to focus on organizational leadership as a personal and professional mission. 

Susan wrote about her shift from focusing on her own goals to helping others achieve theirs:

Each day I interact with staff, faculty and alumni of CWRU and have come to admire them as individuals; have come to be inspired by them as contributing, engaged members of the greater community.  It is through these interactions that I have come to realize that I have a longing to learn and know something more – about myself and the world around me.  Further, I have a longing to make a positive impact on the world around me by providing leadership and direction for those, like myself, who are searching for something more.  

Susan was accepted into the program. 

She thrived in it and loved to share what she learned. She was eager to put her knowledge and skills to work. She mentored younger co-workers and encouraged them to challenge themselves and accept roles with more responsibility.

Two years ago, after I left the university and moved across the country, I kept in touch with Susan mainly through emails, phone calls and yes, Facebook. I learned that the cancer had returned. I made a few trips back to Cleveland and Susan always made time to see me. We'd catch up over lunch and then we would hug as if we wouldn't see each other again. 

Over the next several months, her email updates announced bad news. The cancer spread rapidly to her liver and lymph nodes. Last April, she wrote, "My cancer journey continues tomorrow and I ask that you keep me in your positive thoughts. I was recently diagnosed with not one, but two brain tumors – a result of malignant melanoma legions." 

In May, she reported happy news: "I am thrilled that I will be collecting my diploma for my Master of Science in Positive Organization Development and Change from the Weatherhead School of Management at CWRU this Sunday! My parents, Tim and the kids will be there for me at graduation. This MPOD program, and all that I have learned and experienced, has been a powerful force in my life...especially through relationships built with my classmates, and most timely with my life (health) adventures over the last 9 months. The focus on the positive, the appreciative lens, and the openness to embracing change, all played a significant role in how I, and my family, have chosen to live this journey. I am truly humbled that this opportunity appeared at the time I needed it the most."

Susan leaned in. In her fight against cancer, she endured pain, fatigue, treatment therapies and surgeries. In contrast to her first bout with cancer, when she fought the disease alone, this time, she shared her experiences at A Gathering Place, a support network of cancer patients. She worked full time as long as she could. At home, also, she charged ahead, cheering on her husband during his long-distance races and her daughter during her soccer games. Last year, she stood by her son as he earned his Eagle Scout rank and started his first year of college. This year, she guided her daughter in her senior year of high school.
Susan allowed others to lean on her, and when she needed it, she leaned on us. She showed us the importance of sharing yourself, your dreams, your strengths and your frailties and letting others do the same. 

She leaned and she led. And we loved her for it.


Marcia Camino, B.A., M.F.A., E-R.Y.T., R.C.Y.P. said...

Thank you for sharing these beautiful words about a beautiful person, Lisa. Susan is so missed.

Staci said...

Thank you so much for sharing, my heart is heavy, life is precious. We should follow in her footsteps, to have a healthy balance between family and work. Family first

Lisa Camp said...

Thank you for posting this....I was a member of her MPOD class and one of our colleagues just re-posted this for us all to read. Thank you again for sharing this beautiful post about Susan.

Lisa Chiu said...

Marcia, Staci and Lisa, thanks for your comments. I'm glad to hear this post was shared with Susan's MPOD class. She was an inspiration to so many of us.