3 Leadership Lessons I Learned Through Tragedy

This is a guest post by John Tiller, inspirational speaker and writer. He travels with his family to churches, conferences, and other events sharing their remarkable survival story. Connect with John via his blog, Facebook, or Twitter. If you want to guest post on this blog, check out the guidelines here.

On January 9th, 2003, my life was going according to the plan that I had envisioned. I was thankful for many things. At the top of the list was my healthy three-year-old, Eli. I had no idea that everything could change so quickly.

On that day, our precious toddler pulled a little red Playskool chair across his playroom under an open window. He then climbed upon the chair, hoisted himself over the window sill, and pushed out the protective screen.

Just moments later my wife went searching for him, noticed the empty room and the missing screen, looked out the window and witnessed our only child laying lifeless on the asphalt driveway thirteen-feet below.

Eli had suffered a severe head trauma and was med-flighted to the nearest university hospital. For the next three weeks, no matter how hard I pressed, doctors could not tell me if he would survive.

He did survive, but our lives would never be the same. Here are three leadership lessons that I’ve learned through this life-altering event:

  1. Determine your values before a crisis hits. In crisis, you act on instinct. You default to what you truly believe. John Maxwell makes a case in his book, Today Matters, that we really only make a handful of true decisions in life.

    For example, we might make a decision at some point in our lives to manage our money well, serve our family, live healthy, or live out our faith. In our daily choices, thereafter, we simply manage those decisions that we have already made.

    Crisis creates defining moments because it reveals the decisions we have already made. Upon arriving in the emergency room on the day of the accident, I found my wife huddled in the corner of a small room crying uncontrollably. She explained what happened and it was clear that our son might die.

    I looked her in the eyes and I said, “No matter what happens, we will NOT let this come between us.” She agreed. We didn’t make a decision that day. We were simply affirming a decision that had already been made.

    Eighty percent of marriages fail after the serious injury or death of a child. Today our marriage is stronger than ever, despite our tragedy. I’m convinced that’s because our decision to make our marriage succeed had already been made before the crisis hit.

  2. Work like it depends on you and pray like it depends on God. Mark Batterson introduced me to this phrase in his recent New York Times best seller, The Circle Maker.

    When our son was hurt, we worked and we prayed. We did everything humanly possible to make our son well. We invested tens of thousands of dollars into uninsured therapy equipment.

    We received training to administer an intensive home-based therapy program. For three years, eighty percent of our waking hours were spent doing therapeutic treatment. We worked like it depended on us.

    We also prayed consistently, like it depended on God, because we needed supernatural help.

  3. Be willing to burn your old vision and embrace a new one. Despite years of prayers and the best treatment possible, Eli’s brain injury has left him with significant symptoms. Now twelve-years-old, he walks with a cane, the entire left side of his body is weak, he has a severe stutter, and his sight and memory are seriously impaired.

    One of the hardest things that we had to do was to acknowledge, several years after the accident, that it was time to live life with disability. It had become a reality that we could not change.

    Instead of continuing to try to fix what we could not fix, or denying that this new reality existed, we had to develop and embrace a new vision for our child: A vision to make a positive impact on the world, despite his challenges.

    Eli has pushed through his challenges and he has lived into our new vision. He plays Miracle League baseball and participates in one-mile running races. He may not finish first, but he always finishes!

    He now sings, speaks, and races to raise money for organizations that help kids with special needs, such as the Miracle League and Children’s Hospital. He has become a voice that advocates for other kids, some of whom cannot speak for themselves.

This was not my original plan. Some days I still dream about my old vision. But that’s gone. It’s time to embrace our new realities and experience the blessings that come with a new vision.

Question: What have you learned from difficult circumstances in your life and/or business? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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  • Rosey


  • Al Fekete

    Some years ago we have lost our bussiness,worth one million dollars (Australian ). Our homes (2).
    Our for children had to change school several times, and I have saffered lots of bad health .We have tried everything to stay together as a family .And we did .
    We believed that things are happening for reason ,and this is only one of the lessons we have to go throu life ,and stay faithful to our Maker,our God.
    As a couple we had lots of challenges to overcome and our kids have not being spared.
    Comments people woul make is lake “Manny couple would not survived what you did,they would separate ”
    Maybe so, but we are still married and enjoying our family – children and grandchildren .
    Amongst all our Lord is the one to be grateful to, and we love him to the End.

    • http://www.jmlalonde.com Joe Lalonde

       Al, sounds like you and your family have been through a lot. I’m glad to hear you and your wife made the decision to stay together through thick and thin and are making it. Congratulations on holding true to that commitment.

  • http://www.fieldofdebt.com/ Jen McDonough

    What an incredibly inspirational story…thank you for sharing!!! My prayers go out to your family that you will continue to motivate, inspire and give hope to others. 

    While our family story is not near as life altering, we had an extremely dark time in our lives when our 7 year old son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. We too worked like it all depended on us and we prayed as it depended on God. Within a month of him being diagnosed, I would go through 300+ medical research studies. The closest one we found that he qualified for was in Denver (we live in MN). It was a two year study with 16 visits (48 days total). We were devastated not only emotionally devastated from this life long chronic condition, but found ourselves reeling in debt – so much so that we couldn’t afford the first plane ticket out for his treatments (see our story at http://www.fieldofdebt.com – not trying to advertise, but to give you the full story if you are interested). 

    Long story short our dark, awful time in life has been turned around and is counted as a blessing. We not only paid cash for over $30,000+ worth of medical related expenses in 3 years, finished up the full 2 year medical study, but we also have paid off over $146,000 worth of debt in exactly 3 years!

    I am gearing up my role as a motivational storyteller and freedom debt elimination coach to help people who find themselves reeling from emotional and financial devastation to see that  there is hope. We love to motivate and inspire others who are in similar shoes we once were. We are writing our 2nd book (I am not a writer, but thanks to Dan Miller and the 48days.net group, I am a author) that is on our finance journey. I so much want people to see that ordinary people CAN do extraordinary things with faith, perseverance, and a plan to take action (and to take action).

    John, please pass on my admiration to your son and wife. You all are incredibly strong, courageous people.
    Live Beyond Awesome.

    • http://TillerFamily.org/ John Tiller

      Jen, thanks for the kind words and for sharing your story.  Please let us know when your book comes out!

  • Kurt Swann

    I used to work in law enforcement and I saw Lesson # 1 (Determine Your Values Before A Crisis Hits) play out a few times.  Some financial/accounting employees of companies we investigated were told to do things that crossed the line into unethical/illegal areas.  One or two employees quit or complained but most went along and did what they were told.  I got the impression that they weren’t necessarily “bad” people but they hadn’t really seriously thought about their own values about right and wrong.  So when a questionable situation arose it was too late to develop the strength to push back.  

    Makes me think of wearing a seat belt when driving a car.  The vast majority of the time you’ll never need it.  But if you’re not wearing it and you’re about to crash into another car, it’s too late to buckle up.  

    • http://TillerFamily.org/ John Tiller

      Those are two EXCELLENT illustrations of lesson #1!

  • Pam Costa

    Michael, your blog is one of a very few blogs that I consider valuable. Thank you for your honest, open sharing with us.  God Bless.

    • Pam Costa

       Thank you John for this post.  It makes me take stock of what is important – God Bless you and your family.

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  • Markbriscoe

    I can relate to your story, for I lost 3 kids myself. it does put things in perspective for sure. Thanks, Mark…

  • Cmnancymom

    I could not agree more! When my husband was diagnosed with a malignant glioblastoma (brain tumor)  in 2005,   I realized immediately that this was where the rubber met the road, that now I would know whether I believed what I said I believed or not. My husband had led me to Christ before we were married in 1972 and for 33 years I had said I believed a certain set of things. Now I would find out, because if I believed what I said I would act in one way and if not, I would act in a different way.

    If I had had to discover in that moment what I believed, I might have reacted differently, based on fear and earthly desires. Because I had already made the decision to trust Christ with my life, I hope I reacted as a strong Christian. Yes, the circumstances were hard and were not what I would have chosen for our lives. But, because of the decision I had already made and that my husband had already made, we chose to live his last 20 months on earth pointing others to God and enjoying the life and time we had together.

    We had jointly made another decision when we were dating: Divorce was not an option. Did we have a perfect marriage? Nope, not a chance. Did we ever talk about divorce? Nope, not a chance. Because of the previous decision not to consider divorce, we knew we had to find other solutions and we worked hard to stay together.

    I loved this post and believe strongly in the principles it teaches :)

    • http://TillerFamily.org/ John Tiller

      Thanks for sharing those great examples!

  • http://www.breathelivemove.org/ Daniel Maldonado

    Thank you so much for sharing your experience, it is powerful. May the Lord bless you and your family.

  • Eagle777warsaw

    I am committed to live life and live my faith regardless of unplanned events.  If God loves me enough to grant His own Son’s suffering and death for my salvation, I can trust Him with my life and family, to always bring about the best end result for all eternity.

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  • http://uma-maheswaran.blogspot.com/ Uma Maheswaran S

    Thanks John for the powerful story. It touched my heart. It’s true that we may not be able to execute Plan A in every circumstances in our life. We need to go by Plan B which we migh not have planned.

    It is truly painful to go through such tragedies in our life. We are often confounded with “WHY?” when we go through such circumstances. I think it takes courage and endurance to face such inconveniences in life.

  • Raymond

    Incredible story and testimony for an entire family.  Finding a new vision and transferring from the old to the new is great advice.  Thanks for sharing your life John….and we wish the best for your family.

    • http://TillerFamily.org/ John Tiller

      Thank you, Raymond!

  • http://www.facebook.com/paulorear Paul O’Rear

    My daughter Ashley died of recurring brain tumors at age 14, a battle that had begun when she was only 9. The courage and grace with which she faced her battle, and the unwavering simple faith that exuded from her life every day, inspired thousands of people to face their own challenges and struggles with faith and courage. I prayed constantly for God to take away Ashley’s pain and suffering, to heal her and allow her to return to a normal healthy childhood. I learned the difficult lesson that sometimes God can accomplish more through our weaknesses, disabilities, infirmities and sufferings than He can through our strengths, abilities, good health and easy living. Life doesn’t always make sense when viewed from an earthly perspective. I am convinced that Ashley now understands God’s reasons for her suffering and untimely death, and I look forward to seeing things from her heavenly perspective some day. Until then …

    • http://TillerFamily.org/ John Tiller

      Paul, I’m so sorry for your loss.  I can’t possibly understand it.  However, I think your understanding of pain and suffering on earth is spot on.  I’m convinced, based on Jesus’ words, that there are eternal benefits to earthly (e.g. temporary) pain.   We can’t name those benefits until we get to heaven, but that will be a great day when it comes into focus.  

       Meanwhile, thanks for being a great example of hope in the midst of earthly pain!

  • Kathy Harmon

    After losing my job and being unemployed for the first time in 40 years, I had to adopt the slogan:  “When life hand you lemons, you make lemonade!”  I had preached that to my children for years, and then had an opportunity to live it out.  Not easy to make a dramatic change of plans YOU had for the future – but with God – all things are possible!  Thanks!

    • http://TillerFamily.org/ John Tiller

      Now when you “preach” that message to someone who needs to hear it, you’ll be able to help them even more based on this experience.  I think that’s what life before heaven is all about – helping others make it.

  • http://henryfiallo.wordpress.com/ Enrique Fiallo

    John, I am speechless and feel about 1 foot tall. Interesting how all these big issues I had been lamenting about became so insignificant after reading your post and visiting your web site. Blessings to you and your wife, and Eli. You all set an example for us to follow. Great leadership lessons!

    Enrique Fiallo

    • http://TillerFamily.org/ John Tiller

      Thanks for the nice words, Enrique!

      As I witness Eli living joyfully everyday, despite his challenges, it gives me perspective, too.  I don’t get as upset about the things that used to seem like “big” problems in daily life.  He has taught me to treasure each day.  

  • http://snapshots-bertad.blogspot.com/ Berta Dickerson

    After 21 years as a quad, my husband and I believe the One who saved me carries me. Doctors offered my husband freedom. He remembered his wedding vows. We have good and bad days/weeks/months, even years, and look forward to going home. But we live every day God gives us here.

    • http://TillerFamily.org/ John Tiller

      Living life is absolutely key!  Eli is just now beginning to understand that his life is more difficult than others.  He doesn’t complain, though – he just keeps trying his best and enjoys HIS life.  Not some picture of painted by others.  He’s an example to me!

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  • jpwood3

    I have learned through 5 1/2 years of treatment and 7 years of life without my youngest daughter that there is no formula for healing. As M. Scott Peck said, most of us go through life doing everything that we possibly can to avoid pain. Unfortunately, pain is unavoidable and an essential element in spiritual growth and development. There are many who seek to convince us that the answers lie in the 5 steps listed in their book or presented in their presentation. Were it that easy! 

    • http://TillerFamily.org/ John Tiller

      I’m so sorry for your loss.

      ” Unfortunately, pain is unavoidable and an essential element in spiritual growth and development”.  That’s so true.  We just don’t believe it until we experience it ourselves.  

    • http://www.facebook.com/paulorear Paul O’Rear

       I’ve learned the same thing. There are so many misconceptions out there about “the grieving process”. Those misconceptions often lead to unrealistic expectations being placed upon those whose hearts are in complete turmoil because of loss. “It’s been six months. Don’t you think it’s time to get over it and get on with your life?” The most unfortunate part of all this is that it often makes the griever question his own mental state, or even the validity of his grief. I don’t believe that God intended for hearts broken by grief to ever heal completely, at least not in this life. That emptiness is a tribute to the importance of the one whose loss is grieved. Interestingly, that emptiness also keeps us longing for heaven, the only place where true healing will be found, because it is in heaven that we will finally be reunited! Until then …

  • Lgonsior

    I have learned that God is so gracious and protective to not let us know timeframes and ultimate outcomes even when we desperately want to know them. We have had a family situation that I considered to be temporary at the time that it began…….had I known then, 13 years ago, that it would still be an ongoing problem……but Blythe grace of God, I might have been unable to face it. What I found is that in the midst of my absolute brokenness…..God retrieved me and pulled me to Himself. I got involved in a very good Bible study after many years away from it. The daily homework lessons in His Word were just what I needed..those times were life changing as I spent time with Him….just the two of us ….working through hurt, feelings, situations…and being reminded of who He is, and what He can do. My plans are not His plans…I’ve had to give up what I thought our family would look like….and trust God to work in each of our lives. I may not live to see the end of His story…but it’s ok because there is a much bigger plan at stake. Thank you for sharing your story…..your openness is helpful to so many, I’m sure. What do we do when God’s plan looks different than ours? I think that we trust, we pray, we believe that His answer is the right one and that the end of the story is never really the end of the story…..and He continues to work within each of us. Blessings and peace and comfort to your family.

    • http://TillerFamily.org/ John Tiller

      Hard lessons, yet important ones.  Thanks for sharing your story!

  • jane claire bigelow-poindexter

    Let me just say that I agree with you – that in a crisis – what we really believe comes to the top.  I just finished a book called LOVE POURED OUT about the adoption of my only child, a beautiful daughter.  I share how God had to grab hold of me and change my parenting patterns and how, about walking through open-heart surgery with her – and then at age 16 walking with her through the diagnosis of cancer.  SHe had wanted to go to the mission field in Botswana that summer – but she turned her heart to being a missionary to the kids in the hospital.  SHe walked out in time to graduate with  her high school class and was chosen to sing for their baccalaureate service.  Then she was onto a Christian liberal arts college – out of state – ….for…two…months before the pain got to her.  I flew her home.  Her cancer was back and there was no more that could be done.  She went through some wild time as a teenager trying to face death – but she came back to what she knew – back to her God and her source of peace – wrote a song in her last hours called “Heart on FIre’  and while barely concious, made arrangements for me to have flowers for mother’s day because she didn’t know if she would still be here or not.  SHe was not, but her flowers came as a comfort to her mama.  So much more!  Your wife might love the book.  LOVE POURED OUT – available on Amazon.  jane claire bigelow-poindexter

    • http://TillerFamily.org/ John Tiller

      What a beautiful story!  I just put it on my book list.  Thanks for sharing!

  • jane claire bigelow-poindexter

    2nd thing to share…tragedies vary in size and form and depth but they all have a common answer in the Lord.

  • http://www.dental-management.net/ DentalAccountant

    Amazing story! We are learning in all circumstances  in our lives. Even in our problems we can learn from it, right? But what is more important is we learn to stand up we are full down.Glad you share this info!

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