Will’s Lesson For Leaders

[I’m writing this to get it out, because I have to. I do hope that Will’s story adds value to you, as it does daily to me.]

Without a doubt, February is the hardest month for my wife and I.

It is also the month in which servant leadership became more than a regurgitated definition.

Sure, I have been studying, growing, and practicing as a leader for nearly 20 years. But this was the first time that my growth wasn’t selfish…and it clicked.

In early 2016 my wife and I fell in love with Will; a cantankerous, strong-willed, seven year-old boy whose mom had been unable to care for him at birth. Will was born with a lot of issues, from a 3 chambered heart to backwards organs. You can probably understand that most people didn’t expect him live long…but he fought.

He was soon moved to an amazing hospital in Bethany, Oklahoma, where he fought, grew, and fell in love with Sesame Street for the first six and a half years of his life. Elmo was his favorite. That’s when we were introduced in to his story, and he in to ours.

That’s when the course of our lives changed forever.

We went through our medical training, made tons of visits to start building a relationship…we were ready to bring home our future son and live happily ever after.

Sharp left.

Our DHS worker called my wife on a Sunday morning in June of 2016 while we sat in church. She kept calling and texting. My wife stepped out to call back. Several minutes later, she came back in…broken and scared, tears running down her cheeks.

“He’s in the hospital. They don’t think he’s going to make it.”

What followed was the longest two hour drive I’ve ever experienced. Not knowing what to think or say, we sat in silent prayer. In our hearts Will had already become our son. He had met, and loved our other boys…why?

It hurt.

We walked in to the hospital, stepped in to the elevator, and after a long ride up, walked to his room…there he was…lying on his bed…yelling at the TV. He beat death again. He fought. That’s what he knew how to do.

What I noticed, was we were the only people there sitting with him. He had spent a lifetime of going in and out of hospitals alone. He fought, so often, in solitude.

Why is this important to the story? It’s when I promised him that he would never be in a hospital room alone again. It’s when I realized that he wouldn’t live “happily ever after”. It’s when my lesson in true servant leadership began.

Will moved home.

I learned how to tube feed, read oxygen, and many other medical things that seemed beyond me. I changed his mickey button, bathed him, changed him, and played and sang to him. I prayed over him every night. He had my heart…and I served him.

It gave me more joy than most other experiences in life.

Don’t get me wrong. He was a fighter. He was independent. He was a punk. It wasn’t a fairy tale. It was a hand-crafted and epic journey.

In the cold of January, having had several growth spurts over a short period of time, Will got sick. We spent about a week and a half in ER’s and hospital beds. My wife and I took turns staying in his room overnight. At first, he would wake up and frantically look around. When he saw us…he would relax. After a few days, he would sleep facing us…and when he woke up he would simply smile.

He believed that we were keepers of our promise. He would never be alone again.

In February Will got worse. We ended up being transferred to a hospital about two hours away from home, because it was where his specialists were. I switched with my wife, and I refused to leave him. He was moved to PICU and we fought for him as his strength ran out.

On February 15, 2017 at about 9:00am, over an iPhone FaceTime chat…my wife at the court house and me at the hospital…Will officially became our son.

My wife relieved me for the night, as I had barely slept in a week.

I woke up the next morning in a nearby hotel and called her at around 5:00am. She said he was fighting and seemed strong. I smiled, took a shower, and went back over to the hospital.

I walked in to the PICU at 7:30am.

Will took his last breath at around 7:36am on February 16, 2017.

We celebrated his life on February 25, 2017…two years ago today.

I miss my son.

You may read this story wondering what Will’s lesson for leaders is. I don’t blame you.

Will’s lesson is the heart and reality of servant leadership. When I served him, it became about his good, whereas every other leadership lesson I had learned up to that point had been for my own good. It made me smarter, faster, stronger, and more equipped to lead people.

Will taught me that if you ever want to lead people, you have to become the greatest servant.

Vision is great and necessary…but we MUST serve the people we lead to bring that vision to life…and along the way…we should be helping them bring their visions to life…because life is short and uncertain.

Leadership is selfless and humble.

Leaders care deeply for those who follow them.

We must become who we desire our people to become.

Identity determines behavior.

I hope that Will’s story and the impact he had on my life will encourage you to examine the moments that define your identity. I hope they inspire you to look in the mirror.

Grace and Peace,
Brad O’Hara

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