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  • Writer's pictureChristina Stiverson

finding vulnerability and courage in grief

The Art of Connected Leadership
Newsletter by Brant Menswar

I wrote this story about my own lesson in vulnerability and am honored to be featured in a LinkedIn publication called Burn With Purpose by Brant Menswar. He is a keynote speaker, best selling author, and he helps organizations build stronger culture, teams & leaders. I became a huge fan after meeting him at a conference and reading his book, Black Sheep.

Here is his post from Apr 8th, 2024.

Happy Monday Friends. I am so excited to bring to you our next Firestarter article! As most of you know, I lost my oldest son, Theo, to a combination of cancer and Covid in February of 2021. Dealing with grief is different for everyone. It has been a long road for me. I met Christina Stiverson at an event for Cannonball Kids'​ cancer Foundation several years ago. She is a decorated veteran and grief coach who is a true inspiration. She is also relentless in the best possible way in her care for others. She has consistently challenged me in my grief journey to see things differently. I am a stubborn old mule that would prefer to donkey kick than to share my "feelings." But her constant and caring approach has allowed me to move forward...even if I am kicking along the way. Below is her story and how being a connected leader requires vulnerability.


Brant, thank you for the tremendous honor of sharing my story about how I became a connected leader through vulnerability and courage. I would not be who I am today if I had not attended the volunteer pediatric cancer conference where we met and I witnessed your teachings. Your magnetic positive energy inspired me during the toughest part of my grief journey. My Black Sheep values led me through the conclusion of my military career and continue to drive my everyday fulfillment in life.


With my sincerest gratitude, I share this story.


As a retired US Air Force veteran, I take pride in being an empathetic, compassionate, and connected leader, but I had to earn this description. One of my superpowers has always been caring for people’s well-being so they can accomplish the mission. However, being open with my own struggles was something I learned the hard way towards the tail end of my career. I had studied Brene` Brown and knew the theory of vulnerability, but I didn’t fully understand how to execute it… till I found myself in the depths of my own despair.


A few months after my 3-year-old daughter died of cancer, I accepted a command job in the military at a new location. I brought in one family photo, proudly displayed it on my desk, and got down to business. Thinking about others with a vital mission was a welcomed distraction from the numbness of my grief at the time. Most of the people I was leading did not know my daughter had recently passed away.


In the years prior, I had lost family members and several friends in the service, but my daughter’s death hit home like a weight I had not known before. I felt so alone, and I didn’t share my story with anyone at work out of fear of appearing frail and overly emotional.


Grief is not a weakness; it’s a testament to the amount of love present in the relationship with the deceased. Grief is the most common human experience. We all go through it. Yet, most people don’t ever talk about it. Most people don’t know how.


I didn’t.


People would walk into my office and comment on my photo… ‘What a beautiful family you have’. I would just say thank you, and graciously ask them about their loved ones. In hindsight, I believe I missed a critical moment of connection. Extroverts would share despite my brief and impersonal words of gratitude, but many others were closed off because my life appeared ‘picture perfect’. Meanwhile, I was unraveling at the seams.


Fostering connection, value, and trust is something I continue to strive for with all teams that I manage. In this case, it took me about six months and an undeniable loneliness in my heart to gain the courage I needed to open up. When I decided to tell the folks around me what I was going through, I was greeted with unconditional acceptance and an outpouring of support that I didn’t even know I needed. As leaders I believe we get conditioned to feeling alone at the top, but it doesn’t mean it’s healthy, and grief added another layer of isolation. We are all just human and I think sometimes we need to remind ourselves of that fact.


I realized I needed to lead with vulnerability to receive it in return. I needed to give people permission to share their struggles by sharing mine. My fellow service members needed to know they were not alone. This took a type of bravery I was unfamiliar with. I needed to step up.


The next day after I had shared my story with my team, a mother came in to talk with me about her current challenges with infertility and miscarriages. I felt like this was a catalyst for some of the most authentic connections I have ever had with my folks… a piece I never knew I was missing.


Having the courage to be vulnerable in my darkest moments made me a more connected leader, and I am eternally grateful.


Today I’m a compassionate, unguarded leader who uses gratitude and resiliency tools to drive entire teams forward. I have learned to talk about grief openly and encourage others to do the same. I give people permission to share their struggles in a safe space. I foster trust, mutual respect, self-reflection, personal growth, and authenticity.


As an example, I begin meetings with everyone sharing their latest win and we celebrate the good. When we start in this elevated state of gratitude, the team knows I have confidence in them, and we can attack almost any challenge together. We also welcome discussion on current struggles to help people feel less alone. This became essential when leading a team during COVID, which brought about several unique mental health and wellness challenges.


Final thoughts…


My 6-year-old daughter taught me that ‘sharing is caring’, and I believe that to be true in leadership, as well as life. Vulnerability is a two-way street. You must share your own struggles to let your team know you care about theirs. It takes immense courage, but I think you’ll find you will be a more connected leader if you do.




About the Author:

Christina Stiverson is a certified grief coach, retired US Air Force officer, fitness professional, and President of Foundation for Addie’s Research. As a 22-year military veteran Christina had the opportunity to lead teams in the areas of human resources, medical administration, domestic emergency response operations, logistics, and leadership course instruction.


Christina became passionate about rare pediatric cancer research and helping other mothers through grief after her 3-year-old daughter passed away in 2016. Her transformational story recently captured the hearts of millions when she was featured on Tony Robbins' Time to Rise Summit. Amidst her volunteer work and coaching business, Christina finds immense joy in her life as a wife and mother to her three beautiful girls.


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