What my cancer diagnosis taught me about thought leadership
“I’ve been doing this for a long time. That’s definitely cervical cancer. I can tell just by looking at it. We’re going to send you for a whole bunch of tests this week to work out exactly how bad it is.”
Those were the words my gynaecological oncologist said to me as he turned off the bright examination light.
He removed his gloves and gestured it was time to take my legs out of the stirrups.
“Clear your schedule. It’s going to be one hell of a ride.”
I was trembling. My mum, who was sitting beside me in his Sydney consulting rooms, was hanging off his every word.
He was right. It has been a hell of a ride.
I won’t lie to you.
Having cancer is as hard as you imagine.
Actually, scrap that.
It’s harder. Much harder.
But this article isn’t about the hard part. It’s not even about the unexpected joy I felt although I’ll write about that one day.
Instead, this is about the thought leadership lessons I took away from my interactions with numerous experts including my medical oncologist, radiation oncologist, gynaecological oncologist, dietician, physiotherapist, GP, personal trainer, Reiki master, oncology massage therapist, personal chef, acupuncturist, energy healer, and psychologist.
So what did I learn from these incredible humans who, together, took me from a Stage 3 Cervical Cancer diagnosis to a ‘complete metabolic response’?
Lesson 1: Meet your audience where they are. Not where you are.
Let’s return to my initial gynaecological oncologist appointment. What he did that day, and in every subsequent encounter, was meet me where I was.
He skipped the medical jargon and bravado. Instead, he said things like “I have three daughters. I’ll make sure you get the treatment I’d choose for them” and “You’re in the right office. I’m the guy generalist gynaecologists send patients to when they can’t help.”
It was reassuring. It was kind. It stopped my own mum from having a breakdown on what I’ll always refer to as THAT day.
Often, experts, specialists, and thought leaders forget that people are hearing about their ideas for the first time.
They forget that the people who listen to them don’t understand the nuances of their industries and areas of expertise, and more importantly, that they don’t need to.
To communicate with impact, create lasting change, and get people to part with their money for it, thought leaders need to turn up with words and ideas that make sense to the people hearing them.
As an expert, you’ll always know more than the people who need you. That’s the whole point. But if you don’t honour the gap they’ll end up feeling overwhelmed, switch off, and look for a solution elsewhere.
This is why we advise our clients at Thought Alchemists to undertake an audit of all their client-facing communication, intending to remove jargon, acronyms, and complex terminology and replace it with the simple and straightforward instead.
Lesson 2: You’re not for everyone. And that’s a good thing.
“Everyone should watch my talk, read my book or sign-up for my online programme.”
We hear this a lot. It’s not the way to become a well-paid and high-impact thought leader.
Let me explain.
I decided early on that I’d need to work with a psychologist if I was going to maintain a positive attitude throughout my cancer journey.
This was especially important since, thanks to COVID-19, I had to attend every appointment on my own. Nobody was allowed to sit by my side as my veins were injected, hold my hand as my skin burned, comfort me as I lost control of my bladder, or ask questions on my behalf when I was utterly exhausted.
Finding the right psychologist mattered. At the time, it felt like it was life or death. Literally.
So I asked for referrals. I did my own desktop research and made a few inquiries (a.k.a. the same process that people use when they are looking for any kind of product, service, speaker or expert).
And this was how I found Katharine, a psychologist with 20+ years of experience who works exclusively with women undergoing gynaecological cancer treatment in Sydney.
When I found her, nobody else compared. And because of that, I was happy to pay a premium for it. More than double per session compared to a generalist, in fact.
In our work at Thought Alchemists, we see time and time again that when thought leaders narrow their target audiences and position themselves accordingly, their income soars along with their impact.
So remember this: the specialist beats the generalist every time, especially for thought leaders wanting to change the world.
Lesson 3: Don’t make assumptions, even when you’re at the top of your game.
From the outside, I didn’t look like I had cancer.
The chemo drugs I was on (cisplatin) caused my hair to thin slightly, but it didn’t fall out. I maintained my appetite and was largely self-sufficient.
I remember standing in the queue waiting for my weekly blood tests. I’d been waiting for over 45 minutes, and I was next in line.
All of a sudden, a woman (Sarah according to her name tag) in partial scrubs appeared, took one look at me, and pushed in front with an air of authority. She explained to the blood collection team that she was on a break and needed to be seen next.
Sarah said it loud enough for me to hear. She need not have bothered. I have so much respect for the medical community that I would have happily waited another 45 minutes.
But what happened next caught us both off guard.
The blood collection nurse recognised me (I was a regular at this point) and, without hesitation, said to her, “You’re going to have to wait your turn. This patient is undergoing chemotherapy, and her blood test results require urgent processing.”
My scrubs-wearing friend looked confused. “It’s okay,” I said. “You can go first.”
“No, she can’t,” the blood collection nurse replied.
As Sarah turned to take her place at the back of the line, she looked at me and said, “I am so sorry. I should have realised.”
I think the lesson for this one is obvious, but I’ll make it anyway.
Judging someone’s worthiness based on their appearance is dangerous. Judging your own needs as superior to another’s is worse.
Even the most experienced, in-demand thought leaders can hamper their impact and income if they make assumptions and get too big for their boots.
Especially if you’re an expert and as you rise to the top of your own game.
We’ve seen collaboration opportunities overlooked, money left on the table, and business growth slow down because thought leaders glance at someone’s LinkedIn profile instead of exploring it. Because they hear an organisation’s name and stop listening. Or they assume that a request for help is nothing more than a waste of time because the person who is asking isn’t at their ‘level’.
Ask questions. Don’t make assumptions. Stay humble. It’s amazing what happens when you listen for opportunities and, intend at all times, to help people in their hour of need.
Thankfully, a few weeks ago, I was given the all-clear.
My hour of need is no longer.
It’s now time for me to return to work and give-back. And oh do I intend to give-back.
I’ve signed on to be a NSW Cancer Council Ambassador. I’ll step on to stages to share my personal story as well as educate audiences about cancer prevention and getting check-ups. I’ll talk about the importance of having the right insurances in place too something I learnt early in my career working in the financial services sector. It’s the least I can do to help others avoid what I’ve been through.
It doesn’t stop there.
My plan is to share many other lessons I’ve learned over the past six months, about life, business and what it means to be and remain a world-changing thought leader.
Because that’s what I live for.
Kathy Rhodes is the Chief Alchemist at Thought Alchemists.
Head hunted by ING. The face of The Cancer Council NSW. The strategist behind ANZ’s wealth division, HP, Mad Mex and more. Keynote speaker and judge of the B&T Awards…
There’s a reason leaders endlessly seek out Kathy Rhodes. As Chief Alchemist at Thought Alchemists, she brings out the gold in ideas and people, creating absurdly valuable strategies for people that matter.