I woke up early that first Sunday of May.


Bright and sunny, my plan was to go to church. Quiet reflection always energizes me, and I knew I’d be in a better mental place to study for my upcoming graduate school exams later that week from place of quiet reflection.


I was still in bed, when the phone rang sharply and startled me.


It was my Mom. Her voice was strained and shaky; my heart began to race. She knew I had a busy week ahead with the academic year coming to a close. “I needed to let you know that Marv (my brother-in-law) is in the hospital. Shawna (my sister) is with him. You don’t need to come home, but I wanted you to know.” 


What? Are you crazy?! I’ll be there as fast as I can!, I thought to myself.


The raw fear of uncertainty clutched in my throat, while questions and stories spun wildly inside my mind as I raced down the interstate.


I arrived at the hospital and was directed to the ICU. Marv had suffered a cerebral aneurysm that awakened him with a blinding headache earlier that promising spring morning. Frightened by the intensity of his pain, Shawna immediately called an ambulance. En route to the hospital, Marv lost consciousness … he never regained it.


When I arrived, he’d just come out of surgery to reduce the swelling in his brain. My sister sat by his side, as tubes and monitors, beeps and tears filled the room. Pacing, wringing hands, and hugging were the only actions to take. All we could do was wait; the doctor’s prognosis wasn’t promising.


A few days later, with Marv stabilized, I dashed back to Chicago to sit for my exams, grab fresh clothes, and make the return trek to the hospital.


Later that month, Shawna brought Marv home to a hospital bed set up in their living room. Friends and family showed up with casseroles, consolation, and concern. We took walks, watched movies into the wee hours, and sought to comfort each another over the ensuing weeks as Marv slipped away from us, the loss indescribable.


This experience with Marv and Shawna – that entire month of May – was a defining moment in my life. 


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I’d originally gone to grad school to hone my skills as a clinician. I planned to focus on addictions and workplace concerns. I took a sharp dogleg turn when the defining moment of Marv’s tragic death occurred.


I spent roughly the next twenty years working with trauma, teaching skills to cope with sudden or ongoing or unfurling moments of change to create space for others to explore their own defining moments.


Throughout this process, I’ve had to turn and face my fears, anger, and resentment, often begrudgingly, to learn to access the courage required to simply be with life’s twists and turns.


I’ve come to slowly appreciate and accept that life is constantly shifting.


The flow of life encompasses loss and change, even though we’re often caught off guard and surprised that events are not as we planned.


My family was painfully altered nearly 30 years ago, and we still feel the loss of Marv not being with us – to laugh, explore, and grow together.


As for my sister, Shawna, well, her story is her own. As you’d expect, she has grappled every day with her defining moment of Marv’s illness and death.



Defining Moments & Leadership


Not surprisingly, I’ve been thinking a lot about defining moments lately.


Daily, I hear versions of stories like my own – personal, life-changing – but what seems to be on the rise is a mounting collective sense of anxiety, even panic. The existential nature of what we’re confronted with today is immense.


We could attribute some of it to the lingering effects of COVID and its role as a defining moment in the workplace. And our personal life experiences are important to respect. Yet, there’s more to notice and feel, to turn and face, and address.


A defining moment is more than a simple moment. Rather that single moment is the spark – the exact moment you recall when the shift occurs – with unfolding and lingering experiences that prove to be pivotal, shifting whatever trajectory you were on, changing the world as you knew it.


As a leader, it’s essential to turn and face the ripple effects of defining moments – both individual and collective – within your organization or family or community.


A defining moment sets the course, shapes the story, and sears in the multitude of details of that moment – your thoughts, feelings, and beliefs.


Both confusion and clarity arise. The same is true for others within your organization.


Defining moments typically have at least a tinge of unsettlement in them, if not a lot of drama. We’re required to face our fears, uncertainty, and new possibilities as we grapple to make sense of life now – after a defining moment.


As leaders, we’re given an opportunity to shape the impacts of the larger defining moments in front of us.


My experience has shown that singling out priorities for action, whatever that may look like in our day-to-day lives, can focus our collective attention and move us into more sustainable action.


Leaders can turn defining moments into defining collective experiences that result in growth and positive outcomes and renewed trust.


With that in mind, I’ve been wondering what I’ll do, and what you’ll do, “with your one wild and precious life’ amid today’s complexities.


Tell me, how will you choose to address defining moments? 


ABOUT THE CREATOR OF The Leadership Pause 

I’m Dr. Chris Johnson, psychologist, executive coach and author of The Leadership Pause: Sharpen Your Attention, Deepen Your Presence and Navigate the Future available on Barnes & Noble, Bookshelf, and Amazon(Btw, the Kindle version is on sale now for $1.99 through June 30th, 2023 if you’d like to snag a copy).

I drew content from my book in crafting Calm the Chaos for Busy Professionals, an online course, and Are You Willing to Go First: Conversational Keys to Leadership Success, two of my popular course offers. I publish The Leadership Pause newsletter bi-weekly on LinkedIn. If you’re not already subscribed, click the Subscribe button to follow me too!

This month, in honor of the first year anniversary of my book, I’ll be hosting The Leadership Pause Reset, an online offer you can check out here: (23) LinkedIn – love to have you join!