5 Leadership Lessons:
Growing up Abused, My reflections

by Ed Cohen


We had just moved from Chicago to Miami and I had recently turned 10. It’s July 21, 1969. I was watching Neil Armstrong on our black & white TV as he stepped on the moon and said his historic words, “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” when my father interrupted.

“You’re so fat. Why are you so fat?” My father, drunk as usual yelled at me.

“I don’t know,” I replied softly.

“Well if you don’t know who does?” one of his favorite lines. “Answer me!”

“I don’t know,” I repeated.

“Then I’ll beat you til you do know.”

The first contact of his belt on my bare skin stings, but I hold back not crying or he will spank me more. That was the routine…if I cried too soon, he called me a baby and spanked me more, if I waited too long, he spanked me more because it didn’t hurt enough.

Leadership Lesson #1:

It’s okay to not know the answer. Sometimes we just don’t know or we don’t feel safe saying we know and that’s fine. No one should ever be punished for not knowing or not saying.

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My father was always drunk and could never keep a job.

He was not a happy drunk. He was angry, spewing hateful words and often we endured brutal beatings. One day, when I was around 12, he pinned my mother under him and called my sister and I into the room. “I am going to kill your mother,” he shouted.

We watched in silence not knowing what to say or do. He held her down and pressed the blade into her chest.“My father’s killing my mother and forcing me to watch,”screamed over and over in my head.

“Get me some bandages!” he ordered. He patched her wound, got off her, and left.

We helped her up and begged her to call the police. She refused, “No. That will make him even angrier when he comes back.” When he came back he kept us all locked in the house for the entire weekend, threatening each of us, until he finally calmed down.

On Monday, I returned to school. No one knew what had happened. Everyone thought we were a happy, normal family.

Leadership Lesson #2:

Never assume anything about anyone. When someone reacts to something and that reaction seems to be out of alignment, do not make assumptions. You have no idea what’s happening in their lives. You only know what you see. This is where E.Q. and empathy is necessary that is, if you truly want to be a strong people leader.

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Life with my father continued this way for another year.

My parents divorced when he ran off with his best friend’s wife. I only had to endure being around him for short periods if time. He was still unstable and unpredictable however I never let him lay a hand on me ever again. In 1975, during my senior year of high school, it all ended when he took his own life.

Leadership Lesson #3:

Be the calm in the storm, know that calmly leading through chaos and turbulence is achievable. When you’ve raised in a home where life was unpredictable you learn ways deal with the unknown and find ways to remain calm even during the most turbulent times. This served me well throughout my career.

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When my father left, my mother insisted we all seek therapy.

Leadership Lesson #4:

An Executive Coach can help you to identify your strengths and developmental areas to prepare you to lead through chaos and turbulent times. As leaders, we are expected to be “the calm in the storm” but who takes care of us. That’s where the value of having a coach cannot be underestimated.I am not implying that coaching is therapy or that is should replace what may be the need for it.In addition to the development you gain by working with your coach, he/she can also be a sounding board during turbulent times.

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Leadership Lesson #5:

Know when a relationship is too toxic to stay in it. We have all been in business relationships that just were not working out.  Maybe it was with a boss or someone reporting to you, or it could have been with a customer or supplier. Regardless ending a relationship is not easy to do. It is however, an important part of being a leader. Staying in a relationship that is not a healthy one has a negative effect on everyone. It’s important to recognize no matter how much hope you have that the next interaction will be better, a relationship that is broken (and you know when it is broken) cannot be fixed with hope.

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They say there’s a reason for everything that happens in life.

My lessons have helped me to be a better person and leader. I’m not sharing a window into my past so you will feel sad or sorry for me. It’s quite the opposite. My story is reflecting on the past to decipher realize the lessons that have helped me on my life and leadership journey. If others can learn from my trying times without having to have them then sharing my lessons is worth it.