the ceo magazine, leadership qualities,
Jay Coughlan, CEO & MD, TruBalanced

Everybody in leadership has some adversity from time to time. The great leaders, the ones we remember and revere, are the ones who find a way to win and move forward with the least collateral damage. Leaders like that are unique, and they do unique things in their organizations, inspiring others to keep moving forward as well.

For as long as I can remember I longed to be one of those people. I decided at 20 that I would be a CEO by 40. It actually took me to age 41 to get there, but that’s not the real story here. The real story is about the detour I took along the way, and how I recovered from that to get my life back.

My dad and I liked to hunt, and we were returning from a trip in Minnesota. We’d had a great time as usual, and we decided to stop at a watering hole along the way home and have a few drinks. Then, we got back in the car and started home and disaster struck. I missed a turn, went over an embankment, and hit a train going 60 miles an hour. My father was killed instantly. Suddenly, I went from being on the fast track in my career and life to the lowest lows I had ever experienced. Devastated is the only word I can think of to describe it, but even that doesn’t do it justice.

After I began physically recovering, I had to figure out how to keep going and how to turn my worst mistake into some kind of triumph. And, there was another issue. I believed God had forgiven me for what I had done, but the state had not. I was facing prison time, and I couldn’t stop the self-talk that was telling me that I was going to lose everything. I had made a huge mistake, but I didn’t want to lose my family because of it. There had already been enough sadness for two lifetimes.

I determined that I wouldn’t let my worst moment define me. I began to work again, and that felt right. My company had held my position open for me while I recovered and did my 6 months in the slammer. I am eternally grateful to them for that.

I learned in all of this that adversity is a great teacher, perhaps the best. Here are the areas where I made five bold choices, and as I worked through them, the way forward got clearer: 

  • CLARITY- Keeping the important things important
  • ACCOUNTABILITY- Taking responsibility for your life journey
  • ADAPTABILITY- Make no mistake, this is the order: Personal change precedes practical change
  • CONFIDENCE- Keeping your thoughts in proper perspective. Don’t let your negative self-talk derail you.
  • BALANCE- Choosing the harder right over the easier wrong.

I remember one afternoon my company was having an event in New Orleans, and I had just started walking again. I was scheduled to speak at this event, and there were hundreds of my associates in the room. When I slowly and carefully made my way to the podium, they all stood in unison and gave me a heartfelt standing ovation that seemed to last for an hour. It was the highest high I had ever experienced professionally up to that point. I wanted to tell them that only the day before I had been sentenced to 6 months in prison and 10 years probation for what I had done. 

When I was released from prison, I went back to work, and eventually became the CEO and took the company public in one of the largest IPO’s in Minnesota history.

So, what kind of roller coaster are you on? What trouble looms in your world, and how do you plan to handle it? I’m here to tell you that you can overcome it, no matter how awful or how difficult it may seem to be. 

About the Author

Jay Coughlan is a keynote speaker, mentor to aspiring business leaders, and an inspiring leader who fosters a culture of high integrity and openness, having served as CEO of such industry leaders as Lawson Software and XRS Corporation. During his tenure as CEO of Lawson Software, the company completed a $200 million initial public offering (IPO), while growing revenue from $200 million to $430. His recent book, Five Bold Choices: Rise Above Your Circumstances and Redefine Your Life (Broadstreet, January 2017) is at once a testament to what can be done, and a road map for anyone who wants to make real change in their life.

[Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at]


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