Welcome to Leaders Rising, where we explore the journey of leaders who’ve risen from the ashes of adversity, examining the gifts born from their experiences, the challenges that have held them back, and the moves they’ve made to transcend hardship and openly face the ragged edges that still remain.
With dreams of being an astronaut, Lori Mercer was a STEM Girl from an early age. When her father brought a computer home from his job moonlighting at the local computer store Lori, as a self-motivated and academically gifted seven-year-old, taught herself to program. “He put a BASIC programming book in my hand and let me run.”
“Growing up in rural Ohio, with not a lot of money, my parents wanted the best for us.” Lori’s father, born in South Eastern Kentucky, worked his way through college to become a teacher.
While not every part of the story matches the upbringing, J.B. Vance’s bestselling book Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis is relatable. It portrays the Appalachian values of perseverance and tough love alongside the family and social dysfunctions that stem from the intergenerational poverty of some of the country’s most remote communities.
The strong family values of these Appalachian roots were a foundation for her upbringing. “The only view you have in rural Ohio is the view that I was given. I didn’t get to see much of the rest of the country or the world. Discipline, structure, chores, get good grades, and work hard. Do good things and good things will come to you.”
Rooted in these small town beginnings and driven by big aspirations Lori learned to thrive in survival mode. “Not survival mode to the extent that I was physically harmed or afraid to go home, but I was afraid emotionally in very different ways. I was afraid to displease my parents. I was afraid to displease teachers. I was afraid to displease my bosses. Then when I got deeper into the corporate world this fear of displeasing others locked me into a belief pattern, ‘You need to be better, you need to be better, you need to be better.’ This is a common pattern placed upon my generation as our parents simply wanted better for us and it was all within our reach in the 80’s and 90’s.”
While her father lived his entire life without flying in a plane, in the first decade of her career, Lori filled two passports building, selling, and deploying technology strategies to businesses around the globe.
“Looking back I can see I was achieving, doing the next right thing on the ladder to success, pleasing the next person, reaching the next goal. Yet I’d sit there in a boardroom in Barcelona or Taipei presenting to a bunch of people who speak a lot of different languages, and wonder, ‘Who let this little flannel shirt wearing girl from Ohio in here?’”
In the transition from college to the corporate world Lori began to suffer severe anxiety. “In college you’re measured by quarters and semesters. Then in my first job it felt like I was working forever, with no clear break and not a lot of vacation. It was all on me. Now I’ve got to make it, to provide and succeed.”
Right out of college, Lori got married, bought a house, and started a family. Navigating the premature birth of their son put a strain on the relationship and Lori and her husband divorced within a year. “At thirty weeks pregnant, I thought, ‘Oh they’re just going to fix this.’ Six hours later I was holding my son and realized, for the first time in my life, that I’m not in control.”
She eventually remarried, the second time to a firefighter. Lori birthed three more children as she continued her travels and career. “I loved the preciousness and intimacy of being a mother and at the same time I was like, ‘I really want my laptop. There’s important work there too.’”
Overtime Lori has learned to embrace this paradox, “I can both have feminist views and love motherhood. And I can both love my career and miss my children. I can both be grilling up a cheese sandwich and thinking about the China business strategy.”
I learned it’s not just about work.
This is the big lesson… it’s about feeling and relating and being.
In 2012 she started a blog, firefighterwife.com, which has grown into a community of over 100,000 followers. It was the basis for her book, Honor & Commitment: Standard Life Operating Guidelines for Firefighters and Their Families, and a national non-profit she founded, 247commitment.org.
In her blog Lori’s been direct about both the joys and struggles of being married to a first responder. “When I met my second husband, I was determined to not be a divorced woman twice. I ignored a lot of red flags and pushed through. I was falling into similar patterns proving that I am strong, that I can perform in this marriage, that I am worthy of this love.”
“Then one day I questioned, ‘How is a smart girl like me in such an emotionally damaging marriage?’”
“I outworked my job. I outworked my marriage. I outworked motherhood. And I learned it’s not just about work. This is the big lesson… it’s about feeling and relating and being. You can overwork things, setting aside the emotions that make you feel weak, and miss key signals.”
“When we think about trauma and tragedy we think about one horrific event. A rape, a beating, losing a partner in the line of duty. And I think actually there’s way more trauma and tragedy that happens little by little by little. We normalize unhealthy behaviors when we live them for so many years. Something has to jolt you out of that.”
Lori suddenly reached this point when she had so much on her plate she didn’t recognize herself. It took her dad’s short battle with cancer and passing to show her just how damaging these relationship patterns were. “I was in super hero mode, the executor of the estate, and caring for my mom. We were barely out of that and my daughter was diagnosed with anorexia and the destructive pattern in my marriage started again. It was in that moment that I decided I’m not repeating this trauma pattern anymore. She needs my full attention.”
Becoming aware of these layered patterns has helped Lori build the capabilities to notice and navigate them both in her personal life and as a leader. “As there is a slow fade in, there is a slow crawl out and a ton of work in between.”
Lori has worked to unravel these layers in multiple ways through counseling, massage therapy, float tanks, meditation, journaling, drawing, positive affirmations, breathing techniques and prayer. “Many of these were advanced treatments at the time, when you couldn’t just Google your problems. I look back and it’s by the grace of God, that I was led from one tool to the next and to the next.”
There is a mysterious side of things we can’t explain. This is the art of leadership and business strategy that we don’t look at enough in the corporate world.
Spirituality is central to Lori’s leadership. “Business is a structure that has rules, expectations, and even mathematical models that show how things are supposed to work and why. There is also a mysterious side of things we can’t explain. This is the art of leadership and business strategy that we don’t look at enough in the corporate world.”
As a strategic thinker, Lori has always had a prophetic edge, “I see things before people see them and it’s why I’m good at business. ‘This is going to happen. You need to be ready. We need to do this. Change that thinking. Prepare for what’s next!’”
“The darker, or triggered, side of me uses that in a harmful way. I will overwork, overwork, and overwork to make something happen. The lighter side, the higher self, is more in line with the Holy Spirit version of me. It will say ‘Lori, here’s what you can do. Here’s an action you can take. Just be with this, let that person be with this. This light is going to multiply. Here’s how things can develop.’“
“It’s that same survivor mode, but it’s in a raised level of awareness.”
Learning to be with her own emotions has made Lori into a more empathic leader. “I spent so many years fixing, and solving, and striving my way through that it empathetically pains me to see others suffering similar experiences. As a leader I want my team to thrive. I want them to come out of the pit and not be in a mode where they feel like they’re going to be eaten.”
Being relatable in a business climate that suggests it’s weak to show emotions is one of Lori’s gifts. “I’m the kind of leader that’s open to talking about the full picture of what’s going on and not ignoring the elephant in the room.”
From a young corporate age, Lori was given people management experience and learned to see potential in others and develop them. “I could very keenly tell if somebody wasn’t in the right seat on the bus. The best thing we can do for anybody’s careers is to get them into the right seat on the bus. Don’t make them the driver if they’re not a driver. Don’t put them in the back if they get car sick. Get everybody in the seat that works best for them so that we all can be aligned.”
Lori is definitely a driver and, as a leader, advocates for players, helps them find their career fit, gives them projects that will make their skills shine, and, as appropriate, primes them for promotion. An engineer by trade, she shines in helping people piece things together to be the best version of themselves.
This is exactly what Lori continues to do in her own business, LoriMercerCTO.com. Branded as a “Creative Technology Optimist” she leads a team of virtual professionals providing business strategy, marketing, technology and operations support to entrepreneurs. As a consultant and trainer for working moms seeking to launch a business, she offers both the practical nuts and bolts as well as the motivational, “Come on, girl, you’ve got this!” nudge. In 2017, she launched GoVirtualProfessional.com, focused on supporting women through juggling family, careers and entrepreneurship.
And she is still learning and growing.
As a corporate technology, marketing and strategy veteran Lori’s in her element when she’s problem solving, fixing complex issues, and overcoming challenges. “I could really get shit done. Whether there was a great opportunity or a threat on the business the response was, ‘Put Lori on it. She’ll get this done!’ I’d step in, perform, and get it done right.”
“What doesn’t feel good for me is to continue to fall into the trauma pattern, the survival mode, that gets overcommitted to clients and projects and sets aggressive goals. In some ways this feels so natural because I work best in that state. And, I can wear my team out. I can set the bar so high that it looks like we didn’t achieve when in reality we did phenomenal work.”
For Lori it’s been a humbling journey. “To be a better leader, you have to learn healthy patterns of the heart, mind and soul.” As she closes in on her fiftieth birthday, she is seeking greater ease… focusing on effective results-oriented work, finding the right people and flow in life, and encouraging her peers and community along the way.
You can learn more about Lori Mercer and her businesses LoriMercer.com.
HAVE A STORY TO TELL?
Know someone who’s risen from ashes of adversity to become an amazing leader – learning to leverage their gifts while continuing to soften up the rough edges?
Maybe it’s you?
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Originally published at https://www.trueformleadership.com on July 6, 2020