How should leaders deal with serious illness?

Stephen Bubb, head of the sector chief executives body Acevo, tells how he dealt with the diagnosis and treatment of his prostate cancer

Stephen Bubb
Stephen Bubb

Prostate Cancer UK recently launched Men United, an awareness campaign about a cancer that affects around 40,000 men a year who are diagnosed. About 10,000 die of it.

Recently I was successfully treated for prostate cancer, after a year of anxiety and uncertainty. I went through 3 biopsies and many tests and consultations, all the while continuing with my full-on leadership role in our sector.

I am not alone in having had such a testing time while in a senior leadership position: so what lessons did I learn? I spoke at Acevo's recent AGM about leaders being resilient. As a chief executive you are a steward of your charity’s staff and mission. Those are bigger than you, and I was conscious that I needed to carry on leading and not be deflected from that principle. But it wasn’t easy.

For example, I had to decide whether to be up front with members and staff – and, in our sector, with others too. I decided I would not talk more widely about my cancer until I had gone through treatment. My board agreed a sabbatical  for me so that I could fully recuperate, but also do some work on my lifetime project of writing a book on the history of charity.

Only good friends and close colleagues knew what lay behind this, and I'm proud that few people noticed a diminution of energy, although there undoubtedly was one. One of the most difficult things was being the subject of nasty media attacks, while still recovering from treatment, following my robust defence of CEO pay.

There is also the question of the leader as optimist. One of our key roles is the charity cheerleader; the brave face; the happy one. A chief executive looking glum is a sure signal to staff there are problems! And what got me through was faith, friends and family and a strong determination that Acevo's work for our members would not suffer.

And finally there is the Leader as voice, speaking out and sometimes putting head above parapet to say what needs to be said. So last November, as part of Prostate Cancer UK's Movember campaign, I did finally speak out about my cancer and its treatment. Men are notoriously bad at recognising signals of ill health, let alone talking about it.

Many of my male chief executive members are in the age bracket above 50 where they need to watch out for symptoms and to discuss the pros and con of a prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test with their doctor. I feel if more of us who have had this cancer speak about it, in the same way brave women have spoken about breast cancer  it will help raise that kind of awareness. And that lovely wartime slogan, " Keep calm and carry on" is not a bad one for a charity leader…

Stephen Bubb is the chief executive of Acevo


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