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The Globe and Mail

How my marriage prepared me for shared leadership

Reeta Roy is president and CEO of The MasterCard Foundation. Ms. Roy and The Princess Margaret Cancer Centre are working together to raise awareness of stomach cancer and funds for research to advance treatment for this disease. Go to ReetaRoy.ca to learn more about Ms. Roy's journey.

Years ago, I was told, "Marriage prepares you for shared leadership." I did not grasp the profundity of this wisdom. Now, I do.

Like marriage, the leadership journey is akin to an expedition – one that traverses relationships, passions, thoughts, ideas, adventures, disappointments and triumphs.

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Fresh out of college, I met Jim Muldoon at a seminar in New York. That encounter was the start of a 30-year romance and partnership. Our connection was immediate. Eight weeks after we met, we moved in together into a tiny apartment in Brooklyn. In less than a year, we were married. Three weeks after our wedding, I moved to Boston and began graduate school while Jim continued to live and work in New York. So began the narrative of our peripatetic partnership.

Early on, we were immersed in building our careers. Jim was a scholar and author in international affairs and I was a junior executive in the global health industry. When my company offered me a promotion, and a role to build the business in China, Jim didn't hesitate. He resigned from his job and we relocated to Shanghai. He became a visiting scholar at a think tank and co-edited a book on multilateral diplomacy with colleagues around the world.

As job opportunities came along, we relocated multiple times, including a move from Chicago to Toronto nine years ago when I joined The MasterCard Foundation. By then, Jim had authored several articles and books in global governance and multilateral diplomacy. In Toronto, he joined the boards of two remarkable charities, giving his time to peace-building and youth mental health, as well as creating a community of friends.

My new leadership role was accompanied by a steep learning curve. Jim was my truth-teller and kept me grounded. When I was too serious, he was irreverent. When I had doubts, he encouraged and challenged me. Our relationship was a place for listening and honest conversations. He believed in my vision for the Foundation.

The ground shifted when we learned of Jim's diagnosis of late-stage stomach cancer in 2014. I became his caregiver and advocate. Time was limited and we filled it with living. While he was strong, we enjoyed the people we loved, travelling to Ireland to see family and later to Africa to see the Foundation's work he had supported through me. As his health changed, we did simpler things, watching movies or reading to each other.

At the outset, we decided to share his illness with our families, friends and colleagues. Transparency allowed others to love us, and love arrived in abundance and in multiple forms. Warm meals. Cozy socks. Car rides to the hospital. Humour. I also came to know my colleagues and those with whom we collaborated in a much deeper way. They shared their personal stories. These were the gifts we received.

As we approached the end of his life, Jim and I trekked into new terrain. This was the daunting part of the journey filled with fear, anger, grief and unanswered existential questions. Throughout his illness, Jim received excellent, compassionate medical care at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre.

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After he died, I honoured Jim's wishes to be an organ donor and know this act was life-giving for someone. His death is profound, a loss I could not imagine, but must make peace with. I am grateful for the life we shared, for a love that was unconditional, and a freedom to discover our purpose in the world. I am grateful for our families and for friends who became family along the way.

Today, that advice about marriage and leadership resonates with me. Too often, we seek to balance competing demands by compartmentalizing our lives into tidy personal and professional segments. Yet we inhabit multiple spheres and our lives are more often messy than orderly. Balance is better measured not by time allocated on a calendar, but by experiences over a lifetime. Like marriage, leadership is about living, empathizing, learning and giving of ourselves.

Executives, educators and human resources experts contribute to the ongoing Leadership Lab series. For more articles, go to tgam.ca/careers.

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