A Healthy Ambition: Leadership with Illness

Elly Aylwin-Foster avatar

by Elly Aylwin-Foster |

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In my journey to make sense of the world of work while having a life-limiting illness, I have often wondered, “What does it look like to be a leader with CF?”

To help answer that question, I spoke to Rob Bates, a creative director from London. He works four days a week at FutureGov, a digital and design consultancy for public services. Rob is 28 and, as you might expect, has CF.

Rob Bates, Creative Director at FutureGov. (Courtesy of Rob Bates).

A healthy ambition for leadership

Rob has worked as a designer since graduating from University of the Arts, London, in 2011. Over time, it has taken its toll. “I had built up an unhealthy drive, an addiction to working,” he says. “And I was doing it to prove a point to others, not necessarily myself. I had totally separated health at work, with the rest of my life. But health doesn’t only happen at home.”

The company Rob used to work for was acquired recently by FutureGov. This turned out to be a catalyst in the way he talked about CF and health in general.

After taking some time off for his health, he decided to do things differently. “I realized I had to be more open, so that I could actually continue working and be better at my job.”

At my last job, I pursued an approach of radical transparency, purposely talking about my CF more than ever before. It’s hard to get that balance right, though; I often had worries over how much was too much. Rob agrees: “The company went from a team of 25, to almost 80. I went from knowing everyone, to having to co-lead a design team of 40+ people and I faced the question of what to say to people about my CF.”

Health doesn’t only happen at home

As part of the company’s transition, Rob attended leadership coaching along with the other directors. For him, much of the training focused on health, a process he describes as highly therapeutic.

“I wanted tools, things to help me broach the conversation, without having to talk about CF all the time,” Rob says. “Leadership coaching helped me create those. I made a health manual to share with close colleagues and people I managed, to explain the ways in which my condition affected me, what to expect if I was in hospital or not well, amongst other things. It allowed the conversation to be practical, not emotional, as others without a health condition sometimes expect these subjects to be.”

He adds, “I also started writing Weeknotes, a series on Medium, to publicly journal my thoughts and experiences about work, health, and leadership. I’ve had some really inspiring conversations off the back of it, which has made me think sharing things transparently was the right thing to do.”

As a man, he has seen how opening up about health in a professional context has changed how co-workers see him, often for the better. “People, often other guys, frequently talk to me about their own physical or mental health. I don’t think those conversations would have happened, if I hadn’t been so open about my own situation.”

Becoming more open about his health has also helped Rob start thinking and preparing for the future now.

“I do think about [it], and I realize that I may need to compromise at some stage,” he says. “Whether that’s finding a new model of work for myself, changing my hours or something else. But for now, it’s important to me to do my job in a way that’s honest — and to earn respect for the work I’m doing. Neither I, nor those around me, can ask for more.”

To stay up to date with my writing and contribute to my book on life with chronic illness, visit professionalsickgirl.com.


Note: Cystic Fibrosis News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Cystic Fibrosis News Today, or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to cystic fibrosis.


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