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Episode 1

Leading Through the Unknown with a Gracious and Strong Mindset

Gracious & Strong Podcast with Celia Swanson

The unknown can manifest itself in so many ways. So, for the very first episode of my new Gracious & Strong podcast, I’ve chosen to kick off with one of my favorite topics — The Gracious and Strong Mindset.

The following is a transcription of a podcast and may contain grammatical errors.

Celia Swanson: I’m Celia Swanson. And I want to welcome you to today’s gracious and strong podcast, where you can discover the authentic and resilient leader inside of you. 

When was the last time you came face to face with the unknown? The unknown could be a personal health crisis, a dying business strategy, or taking on a new role for which you feel naked and unprepared. Do you have an unknown in mind? 

My most recent brush with the unknown was in the last three weeks. I faced an unimaginable personal health crisis when I was exposed to COVID-19 and then tested positive for the virus. I had been diligent about being safe, wearing a mask, staying six feet from others, except with my COVID bubble, small group of friends. We gathered as a group of eight, sat down to enjoy a celebratory dinner inside a friend’s home, and we slowly let our guard down. The next day, one of the guests became ill. They got tested for the COVID virus the following day, and then had to call each one of us with the dreadful news. We had been exposed.

We were struck with disbelief putting on a great front that this was not going to get me, but doing the right thing to immediately isolate and quarantine over the next few days. One by one, we each started to experience various symptoms. We each went to get tested and eventually everyone tested positive within a week. The isolation, the uncertainty about what to do to manage the symptoms, the huge amount of misinformation, and just waiting to learn how our bodies would fight. The virus was all consuming. Two of the group got dangerously ill, while the rest of us had mild moderate symptoms, we all were experiencing the unknown, something we’d heard a lot about in the news and never really knew what we would do if it happened to us. But out of it all comes lessons, lessons of self advocacy, checking in with each other, for emotional support, sharing information and access to care that we just learned about the amount, empathy and caring was overflowing. The amount of knowledge sharing and grit was constant and the amount of advocacy and support from our extended networks and families melted away the isolation and loneliness of the journey. 

I am a seasoned senior executive who navigated a successful career at the Fortune One company, Walmart Inc. I am most notably known for being the first female executive vice-president at Walmart, Inc., breaking the glass ceiling for women to achieve their full potential. And I am an author of a book titled Gracious and Strong. I am often asked why I chose that title. The phrase was brought to my attention when one of my former Walmart colleagues said to me, Celia, I saw you lead through seven CEO leadership changes under the most scrutinizing circumstances. And throughout it all, you are nothing but gracious and strong. My first thought was, Hmm, I’m not sure grace is the first word I want to be known for as a business executive.

Why? Because that’s not a term you hear, or see demonstrated in the business world very often. In a work context, the perception of the word grace implies being too soft, too feminine. What I’ve found is that leading with grace truly is the secret sauce to being a great leader. And it does not take away from your strength as a leader, or mean that you cannot be assertive or respected. You can be all of these. And it is ultimately about how well you can handle unexpected left turns that aren’t evitable throughout your leadership journey. I define leading with grace is doing three things leading with the heart, leading with the mind, and leading with respect, leading with grace is when you capture the heart, mind, and respect of the individuals, you are privileged to lead. Well, Celia, you might ask, what does that actually look like? Leading with the heart means when you can ignite a sense of purpose within yourself and within others. Leading with the mind means when you can empower your best thinking through resilience and grit. Leading with respect means when you can advocate for yourself and your team while earning unwavering trust. So let’s unpack that just a bit more. 

Let’s start with leading with the heart. The way I described these leaders is they have the ability to have courage, care and show it, and inspire. How strong are you at leading with the heart? This requires being vulnerable and empathetic. It requires having the courage of your convictions standing up for your people and for yourself, it requires demonstrating that you care about others and you show it through acts of kindness and encouragement. It requires that you are open and welcome to the perspective of others and that you genuinely understand how decisions you make as a leader ultimately impact them. A personal story to illustrate leading with the heart comes during the time I led membership and marketing at Sam’s Club. Two leaders, my direct supervisor, the president of Sam’s Club and his boss, the vice chairman, chose to publicly challenge me and my team based upon performance and perception. I was being bullied for all to witness. I learned the importance of speaking up when I was under pressure and standing up for my values and beliefs. I learned to address in private being bullied by my boss while in public, I stood and defended my team as I took the bullets. What the world saw was me standing firmly in defense of myself and my team never succumbing to the bullying behavior being demonstrated. A short time later, both of those leaders left the company, and I continue to grow and lead at Walmart for 10 more years. 

Leading with the mind requires leaders to have the ability to look ahead, shift your focus, and fuel purpose. Maybe you are stronger that leading with a mind, this requires using knowledge to inform and empower those around you. It requires being able to look ahead and envision the possibilities. It requires you to have a strong sense of purpose and mission about your work, and you can feel that in others, the story I will share here was when Gizel Ruiz, then COO of Walmart US, asked me what was unique and differentiating about the talent development team at Walmart US. I answered her in a succinct and inspiring way. She then asked if she went to the members of that team, would she get that same answer? I thought about it and I responded with not today, but yes, tomorrow. You see it occurred to me that I had a vision, a passion about the work that the team was doing and the value they added to the organization. But I had not told them. I had not written it down in a way that was compelling and inspiring so that they could rise above the grips of feeling inadequate. The outcome was that my leadership team and myself wrote a compelling mission and vision statement for the department, posted it everywhere and talked about it constantly. We built comradery, their sense of purpose mattered, ownership and pride rose exponentially. Today that team plays a critical role in shaping the culture and the people-centered strategy for the company.

Well, now let’s move to leading with respect. Leading with respect requires leaders to have the ability to be present, defend dignity, and to add value. You may be a role model for leading with respect. This requires you to defend the dignity of others and advocate for yourself and your team. When challenged, even if it is unpopular, it requires you to show up and contribute more than as expected. It requires you to do more than add on to the ideas from someone else. It requires you to always be looking and finding new ways to excel. And, it requires you to show respect, always, even when the security guards, the cleaning crew or when no one else is looking. My story here starts with the fact that I was a workaholic—stayed late and often turned off the lights on my floor when leaving. The security team would stop by my office frequently to check in on me. When I finally left the building, they insisted on walking me to my car. Those late night conversations gave me a chance to get to know them, learn about their families and share my sincere appreciation. When it was announced that I would be leaving Sam’s Club. The team asked me to stop by their offices one day. They presented me with an engraved clock, which says in appreciation to Celia Swanson. They had pooled their personal money to buy this for me. I’m holding it in my hands right now. It is prominently displayed in my office as a most treasured memento. They wanted me to know they cared about me too. Which of these three are you best at? Which of these three do you need to work on—build the muscle for success? Please stop and take a minute to write yourself a note about which of the three you will practice diligently over the next week. 

I challenge you to differentiate yourself during this unprecedented time of uncertainty and turmoil. Become a gracious and strong leader of your own. If you want to learn more and get a copy of my Leading with Grace framework and practices, please visit the content hub at my website,, and sign up to receive a copy of the download. If you like what you’ve heard in today’s podcast, there is so much more to share. I want to invite you to subscribe and hone your leading with grace skills. Over the next several months, we will be tackling a variety of leadership topics, all built on the foundation of leading with grace. The benefit for you will be to discover the resilient leader inside you. You see, cultivating the heart, mind, and respect for the individual over time will empower, build confidence, boost loyalty, and create a powerful sense of me within your organization. If you like what you hear, and it’s made an impact on how you will lead, please let me know by leaving a review. I would love to hear your stories. Thank you.

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