Life Changing Situations

Oct 10, 2021

There is a flower that means a lot to me. The sunflower. Read its name. Sunflower. A flower to the  sun. “Tournesol” is the French name for sunflower and it literally means “turning to the sun”. In  reality, sunflowers are always turning their heads to where the sun is. I am not the first one  admiring and being taken away by the beauty of sunflowers. The famous impressionist artist  Vincent van Gogh made a whole collection of them. The fields of Provence in France are full of  sunflower blossoms. For me, the sunflower has grown to become an important symbol in my life.  My company symbol is a photo of a sunflower, picked from my garden. My wedding bouquet was  made out of three big sunflowers. 

However, life does not always give you a bouquet of sunflowers. In our life trajectory, it is more  often the painful and difficult phases that give us an opportunity for further development and  growth. 

“Mais non, non, non” the words from my French maths teacher hit me hard when I tried making  the calculations right. Due to the last maths test where I had only two points out of twenty with red  marked notes all over the test, he had now made me come up to the blackboard in front of the  class to show everyone how poor I was on these calculations. The class went silent. I was standing  there thinking “why does he want me to stand here in front of everyone, knowing that 

I can’t do this”? I can still remember the feeling of being set adrift. Alone. With no other help. A  “superior” teacher was using his power in a very negative way. It was now up to me. 

Somewhere inside me, I knew that this was a short adventure in my young life, having arrived just  a month before to this school in Ferney Voltaire, on the French/ Swiss border to Geneva. My  family had decided to take a break in life and we moved from the small Swedish city of Östersund  to France. Already a tall girl at 12, I was initially placed in the wrong class, which meant that this  class was two years ahead of me in maths. Additionally, I did not speak a word of French. The  challenge was evident. 

While standing in front of the class at the blackboard, the arrogant maths teacher continued to  harass me. Today, I don ́t really know from where I summoned my inner feeling of power, but  there in the classroom, I decided that his attitude should not hurt my inside. When he continuously  asked me to do the calculations on the blackboard and I tried to get them right as he continued to  shout “NO”, I soon understood that this didn’t get me anywhere. So eventually, my answer was “I  don’t know, but I am willing to learn.” Despite the pressing situation, I did not feel completely  devastated, instead, a feeling of courage and braveness was slipping through. Still today, I wonder  where my guts and strength came from because, in this vulnerable situation, I kept fairly calm. 

But I was in tears when I went home that afternoon and told my parents about the way I was  treated. The teacher’s behaviour violated the fundamental values of treating every human with  respect. 

The next day, my dad followed me to maths class and had a conversation with the teacher, who  bragged about his teaching methods. He told my dad that I was a very brave girl. Most girls cried  for him in similar situations, he explained. I did not cry, so obviously I was a very brave girl.

The family decision was simple or is easy better? My parents took me immediately from this  maths class. Luckily, I moved to a special maths class in a smaller group with a very nice teacher. 

Since the exposure of this challenging experience in a new cultural setting, I have been reflecting  upon what this experience meant to me, how it influenced me and how it has been driving my  purpose. I strongly believe that we are formed by the challenges life presents us, the choices we  make and the changes that occur as a result. These challenges, choices, and changes can be self driven or forced upon you. My parents decided to move to France, and as a consequence, I  received a challenging experience. 

The exploration of our life’s trajectory, high and low sections in life, is important to consider and  reflect upon. My first low point was this school experience in France. Today, I am very grateful for  the fact that I had this experience. It created clarity to what is important in life and was an  opportunity for inner growth at a young age. It helped drive my purpose with some important life  lessons. It taught me courage, the importance of standing up for the deep values of humanity, and  the rightness of treating people fairly. Meeting pupils from all over the world and being exposed to  different cultures in a new country taught me that we are not so different. We are all human  beings born free and equal in dignity and rights. How we behave forms our true leadership. 

Ugliness at work leads to strength 

After two years on my first job, I was helplessly staring at the office wall with tears in my eyes. I  felt drained with no capacity for moving forward. How did this happen? 

Upon graduating from Uppsala University with a Master’s degree in business, I was eager to work  in export sales. The reason for this was that I had written my final thesis on export trade between  Sweden and Japan. After a trip to Japan to discover the country, I landed my first job, being in  charge of the export sales for an entrepreneurial construction company in Stockholm. It was  recession time in Sweden in 1994, so I was glad that my dream to find an export-industry job with  broad duties and responsibilities had come true. 

I was just 25 and reported directly to the CEO. He was a good boss. I was in charge of selling  construction products with the software on diverse markets. I made several business trips to  Germany but also overseas to Hong Kong and Las Vegas. The only pain was that everyone else  apart from the office staff and myself were engineers. I was a young woman, in charge of sales to  dealers such as Caterpillar and Ingersoll. Rand. The customer side went well, but I felt I had to fight  for recognition within the company, showing that I could do the work despite being a young  woman and not a male engineer. The culture was not a perfect match but giving up was not an  option. With resilience, I wanted to continue to grow and learn. 

When the owner stepped down as CEO, they recruited a new CEO. A very negative down-spiraling  environment followed. The new CEO did not like me and did not think I could sell. Fortunately, he  did not speak German, so I still successfully nurtured relationships with our German-speaking  clients. But he saw me as a threat and used every situation to undermine me in subtle and  narcissistic ways. 

This was devastating. Despite solid hard work, my strengths of perseverance and stubbornness  could not help me here. Bit by bit, the belittling atmosphere and psychological terror broke me  down. I tried hard to communicate with the new boss as well as with the other engineers, but I had  to change my personality so much it made me insecure and unsure. I felt that I had to adapt my  communication and my behavior a lot, leading to not being myself. To be in a stressful,  detrimental environment surrounded by people who do not want your best is very painful. The  feeling of constantly fighting the dinosaurs almost crushed me.

Bouncing back 

How on earth could this happen to a strong young woman with solid values? This scares me still  today. But this is what happened. I wanted to leave, tried to apply for other jobs but found myself  far too weak, disconnected from my core values and my true self. I felt totally stuck. Who had I  become? Being a strong person in a situation without energy and power is self-detrimental. I told  myself, you are on your first job, just continue doing it as great as you can. I could not see the  damage it was causing to my health, to my self-worth and self-confidence. I just believed in trying  harder and harder, not giving up. How wrong I was. With the knowledge I have today, I would have  quit when I saw the first signs. But how much easier that phrase is said than done! 

I stopped doing many things that brought me joy and withdrew from social connections It was my  body that reacted first. I got the flu, I had back pain and I developed sinusitis. My mother  suggested we go for a weekend course in medical Qi Gong. It was a turning point. With roots in  Chinese medicine, philosophy, and martial arts, Qi Gong means life energy cultivation and is a  holistic system of coordinated body posture and movement with breathing and meditation. I  adopted this self-healing process into daily practice and it taught me the importance of always  taking good care of my body, mind, and spirit. It also spurred a deeper interest in alternative  medicine. 

Looking back, I am now grateful for having those tough-and-challenging experiences so early in  life. Though painful, I moved on with support and help from my loved ones. I took a break and  traveled through India, Nepal and the Philippines for three months, wiping my mental slate clean.  When I moved to another job at IT company Oracle, I brought with me the importance of being in  a supportive environment with shared values and vision. I knew to trust my feelings, and to quit, if  necessary. Being in an unhealthy, unproductive rut for too long eventually led me to great clarity  and sense of purpose in life. I was asking myself the questions: “What gives me meaning? What is  driving me?”. 

A sunflower seeking the sun 

I knew early in life that I wanted a big family. By 30 I was getting nervous and even ready to adopt  a child from China as a single mother. Then I met my husband at Oracle. We shared the vision of a  big family, and we are fortunate to have four wonderful children, three girls, and a boy. Having  four diverse personalities born within five and a half years is, of course, challenging but mainly an  immense sense of joy and purpose. For me, a life without children was never an option. Best  teachers ever! They keep me grounded, as firmly as the sunflower is rooted in the soil. 

Besides the children, when reflecting on the bigger picture and what gives me meaning, my  purpose is very simple. It is to contribute with joy, growth, and happiness to the world. Like a  sunflower always seeking the sun. With time, the sunflower has emerged to become my purpose  symbol. When doing self- reflection purpose work, the sunflower has followed me on my path in  many aspects, as mentioned before; as a wedding bouquet, company symbol, own crafted  sunflower painting in the office as well as planting sunflowers every year in my garden. 

When losing direction on the inner compass, I often turn to the sunflower. Where is the sun? How  can I look at a situation differently? 

The two mentioned low points on my life’s trajectory are experiences that formed and shaped my  purpose. My core values of love, curiosity, continuous learning, deep relationships, and  connectivity also were molded in my childhood and through my life experiences. They are there as  pre-requisite for my purpose. Feeding it. Freedom is a quality that is important to me. Freedom of  choice, freedom of speech and choosing the life I would like to lead.

True role models guiding me 

A true role model in my life has been my grandfather Stig, who passed away at 97. When the  question is posed: Who have been your heroes? he pops up as number one. He had this mindset of  curiosity and started art courses at the age of 80. His passion for life has influenced me a lot.  When he passed away, I brought my 5-year-old daughter to his death bed. Some people might  have opinions about bringing a child to a death bed, but for me, death has never been scary or  evil. We are all going to die. I would like to live a long and fruitful life and be dancing at 90, that’s  the vision. I can only live in the moment and cherish every opportunity. What then comes along  next bend, I do not know about. I believe that it is important to dare to see and speak about death  because it helps us stay true to ourselves and to what is important in life. 

For me, it helps to have the end in mind. Sometimes I ask myself “What I would do if I only had one  year left to live”? This is a really important question. I believe, we would live more courageously  and form authentic relationships if we had that perspective. Not to forget the joy in every moment.  I recall when my small son was totally mesmerized by a straw of grass. How it bowed for the wind  and back it went. The rich palette of greenness. Gratefulness and amazement of our living planet’s  wonders. 

In 2013, I encountered Oxford Leadership, another important “role model”, and did the Self Managing Leadership program. In the purpose section of the program during a reflective inquiry,  my answer to the following question stood out. “What is it that you always wanted to do, but never  had the chance… or never taken the chance to do? The top answer that emerged was to become  a professional teacher, working with young adults. 

When facilitating this deep self-reflection program with clients it is very important to do it on  yourself and also live by its principles. Every time I did the Self-Managing Leadership program, the  longing for studying to become a professional teacher emerged. I just had to realize this search  for more meaningfulness. I truly loved my work as a leadership consultant and executive coach,  and still do, but I longed for being part of something bigger and being part of the process of  learning and creating lasting relationships for a longer time. When I deliver shorter trainings or  workshops for executives, I am only partially on their journey of change and development. 

Therefore, I made a conscious choice to go back to university, studying pedagogy full-time for a  teaching diploma. It was a lot of pressure steering around daily life with three jobs as a student,  mother as well as running my leadership business. When your purpose is clear though,  perseverance and lightness follow. 

The wheel of life 

With my previous experience of not taking care of myself in pressing moments, I did survive with  support from my immediate family as well as thorough care of my well-being. 

A useful clarifying tool for me has been “The wheel of life”. I have also used it frequently with my  coaching clients. The eight areas of career, friends/family, physical environment (work or at  home), health, money, personal growth, fun/recreation, and partner/relationship represent a  balanced wheel. Firstly, I encourage clients to take a look at the eight areas and write down what  is working well in each area. We often forget what is working well, so this perspective is important.  Then it is time to do your rankings. The center of the hub of the wheel is viewed as 0 (totally  dissatisfied) and the outer edge as 10 (totally satisfied). Rank your level of satisfaction in each  area by putting a mark on each area. Draw lines to join your markings. The less balanced your  wheel is, the more wobbly or rocky your ride through life will run.

When I use this tool to assess myself and my wheel is too “rocky” and not moving smoothly at all,  something is needed to be taken care of. I view each area and set a goal or direction in the  “rockier” areas as well as appreciating what is working well in the “smoother” areas. This simple  exercise of the wheel of life makes a visual illustration of how you perceive your life at a given  point in time. For me, it is a resource for a happier and more satisfying life. When we are at ease  with ourselves and feeling happy, we are so much more open to giving to others. For example; if I  put a 5 out of 10 for health, maybe I would like to make sure that I find time each day for those  precious 15 minutes of meditation or find some new group training activities at the gym that I  enjoy. Maybe I need reflection time to view how my sleep/eating and exercise habits are doing  and then make changes accordingly to get closer to a 10 on the wheel of life. 

The path of meaningfulness 

Since receiving my teaching degree, I have worked part-time with young adults in upper  secondary school. I teach mainly courses in leadership, business, and entrepreneurship. As a  teacher, you are on the giving end all the time. Like the harmonic triangle, when you know what  the right thing to do is and you connect to your truth and purpose, you also give, give and give  back to others without the need of receiving back. Being a teacher is the most complex,  demanding, and most rewarding job I have ever had. Working with young adults who have their  whole life in front of them with all their ideas, frustrations and commitments give me a lot of  meaning. 

My job is coaxing the best from my students and nurturing them along the way. But I am not able  to motivate someone who doesn’t want to be motivated. I inspire. I plant seeds, and I listen.  Students will learn when they are ready. My approach is: Be patient. Be authentic. Be generous  with our time. Be there. 

The combination of working as a leadership consultant with teaching is smashing. I can still  contribute to management teams and executives in exciting companies and bring inspiration and  experience back to the school environment and vice versa. I keep on living my purpose, spreading  joy and growth like the sunflowers. I am confident my life will continue to be good. 

Reflections and life learnings 

Am I wiser now at age 50 than I was at 12? Maybe, maybe not. What is wisdom? The more we  know, the more we realize we don’t know. What I do know is that I have a better understanding of  my core values and my purpose. By exploring and pinpointing my most important values to love,  curiosity, continuous learning, deep relationships and connectivity, I have gained deeper  awareness. 

The values I learnt from my parents and through my experiences in childhood have stayed with  me throughout my life and I have tried to pass them along to my children. As a parent, my  uttermost dream is that my children will find their inner compass and know their sense of direction  in demanding circumstances. 

Having a purpose statement as well as a purpose symbol as the sunflower is important to lean on  to when my energy is low. As result of exploring my values and purpose in-depth, it helps me to  understand my feelings and consequently take action. 

I treasure listening to my children and my students, and I am in awe of their wisdom. At 12, I learnt  how I wanted to treat people, and the first seeds of my moral compass and my purpose took  shape. When concluding what my most important life learnings have been, it circles around the  wheel of life and well-being. I could never be an authentic leader and parent unless I focus on my own well-being and self-care. There is no universal recipe, but I would like to share some of my  learnings. 

Most importantly, the focus has to be on sleep, exercise, food, and deep relationships. In my life  practice, I include exercises like playing tennis, skiing and going to the gym. Spiritual training such  as yoga, Qi Gong and meditation are also important. A good night’s sleep where the brain can  have its necessary recovery is key. Eating healthy food and cooking fantastic meals creates  magic. It is essential to watch my intake of alcohol and keeping a healthy weight. Nurturing deep  relationships with the people that I love and care for. We all know that it is not always easy to be  the best version of ourselves with our loved ones. But when we let our family and close friends see  – and love – our positive and negative sides, it is both comforting and beautiful. Being generous to  others with your love and time is also rewarding. 

Setting boundaries is another life learning. To say no. As your purpose becomes clearer, this is  easier. With the story of my first job, I learned the lesson the hard way. Who do you want to  welcome into your life? I am an open person and truly love people. I believe we should socialize  with people who give us energy and help us grow not the opposite. Setting boundaries is very  difficult but necessary, especially when you have deep values regarding relationships. 

Today I keep a “Feel Good” list. What makes me feel good? What makes me laugh? I pull that list  out, especially in turbulent and stressful times. I wish I had had such a list at my first job to draw  inspiration from. When I include many feel- good activities such as hiking, cross-country skiing on  a wintry day with blue skies, going to my favorite Japanese spa, Yasuragi, floating in their warm  spa pools after a well-deserved visit to the sauna, I know I will be a better version of myself. Self reflection and taking time out are needed. Being in silence and reflecting on my feelings and  reactions are key to discovering myself in more depth. Happiness, lightness, and love will be more  present. I will be able to contribute so much more to the world when actively seeking moments of  reflection and silence. Being a leader for good, to myself, to my children, to my husband, to my  loved ones, to my students, to my business clients, and the world. 

Spreading joy and growth. Like the sunflower.

Ann-Sofie Ellefors

Leadership Companion, Sweden

Owner Ellefors Leadership / Business Teacher SSHL. Ann-Sofie Ellefors, based in Sweden and Luxemburg, with former executive sales and export background in companies such as Oracle and EF Education, is currently a fellow of Oxford Leadership. Her leadership work compounds working as a senior leadership consultant, executive coach and business teacher. Her global customer base includes Microsoft, Ericsson, and Sandvik among others. One of her most rewarding and demanding leadership experience is being a mother of four children born within 5,5 years. 

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