Leadership Profile: Carolyn Jessop

September 2, 2013

Carolyn Jessop2On April 21, 2003, Carolyn Jessop finally followed through on a plot more daring than any you or I have likely faced. Under the cover of darkness in the middle of the night she herded her 8 children past several “sister wives” and into a van where they narrowly escaped the quasi-totalitarianism of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (a polygamist group renounced by the Mormon Church) and her life as one of several abused wives to one of the group’s highest leaders.

Five short years later, she was called on by authorities as an expert in the initial custody process following the raid of the YFZ Ranch in Texas, which was being run by her ex-husband. The raid proved pivotal in landing the extremist sect’s leader Warren Jeffs in prison with a life sentence on multiple child sexual assault convictions.

I read Jessop’s New York Times bestseller Escape after it had just been released in 2007 as I was training for an overseas deployment to Iraq with the U.S. Army. I’m not sure what prompted me to read her story – or how I even heard about it – but I immediately thought she deserved to win some kind of Outstanding Person of the Year award and wished I could tell her as much. Jessop doesn’t lead a nation, a sports club or a Fortune 500 company, but she embodies some of the most important leadership attributes you or I could ever hope to learn.

Sometimes You Have to Lead By Yourself

Leadership¬†can be a lonely place, but most of us have the benefit of resources, training and a leadership community to support us. But sometimes, in Jessop’s case for instance, we’re standing alone. It’s not pretty and it’s not fair, but it’s reality. How do you react when you’re responsible but isolated? The paralysis of uncertainty and temptation to second-guess can be overwhelming. But the risks of not acting, even with limited information and confidence, can have dire effects. In Jessop’s case, had she lingered, she knew she would have risked having her underage daughters forced into marriage with a FLDS man several decades her senior – as well as risked having her family move to the compound in Texas where anything short of a raid would make it impossible to escape. Being alone doesn’t take away the responsibility to lead well.

Courage Can Take Place in a Single Moment

I’ve written before that the type of courage leaders ought to aspire to includes making responsible decisions (instead of passing them on to others), accepting responsibility and initiating difficult conversations. It’s the opposite of waiting until a fire needs to be put out. It’s a constant and proactive practice. But sometimes, as in Jessop’s case, the situation calls for a sudden act of undeterred bravery. Jessop said in her own words that “at some point nearly everyone, no matter what [their] situation, has to face change that is terrifying and overwhelming.”

In corporate leadership development, we try to build leaders who lead by design and not by demand. In other words, they don’t wait till a fire starts to come to the rescue. In reality, leaders need the courage to do the right thing, no matter how much time they have available.

The Hardest Battle is the One Against Ideology

If there’s one thing we don’t have any control over, it’s the circumstances of our birth: where, when and to whom. That means we likely grew up believing most of the things that were intentionally or unintentionally taught around us. Hopefully along the way, we developed the critical thinking skills to evaluate our own ideology.

This is the reason Jessop’s escape was so incredible. By her admission, she grew up in a closed system which taught their leader had divine and sole inspiration from God and their only means of salvation was to obey their every whim. They were taught that women were essentially property, the outside world was only evil and it was forbidden to use the word “fun” or possess anything colored red. It wasn’t until she accepted that hell (according to FLDS doctrine) would be a better option than the life she and her children were living that she had the courage to make an exodus.

Having a doctrine (a “set of principles or beliefs”) is a good thing. Each military branches has one. The FBI has one (I helped build the “indoctrination” program). Your organization hopefully has a doctrine of some sort and your religion doubtless has many. What’s dangerous is being unaware of what the doctrine is, what indoctrination methods are being used, and not evaluating the merits. If you want to leave one ideology, you need another one to take its place. Otherwise, you will simply return to the old or succumb to disillusionment.

Carolyn Jessop’s story underscores the fact that you don’t need to be “special” to be a leader. You don’t need to be the next Winston Churchill, Vince Lombardi or Jack Welch. No matter who you are, you will encounter a leadership challenge at some point. Following Jessop’s example isn’t easy. But if you do, you’re sure to come out on top.

Carolyn Jessop is the author of Escape and Triumph and has appeared on various media outlets, including CNN and Oprah and testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Additionally, in 2008 Katherine Heigl contracted the rights to produce and star in a movie based on her story.

Nathan Magnuson is a leadership consultant, coach, trainer and thought leader.  Receive his new ebook Trusted Leadership Advisor by subscribing to his website  or follow him on Twitter.