Turning Pain into Purpose: Leon Ford’s Leadership Lessons

“I’m turning pain into purpose”—those are the words that Leon Ford shared earlier this week in a session with Dina Kaplan, founder of The Path

There were about 100 people on the virtual zoom gathering. Each of us was processing our own pain as we listened intently to Leon’s. We were all visibly inspired by Leon’s courage to take something so traumatically awful and turn it into his life’s purpose. I felt my heart hurt again around the edges when he was speaking. I could see the pain and sadness on other people’s faces. I could feel them, too, despite the distance and screen between us. 

I also saw and felt hope. Hope expressed through Leon’s courage in sharing and hope held through our active and supportive listening. 

Leon’s leadership mantra is helping people ease their own pain while also turning that pain into purposeful action. He doesn’t want to dwell on the story. He wants to focus, instead, on the change he is driving. He is committed to rebuilding the system that let this happen to him and so many other Black people. The story, though painful, is a necessary part of the story for us to hear, especially White people. As White people, we haven’t heard these stories as much. We’ve either been protected from them, or have chosen to look the other way. We can’t look the other way anymore. And, hopefully, we don’t want to look the other way. We all want, and need, to turn toward the new way that we are creating together. Here’s Leon’s story: 

In November 2012, Leon Ford was pulled over by two police officers. It was supposedly a routine traffic stop, but one of the White officers mistook Leon for a wanted gang member. Leon, unarmed, confirmed his identity with his license, insurance, and registration papers. In a panic, Leon tried to drive away, but one of the White officers shot him five times. He was left permanently paralyzed from the waist down.

I am inspired by Leon’s courage. He shares openly in the documentary he’s in, called “Breakout” by Jackson Tisi, and his book “Untold”, that his process has been, and is still, not easy. It’s a daily, sometimes moment by moment process. Leon has leadership lessons to share that take most of us our whole lives to figure out. And, then, even when we have learned the lessons, we are not always as courageous as Leon to share them. Here are some of Leon’s Leadership lessons: 


  • Let our emotions drive our response to what happens to us
  • Get comfortable with the pain
  • Don’t dwell on the bad chapters of our stories—focus on creating better endings


  • Meditate: Leon shared that meditation and stillness helped him make the best decisions
  • Start with understanding, while also practicing love and compassion
  • Stay in the system—we cannot change the system if we opt out of it

As I work through my own process and pain of how I have been a part of creating this system of inequality – even benefited from it – I am also coaching and working with leaders to do the same. I have realized that the ones who are most adept at leading their teams effectively through change are the ones who are responding vs. reacting to the crises in front of them. Their situations may not be as challenging as Leon’s, but they bring the kind of pain that many leaders have never experienced before. Like Leon, the most effective and conscious leaders exercise choice in their decisions on a daily basis. They choose to respond with action vs. anger; they choose to respond with curiosity vs. defensiveness; they choose to be empathetic vs. frustrated.  These small, values-oriented choices they make throughout their day add up to impactful actions. Those actions not only help them, but also their teams, to lead through uncertainty and change in a more powerful and engaged way. 

So, today, on Juneteenth, as we commemorate the end of slavery in the United States, let’s follow Leon’s lead. Take a pause and choose purposeful action in every moment, leading with understanding, compassion and love. 

Thank you, Leon. I’m spending the day learning more about systemic racism. (Thanks to Webflow for the curated resources). I’m also focused on how I can contribute to three main focus areas to drive systemic change: ensuring people vote, early education for the Black community, and police reform. I will share more details about what I’m doing soon. 

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