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Terrible times can forge leadership

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers

Leaders aren’t born. A single, transforming experience can make them. Craig Venter, the man who raced the government to a tie in mapping the human genome, started out as a beach bum … until Uncle Sam drafted him and sent him to Vietnam.

Venter’s transforming experience came from working as a Navy medic. During six months in 1968 that included the Tet Offensive, Venter ran triage at a hospital in Da Nang. Tasked with choosing the wounded soldiers with the best chance of survival, Venter noticed that some GIs with extremely grave injuries managed to live while others with seemingly minor injuries died.

“These life-altering experiences piqued my interest in learning how the cells in our bodies work,” he said in a Veterans Day speech. “I also learned that I could no longer afford to waste one precious moment of life. I came back from the war with a burning sense of urgency to get an education and to somehow change the world.”

Venter tore through grad school and turned into possibly the world’s most ambitious scientist. He was the first to sequence a whole bacterial genome in 1995 and sped up genome mapping by years. Now, he’s assembled a virus from scratch and is trying to create new life forms that could revolutionize medicine.

Lesson: Stay open to whatever life’s hardest experiences can teach you, and convert them into the fuel that will power your leadership.

— Adapted from “At the Helm of the Genetic Revolution,” Patrick Perry, Saturday Evening Post, “Biology’s Bad Boy Is Back,” Meredith Wadman, Fortune, and “What I’ve Learned,” Wil S. Hylton, Esquire.

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