Welcome to Leaders Rising, where we explore the development journey of leaders who’ve risen from the ashes of adversity, examining the leadership gifts born from their experiences, the challenges that have held them back, and the moves they’ve made to transcend hardship and openly face the ragged edges that still remain.

A self-described reluctant leader, Daniel Hall has shied away from leadership positions for much of his career. Early experiences of childhood trauma eroded his sense of self-worth and safety in connecting to others and he responded by forming a protective and competitive shell around himself.

Most every memory that Daniel can recall from his early childhood is of abuse. Raised in a foster home in Vermont from ages two until five, Daniel remembers looking over in his bedroom to see his brother tied to a crib. He remembers feeling starved throughout the day-so much so that he and his brothers would lunge for any food left out by his foster parents-only to end up being beaten later as a punishment for “stealing” what they had simply been scrounging to survive. Daniel remembers being physically backed into a corner by his foster father, who would hurl verbal abuse at him-yelling, swearing, and repeating to Daniel that he was worthless and would never amount to anything in life. “My foster dad kept driving that into my head, you know, with the beatings,” Daniel recalls, “and we’d often get beatings.”

So when, at age five, Daniel watched a couple who were hoping to adopt walk up to the front door of his foster home with a social worker in tow, he knew he had to try anything he could to get their attention. He began urinating on the walls. Daniel believes that it was because of this tantrum that his soon-to-be parents would walk away that afternoon with the impression that he-more so than his brothers-needed help the most. While his brothers would remain in foster care until adulthood, Daniel’s much-needed adoption into that couple’s loving home would become complete just two years later.

And though Daniel’s surroundings and support structure changed drastically with his adoption, he would continue to struggle with lingering effects of the abuse that had defined his early life. “Growing up with my brothers,” he remembers, “we were constantly in competition for getting some type of attention, and then obviously in competition for getting out of that house.” Even in his new home, Daniel continued to throw tantrums and would often display aggressive behaviors. To this day his hands are still marked with scars from times he’d punched them through windows. “I was a holy terror,” he recalls. “I had never been taught how to self-regulate as a child. That was not something that I knew how to do. My only way to self-regulate was to lash out at everybody.” And while acting out was a mode of attention seeking, for Daniel it was also an attempt to cope with the pain of his foster father’s cruel words-that he would never amount to anything.

I didn’t know how to empathize with people. I ended up just running around for years just trying to find myself.

As Daniel continued to tantrum, his adopted parents searched for ways to help him channel his negativity. When he was eight, his mother began regularly dropping him off at the local community college, where Daniel discovered the college’s computer center and gradually began teaching himself how to code. Recognizing that he had a keen interest in computing, Daniel’s adopted parents began encouraging him. “When I was ten years old they got me my first computer,” he recalls. “I would spend hours in my room just writing code. I’d come down for dinner then go back up just to write more code until it was time to go to bed.” For Daniel, coding was, in many ways, an activity that helped him to heal. “It felt good to be able to tear stuff down and use code to put it back together-to figure out how stuff works,” he remembers. Programming became an avenue through which Daniel began, slowly, to believe in himself. By age thirteen, he was writing software and teaching college students in the computer lab what he had learned.

Nevertheless, Daniel remained incredibly self-protective and introverted throughout his teenage years. “I didn’t know how to relate to anybody unless I was talking about software,” he recalls. At the time, he felt like the only thing he could possibly have to talk about besides coding was his abusive past-and he was too afraid to share that for fear of being ostracized. “I didn’t want anybody to feel like I was a freak,” he laments. So for a while, programming was the only thing that gave him a fragile sense of escape. But after experiencing a falling out with his adopted dad in his late teens, Daniel also lost his adopted mother to breast cancer. “That was a really, really rough time for me,” he remembers. Feeling lost, Daniel found himself caught up in bad behavior. “I did a lot of stealing,” he recalls. “At that point in time in my life, the only thing I really cared about was my mom. I really didn’t care about anybody. I didn’t know how to empathize with people. I ended up just running around for years just trying to find myself.”

It wasn’t until his mid-twenties, when Daniel began to feel more grounded in his first marriage, that he felt able to begin furthering his programming career. Looking back on those years, Daniel recognizes now that his early career was defined in many ways by the same protective and competitive mindsets that he had learned in childhood. “I always wanted to be a one-man show,” Daniel remembers. “I would always seek out jobs where I was the one developer. I would never take a job where I was on a team.” By working alone, Daniel could avoid having to trust others while sidestepping an issue that had plagued him for his entire life-his extreme focus on what others thought of him.

Daniel worried that colleagues might be “better” than he was. “If somebody knew more than I did,” he recalls, “or if somebody got something I didn’t get, it became a competition.” At times his self-protective streak seemed to inhibit his ability to progress in his career. “They’re better than me,” he would often find himself thinking, while worrying that a colleague’s success might mean they could take away his job. But fortunately, with the support of encouraging managers and leadership coaching, Daniel gradually began to let down his guard, slowly becoming more comfortable with team-based work.

At the core of leadership for me is being there, and showing up.

While his ability to connect with others-and ultimately, to lead-would eventually play a defining role in his life, Daniel’s discovery of these gifts did not, in fact, come from the world of programming. Instead, they emerged from a place he least expected: family. When Daniel’s wife, Tina, asked early in their marriage if he wanted to possibly foster or adopt, he couldn’t have been more hesitant. “I have my own trauma,” he remembers thinking, “I have no idea how to navigate this.” But Tina-with what Daniel describes as characteristic grace-encouraged him to continue considering the idea. Now, the two foster six children with special needs.

Their journey through foster parenthood has not been easy, and Daniel is quick to admit that he’s made mistakes. Recalling a morning during which he screamed at one of their children, he describes being immediately transported to his own childhood. “I went back to when my foster dad was backing me into a corner,” he recalls. “I knew I had let everybody down.” Though Daniel was disappointed in his actions, his wife, Tina, continued to be patiently encouraging. She offered emotional support and continued to research how they might best parent their special needs children. “Like my mom,” Daniel describes, “she stuck with it and she stuck with being patient with me, so I could learn to self-regulate and I could show up and help them self-regulate. She said, ‘You need to listen with more than just your ears.’” Soon after, Daniel would begin learning sign language. He watched in amazement as he began becoming able to communicate with his son.

Though Daniel has always shied away from managing others in his professional career, it was ultimately through trying to become a better father that he discovered a passion for mentorship. “At the core of leadership for me is being there, and showing up,” says Daniel. “Leadership is about building relationships.” He realized that others needed robust support to be good parents-just as he had-and with this knowledge went on to spend ten years mentoring new foster parents through the State of Maryland. In this mentorship role, Daniel taught new foster parents about the many gifts and challenges they could anticipate encountering while raising foster children. And by doing so, Daniel finally came to recognize the value of talking openly about his traumas and limitations; he began to share his story.

As Daniel had once worried about what his programming colleagues might think of him, as a mentor to foster parents, Daniel initially feared what other parents’ opinions of him might be. He was hesitant to share mistakes he had made-like the one when he had yelled that morning at his son. But Daniel soon realized that telling his personal story was, in fact, a way to truly support others. “I had to finally share my own experiences so I could humanize what they were going to be going through.”

I’ve learned to put my technology down, have heart-felt conversations with others, and build true relationships.

The gift that Daniel cultivated through these experiences is his ability translate what he learned as a child and parent and share this with others. With parenting special needs children he and his wife have found there is no written path, they are always paving new ground, and failure is part of the journey. They have learned not too cling to tightly to immediate results, and rather celebrate the small victories that help them see that something is clicking and they are on the right path. “Leadership starts at home,” he says. “If you can help your children build solid relationships with each other, and you with them, that is where leadership truly starts.”

Now, Daniel takes these lessons that he’s learned and applies them into the world of business. “I’ve learned to put my technology down, have heart-felt conversations with others, and build true relationships.” Daniel devotes his work days to programming and mentoring developers in his full time job while running his data analytics company, Impulze, on the side. “As a leader and as a parent I’ve learned that as I climb the ladder it’s my job to put my hand back through the rungs and help the next come up, one step at a time.” As Daniel has stretched his leadership muscles in the office through mentorship he’s come to embrace that while he might have a good answer, someone else may have a better answer, “It’s about having grace and leaving your ego at the door.”

His career these days hardly feels like work at all-and Daniel feels he has his adopted mother to thank for that. “I get a vacation every day. Because I get to come and do something I absolutely love to do for work, because my mom showed up and took interest in what I was doing when I was eight, nine, and ten years old.” So as his children grow older and develop new, stronger communication skills, Daniel considers it his biggest job to show up for them-and to keep up with them. “My children have been, by far, my best teachers,” he admits. Daniel knows he learns from them best by striving to listen with more than just his ears, “You need to listen with your heart, your eyes, your body, and your gut.”

Where his foster family hadn’t wanted to give him a chance, through fatherhood and through mentorship Daniel has discovered his own passion for offering the chance he never felt he had to others. “Leadership is being able to have an impact on somebody’s life, where they can grow into something they didn’t have the potential to do before,” he says.” You can take business completely out of it-it’s helping them grow.”

You can find more information about Daniel Hall’s life and career at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/danielbhall/


Know someone who’s risen from ashes of adversity to become an amazing leader — learning to leverage their gifts while continuing to soften up the rough edges?

Maybe it’s you?

Message me. I would love to explore highlighting your story in my Leaders Rising Blog Series!

TrueForm Leadership ~ Executive Leadership Coaching

Originally published at https://www.trueformleadership.com on April 30, 2021.