Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Disability: an opportunity to develop leadership skills

A couple of days back, I read an Article in Harvard Business Review “Crucibles of Leadership” by Warren G. Bennis and Robert J. Thomas. I had read this article around 7 years back as well, but As it often happens that reading something second or third time leads to different understanding than the first reading, it happened this time as well.

When I had read this article the first time, I concluded slightly incorrectly that to be a good leader one must go through adverse situations in life. At that time I had faced almost heart wrenching situations. I had a dream to be a software developer in Microsoft. I tried hard and with the Help of one friend I got an opportunity to work as an intern. I thought that being an intern was just the first step to get a full job, but later I realized that I am not going to get a permanent job. It wrecked me internally though I remained somewhat ok from the outside. Now I understand that the reason that I got so much upset was that I had defined my worth by being part of a big label. Only after a couple of years later I realized that label doesn’t matter, the quality of work and how much we learn in our work matters. But at that time, it was a big blow to my ego. Second incidence was a real heart break. I started liking a girl, but she did not feel the way I felt for her. I would not go in details about it, but it is sufficient to say that it was an equally hurtful event.

Around that time I had read this article and I concluded that I have 2 Crucibles, so I am a good candidate to become a leader. But after 7 years and some mind opening events, comes a twist in the situation. What this article really says that the way one deals with adverse situations is an indicator of how good the leader he or she could become. It is clear from the following excerpt from the article.

Our recent research has led us to conclude that one of the most reliable indicators and predictors of true leadership is an individual’s ability to find meaning in negative events and to learn from even the most trying circumstances. Put another way, the skills required to conquer adversity and emerge stronger and more committed than ever are the same ones that make for extraordinary leaders.”

The same point is also explained by John P. Kotter, in his HBR article "What Leaders Really Do"

Individuals who are effective in large leadership roles often share a number of career experiences.

Perhaps the most typical and most important is significant challenge early in a career. Leaders almost always have had opportunities during their twenties and thirties to actually try to lead, to take a risk, and to learn from both triumphs and failures. Such learning seems essential in developing a wide range of leadership skills and perspectives. These opportunities also teach people something about both the difficulty of leadership and its potential for producing change.

Later in their careers, something equally important happens that has to do with broadening. People who provide effective leadership in important jobs always have a chance, before they get into those jobs, to grow beyond the narrow base that characterizes most managerial careers. This is usually the result of lateral career moves or of early promotions to unusually broad job assignments. Sometimes other vehicles help, like special task-force assignments or a lengthy general management course. Whatever the case, the breadth of knowledge developed in this way seems to be helpful in all aspects of leadership. So does the network of relationships that is often acquired both inside and outside the company. When enough people get opportunities like this, the relationships that are built also help create the strong informal networks needed to support multiple leadership initiatives.

Then I thought oh my god, I have missed an opportunity to deal properly with adverse situations. But then in a flash, I got another very powerful idea. What if anyone who is disabled gets to learn this concept and takes disability as an opportunity to develop leadership skills?

It could be useful equally for those who are dealing with disability for a long time and still find it difficult to accept and for those who are new to the shock.


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