5 Leadership lessons from “Disabilities”

There is an ever-growing list of special needs to manage in today’s workforce and work place – Generation "gap"generation gaps, skills gaps, remote teams, virtual teams, new cultures, start-ups, entrepreneurs, intrepreneurs, solopreneurs, languages and methods of producing work…the list will continue to grow.

And learning the “soft stuff” (communication, leadership, influence) can be harder than you think. However, if you keep your eyes and ears open, many of the lessons can, and will, be learned from the most unusual sources.

Most of the important business lessons were actually taught to me earlier in life when I worked with children and adults with severe and profound disabilities. Many of the individuals did not have verbal skills and were forced to communicate in new ways. All of them processed the world in a very different and innovative manner.

Here are 5 powerful leadership insights, followed by how you can apply them to build your business to get your results.

Lesson 1: Imagination is not for the faint of heart

Patricia was 20 years old and attending high school when I met her. She was about to be forced to “graduate” from the school system. Patty had grown up in an extremely physically abusive home and the experience left her with only the most basic of coping skills. When she experienced any kind of anxiety, Patty would act out, become violent and cut, scratch or tear at her skin. Because of the trauma of her childhood, she lived almost entirely in a world of her imagination.

One time I asked her to imagine what she really wanted after graduation. She shut her eyes tight and rock back and forth. That was her way of imagining “good stuff”. Eventually she smiled.

She drew me a very basic picture. It was of her walking away from her home and walking into a big “box” store (though I’m not sure she knew that term, she drew a big BOX with one of the ‘Marts’ on top”. This was something “us experts” thought would never happen. Today, she successfully lives in a group home and is thriving at a convenience store job.

LEADERSHIP LESSON: When things get tough, close your eyes and imagine being the leader you want to be. There are studies that show that parts of our brain do not know the difference between imagination and “reality”. Spend time visioning who you are, how you act and what you do when you are the leader you WANT to be; then act in accordance with that vision.

Lesson 2: Laziness is not what it appears

I met Robert at a technology conference in London, England. He was 16 and had severe cerebral palsy. He was in a wheelchair and could roughly communicate through a computer by a special set of large buttons controlled by his head movement and a “sip and puff” straw that controlled the mouse on the monitor (far cry from some of today’s technology!)

Robert was a phenomenal speed-reader. He could turn a page on his e-book by hitting a switch attached to the side of his headrest. In the time it took him to move his head from one side of his headrest to the other, about 2 seconds, he could read an entire page of text…on a 15 inch monitor, in 12-point font.

I asked him how he learned this because speed-reading is a skill I’ve always wanted to learn.

Through computer “text to speech,” he told me that when he was in school the teachers and other students thought he was dumb and lazy because he just stared at his desk.

A common mistake is thinking that people with cerebral palsy also have cognitive delays and learning disabilities because many cannot verbally communicate. Many people with CP have a lazylionperfectly functioning brain.

His very unaware teachers placed dictionaries and encyclopedias in front of him each day and simply left him there, staring at the same page for hours. He became so bored he decided to teach himself to speed-read that page…then another…and another. Now, with the aid of a computer, he can turn his own pages and use his brilliant mind in a speed-reading fashion.

LEADERSHIP LESSON: Do not mistake “looking lazy”, or down time, for laziness, in yourself OR your employees. Down time leads to creativity, innovation and will drive your ideas forward.

Lesson 3: Passion is messy

Lisa was 24 and diagnosed with Down Syndrome. She was full of love and a passion for life. In fact she wanted to share that passion with everyone she came across by introducing herself with a great big hug and a kiss.

MessyFingerPaintsOn a shopping trip one day, I tried explaining to her that she may not want to greet people with a hug. Perhaps she should get to know them first, and then ask them if they want a hug. She stared at me. Absolutely mystified.

“Why?” she asked. “Why not spread love and happiness to everyone. They all look so sad.”

Now it was my turn to look mystified.

Lisa was not concerned with the messiness of making people uncomfortable or going against the social grain by greeting strangers with hugs and kisses. She was focused on the outcome she wanted – happiness and joy.

LEADERSHIP LESSON: To successfully lead others you must have a passion for who you are and what you do. Sometimes this passion makes other people uncomfortable and “things get messy.”

The key to innovation and creativity is to let things get messy at times – gooey, sticky-fingered, paint on the walls kind of messy. Then measure the creative results, not how you got there.

Lesson 4: Find the value in everyone

Matt, Darrin and Claudia came into my life during a field trip to a local park with a group of 15 adults, all with a broad spectrum of developmental disabilities.

While most wandered to individual spots around the park, Matt, Darrin and Claudia were more on the side of obsessive compulsive. They made sure I knew where everyone was, his or her relationship to the rest of the group and what each individual could or could not eat.

It saved my day. If it were left solely to me, I would have caused anaphylactic shock in half of the group and lost the other half to meandering down the path to the merry-go-round.

LEADERSHIP LESSON: Recognize the unique contribution of each team member. Despite the need to get messy at times, not all people like to be messy…or front-of-the-pack creative, or express unbridled passion. It takes all kinds to make our teams successful so our job as a leader is to figure out the results we want to get, and then let our team make their own decisions about HOW to get there…neat, messy, right or “wrong”…remember to measure RESULTS, not process.

When you help each team member find her way to contribute at her highest and best level, there is not a problem on this earth you can’t solve.

Lesson 5: Celebrate everything!

Finally, I have known Jeffery for over 25 years. When I met him he was mostly non-verbal and had already been diagnosed with a list of “diseases and disabilities” that would take a team of experts to translate.

 I watched Jeffery learn his multiplication tables. After each one he answered, correctly or incorrectly, he got up out of his chair and did a dance (that I believe is the predecessor to the Dougie). It did not matter if he was asked “what is 1 times 4” or “what is 15 times 15,” the dance was quick to follow.

Today Jeffery lives independently, holds a part-time job and remains (mostly) non-verbal. And he’s an awesome dancer.

LEADERSHIP LESSON: Celebrate ALL of your wins, and ALL of our teams wins, no matter the size. In fact, you also need to know that personal “failure” is also a win – because you took action! Having a culture that promotes a “quick to try, quick to fail” attitude will speed up the process of success…it makes you a stronger leader and more interesting to be around!


Take the time to see the core value and motivation of each individual on our team. Once you learn to motivate yourself and others in the unique way it takes for to be personally successful, your impact on the world is unstoppable.

As messy as it can be to lead people who don’t think or act like you, true innovation requires that you lead with TRUST and FAITH. Valuing the diverse methods of getting your desired outcome is what it truly means to manage in a “culture of innovation.”

If you want insight into managing the special needs of today’s business, contact me today. We are happy to make time to speak with you about your unique situation.


Heather Furby, CEO & Co-Founder

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