Learning to Lead in Unlikely Places

May 7, 2019
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I love to use analogies in my work, and I share with executives frequently that taking them out of their own world helps them connect to the idea of feedback in both emotional and intellectual ways, making the learning more concrete. Much of my own insights about life and leadership often come from unlikely sources and rarely from a leadership book. One of my favorite sources is my special-needs daughter.

Neena was born with a very rare and complex genetic disorder that has resulted in multiple disabilities and significant delays across all development areas. I have often said that she has helped me understand things that would have been impossible for me to learn had she not blessed me as her mother. Part of Neena’s disabilities include a set of structural, behavioral, and medical complications that made it impossible for her to eat; as a result, Neena has been on a feeding tube for her entire life. When she was somewhere around 10 years old, we had given up and decided that the tube would always be there. In fact, perhaps we didn’t want her to eat. We could control her diet this way and keep her healthy. So there she stayed, making no progress.

Neena adopted this narrative, and it became her truth and her story until someone new came into her life who saw her potential and possibility. Today, Neena tries every food we put in front of her, enthusiastically and with the greatest of joy. I have finally experienced cooking for her and feeding her in the way we often imagine nourishing our children. I would like to tell you that it was my amazing abilities to inspire my child that created this breakthrough, but it was and has been Neena’s persistence to defy what anyone thinks of her that keeps her moving forward. Additionally, it was her new support system with fresh eyes and a belief in her potential that created a new story that Neena could believe in.

You may say, “This is a very lovely story, but what does it have to do with leadership?” The reality is that as leaders we make decisions like this about our people all of the time. We decide what they can or can’t do, and we are constantly limiting their potential. In fact, we even tell ourselves stories about why they are happy or engaged: Joe is a steady guy, he just likes to do what he does. Maria loves her job, and she just can’t imagine doing anything else; I am happy to have her and need stability on the team. Andre is a blocker; he’s never really going to be more than what he is, and now he no longer serves the organization… Our stories about them become the truth of who they are, and they fail to lean into their own potential and grow.

My analogies and my stories always have a simple lesson, and in this one what I know is that our job as leaders is not to decide on others’ limitations—especially those of individuals whose differences do not align with our own experiences—our role is to create a space for learning. To challenge our team to think beyond what they see in front of them. To encourage persistence. And to look for and support capabilities that they themselves may not connect with. People will show us their limitations, but more importantly, seeing the possibility in a leader’s eyes pushes individuals to do what even they think would be impossible.

What I love about our emerging pipeline services is that we help you move away from looking for limitations and instead focus on what your talent needs to grow and excel so that you create a new story about your people—one that both of you can believe in and learn from.

Cristina Jimenez is a talent, leadership, and culture expert with 20 years of industry experience. She is a senior partner and the global head of RHR International’s Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging practice and has been instrumental in the firm’s own cultural transformation.