“He’ll probably never leave home. He won’t go to college or get a degree. He could have a job — something with his hands, like digging ditches.”
My son was six or so when I heard that gem from a neuropsychologist at an esteemed metro-Atlanta children’s hospital. Not that there is anything wrong with digging ditches…but he was six. Later, when he was 12, another neuropsychologist deemed him mentally retarded: an inaccurate diagnosis and a term no longer used by the medical community.
This parenting journey has been filled with moments of frustration, mystery and dogged-determination. But ultimately there’s acceptance — a space in which I can focus on what this experience has taught me about life and leadership.
My son has learning and developmental disability. He is one of what I call “our nation’s many misplaced youth.” Like millions of children in the U.S., he faces challenges in both education and in life that are not easily overcome. Even though we knew since he was in kindergarten that something wasn’t right, and were fortunate enough to have the financial means to do things like get him a specialized education, therapy and private testing, we really never had clear answers. Mostly, we had confusion, mismatched diagnosis and unclear pathways forward. He’s 15 now. And every answer we’ve gotten and every decision we’ve made have been hard-fought.
Not surprisingly, parenting a child like this teaches you important things. His presence in my life has shaped who I am — instilling qualities that have extended to my professional life. Certainly, my career on its own has demanded intuition, persistence, creativity and even thick skin. And I do have those things. But I’m talking about the leadership discoveries you can only collect from painful, complicated, challenging experiences: from fear, from hope and from love.
1 | Embracing confrontation results in progress
Avoiding confrontation is one of the biggest marks of an ineffective leader — it transmutes into an unwillingness to make progress, to create healthy debate and to challenge decisions. Over the years, experts of all kinds have said my son can or cannot do something and what should be expected. Sometimes I disagree, other times I question their commitment or approach. Being willing to challenge a person’s opinion forces them to think all the way through their rationale. Many times with my son, it ended in the same place, but occasionally positions were adjusted. Either way, it created progress — either because I was more informed or because we found equal ground. Most importantly, we knew where one another stood. In the workplace, that is worth its weight in gold. Avoiding confrontation in business, and particularly as a leader, means employees end up unsure about their performance. If they aren’t challenged or given constructive feedback, they can fall into a complacency grind. Employer and employee both end up unhappy and in a constant stalemate with progress. And in the worst-case scenario, the wrong person for the job gets in the door and stays there — stifling forward movement and bringing everyone around them along for the ride.
2 | Anger is ephemeral
Most parents will understand that at times it can be nearly impossible to avoid anger. And with my son, who needs three times the prompting and who routinely makes decisions that baffle, battling anger can feel like a full time job. Still, as mad as I can get, it always passes with relative speed. Finding your center and not letting the anger sweep you away is a valuable quality. A deep breath and a small passage of time, and the entire situation feels different — it means there are no un-moderated, overblown reactions to situations. This is a huge lesson for the workplace. An employee or a co-worker could do something to spur on our most primal emotion, like not pulling their weight, making repeated mistakes. Rather than impulsively reacting and instead taking an “anger break” will allow you to clear the haze and focus on healthy, professional and composed responses. It sounds simple, yet a disproportionate number of leaders have this under control.
3 | Challenging convention is for everyone
Not everything should be taken on face value. Challenging convention is necessary to growing business. This is certainly not an unfamiliar concept in an age when creativity and innovation are becoming business-critical qualities (See: Nike, Apple, Kickstarter, Spotify). Still, too few business people understand that this is a workplace practice, not just a big business strength. And it applies to everyone, not just the senior most leaders. If I had chosen to listen and take to heart to some of our son’s early diagnoses, time could have stood still. And he likely wouldn’t be where he is now — a well-adjusted teenager with a real future. Not everyone learns the same way, and finding what non-conventional things worked for him has made all the difference in his opportunity in life. This is a lesson in good business: you can accept that convention is convention or you could challenge it instead and find new ways of doing things that fundamentally shift your outcomes into new, uncharted “white space.”
4 | The mind-body connection is real
We’re a culture of “too busy to squeeze in a 30 minute workout.” It is not just creating an obesity epidemic, it’s creating a stress epidemic. With no physical outlet for stress, our brains suffer. For instance, a Duke University study proved that exercise worked as good if not better then drugs in treating depression. I always suspected that physical activity played a role in focusing my son before homework, so play time was always built into the pre-homework routine. More recently, though, I began introducing running as a more explicit form of exercise. It has proven to be a miracle drug, better than any medicine for settling the mind and making good decisions. It is also a leadership lesson — I do long distance triathlons myself, so I know the value of keeping an exercise regimen. Still, work often takes over. Seeing his response to running is a reminder of the reality of the mind-body connection, and how important it is for business people to make time for physical activity.
5 | Perception really is reality
Most people have no idea when they meet my son that anything is wrong. He’s articulate, charming, funny and engaging. And he has an intelligent perspective about the way the world works. He knows his strengths and his weaknesses and has learned to play his cards to his advantage. This is, in fact, a strength of many successful business people. In a 2007 study conducted by London’s Cass Business School, 35% of US-based entrepreneurs are said to suffer from dyslexia, with the average population being more like 15%. The logic behind why more entrepreneurs have learning disability then the general population makes sense. These people learn to compensate, and it often translates into traits that are the makings of a successful businessperson — delegation, conflict resolution and oral communications. The bottom line is that perception really is reality. If you know what you’re good at, and what you’re bad at, you can play up your strengths and find solutions that complement your weaknesses.